LONDON — Top of the Premier League. Top of their Champions League group with qualification secured. Things could scarcely be going better for Thomas Tuchel. And he still has a $130 million striker to reintegrate.
Without Romelu Lukaku, Kai Havertz and with Mason Mount confined to a brief cameo off the bench, Chelsea took apart Juventus in the most ruthless of fashions, a 4-0 hammering of the Serie A giants that will serve as a statement to the rest of Europe. This is what the reigning champions can do to you with a second-string attack.
Tuchel’s dilemmas are rather different from those faced by most managers. It is not as if he is trying to come up with a system that works or find the right players to fill it. For the most part Chelsea are an effective footballing machine, one who play the game where they want to, maximizing their chances to win by keeping the game in the opposition half.
The German is now in a position to tinker with his engine, to find that extra few percent that might take his side over the top in the battle with Manchester City and Liverpool, one which might be as tightly contested in the Champions League as it is in the domestic game. If he has problems they are luxury problems.
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Perhaps most intriguing among them, what to do with his attack now Romelu Lukaku is available more. Chelsea are undoubtedly going to be better in the medium and long term for having one of the best strikers in world football in their ranks. He was the missing piece last season when Tuchel was bedeviled by his side’s inability to convert the mountain of chances they were creating.
But having one of the world’s best strikers in the XI does bring with it a natural pecking order. If you have Lukaku in your side he will take primacy. When that works, as it did in wins over Arsenal and Aston Villa, he can blow teams away and in the case of the latter game carry a Chelsea side that is a little off color. But that brings with it a heliocentrism to the Blues’ attack that can make for rather stodgy football. Nowhere was that more apparent than their last meeting with Juventus when Tuchel’s side were altogether too reliant on their No. 9 to hold the ball up, bring Lukaku into attacks and provide the assists for Lukaku to score.
It was not necessarily bound to be that way but Tuchel saw something of a kink in his side’s attack in that defeat and the loss to Manchester City that preceded it. As he told CBS Sports before Tuesday’s game “we lacked a rhythm, we lacked precision, we lacked maybe a certain free spirit to take more risks in the right zone on the pitch”. That is not on Lukaku, more it is reflective of a team that had become used to operating without an elite center forward working its way back to playing one.
As such it has been notable that even when Kai Havertz has not been at the peak of his powers Chelsea have looked rather more menacing when he acts as the attacking pivot. His willingness to drop into empty spots, to drag defenders away from their positions as they search for a reference point opens up angles for others even if the German fails to lay a boot on the ball. From there come the overloads and pockets of space that Reece James and Ben Chilwell have been exploiting to such impressive effect.
That continued in invigorating fashion here, James scoring the pick of the goals as Chelsea romped past a Juventus side who looked scarcely less ordinary than the favorable domestic opposition the Blues have been facing of late. You could be forgiven for thinking a midtable Serie A side had somehow snuck into the Champions League instead. Aaaah, I see.
On his 50th game in charge, Tuchel purred in delight at his side’s quality. “It was a very strong performance and outstanding result,” he said at his postgame press conference. “We knew we had to be absolutely patient, at the same time we were responsible of the rhythm, the intensity.
“It was a great performance from everybody. Full credit to the players. What an effort. What an attitude. It’s a pleasure to be in this club every single day. It’s a pleasure to be with the players… We want to keep this energy and atmosphere in the group.”
All the visitors could really do was gum up Chelsea’s attack down the left flank, where Weston McKennie ran himself into the ground chasing Chilwell in the first half. A pity for Massimiliano Allegri that Adrien Rabiot was not as diligent on the other side of the pitch, where James had all the space he needed to pick his passes.
Further up the pitch Callum Hudson-Odoi crackled with menace, finishing smartly after Ruben Loftus-Cheek showed real composure to poke the ball his way in the box. Hakim Ziyech was not at his most effective until late on but he was empowered to drift wherever he felt necessary off the right flank, often popping up alongside his fellow “half winger” for an overload that was scarcely required against a struggling Juan Cuadrado. When the Juventus defense began to flag in the closing minutes he was ruthless, laying on an assist for Timo Werner that delighted everyone at Stamford Bridge bar Antonio Rudiger, who understandably felt there was a goal in this game for him.
Bodies flew into the box whenever Chelsea had the ball. Their defense was so advanced that Rudiger ended the game with 21 touches in the final third. No Juventus player had more than 16. Thiago Silva, meanwhile, spent almost as much time camped inside the opposition half as his own. That might seem like a risk but not when he is showing the sprightliness of a player half his 37 years to bicycle kick an Alvaro Morata lob off the line. That was the only notable test that the home tea’s goal faced before this match was out of sight.
Perhaps the only player who seemed a somewhat awkward fit was Christian Pulisic, largely because he was not in the side to get involved in the build-up play. He was in theory the fox in the box who would sneak in at the last moment to flick in a cutback. That nearly worked early on when Chilwell delivered low from the left but in the end he was limited to just 20 touches and no goals, his most notable contribution being an undercooked pass to an overlapping Ziyech.
In practice it proved to be Chelsea’s defensive corps, now up to a combined 16 goals in all competitions, who were the ones the ball dropped to in the box. When they could hit them as sweetly as Trevoh Chalobah fired home the opener, a finish worthy of any of the strikers at Stamford Bridge tonight, perhaps it really does not matter how well your front three is clicking together.
James, meanwhile, is a walking repudiation to those who ever doubted the hot hand. A player who went without a goal in 46 club games last season has five in 14 this season as well as a boatload of assists. He is seeing the ball in 4K, leathering it every time it comes his way without even the slightest drop off in accuracy.
A few months ago Tuchel looked to have forged a team that would win the margins, grinding its way to one- or two-goal wins on peerless defensive play. It still can do that (Juventus registered only one shot on target from inside the box) but suddenly this Chelsea team has goals coming from everywhere. It still has one of the world’s deadliest marksmen to throw into the fray. This could get spicy.