Tactical analysis: Thomas Tuchel’s first match in charge of Chelsea

The last few days have been extremely busy at Chelsea – Frank Lampard was relieved of his duties as head coach, and a day later, Thomas Tuchel was appointed as his replacement.

January 27 was the perhaps a landmark date, as it marked Tuchel’s first match in charge of Chelsea after spending just over a day in London.

The lack of preparation for the German tactician meant that expectations were not sky-high, but he did deliver a point in a 0-0 draw. In this analysis, we will take a look at all the initial observations from the first match of the Tuchel-era.

Lineups

Tuchel’s first Chelsea line-up involved a 3-4-2-1 formation, as Édouard Mendy kept his place in goal. César Azpilicueta, Thiago Silva and Antonio Rüdiger made up the back-three, with Callum Hudson-Odoi and Ben Chilwell on either side of them. Jorginho partnered Mateo Kovačić in midfield, while Hakim Ziyech and Kai Havertz provided width in attack. Olivier Giroud was the sole striker.

Wolves switched to a back-three after fielding a 4-3-3 in their last match, but considering the fact that they were defending for most of this one, their formation was a lot closer to a 5-2-1-2. Willy Boly and Conor Coady were joined by Max Kilman at the heart of the defence, with Nélson Semedo and Rayan Aït-Nouri operating as the wing-backs. Leander Dendoncker and Rúben Neves were selected in midfield, while Daniel Podence, who most assumed to be injured, operated in the number 10 role. Adama Traoré and Pedro Neto were on either side up front.

Wolves’ defensive shape

Before we take a look at Chelsea, let’s quickly go over how Wolves’ defence.

Wolves didn’t change their shape too drastically – it was either a 5-3-2 or a 5-2-3 (usually the former) depending on Podence’s position.

The other option to create a 5-3-2 saw one of the wingers drop into the midfield line. In this particular case, Neto has dropped on the left of the midfield pairing.

Rarely, mostly when the ball was in the Chelsea half, Podence pushed forward to make it a 5-2-3, applying a very light press on the Chelsea backline.

In certain cases, when they faced a lot of sustained pressure, Wolves even dropped into a 5-4-1 with Podence alone up front.

With that in mind, let’s take a look at how Chelsea tried to break down Wolves’ staunch defence.

Chelsea’s build-ups

Now for Chelsea, who had an overwhelming majority of the ball with 79% of possession. In fact, Wolves only completed eight more passes (174) than Kovačić had touches (166) in this match. Both their possession and 820 successful passes are a league record for a managerial debut since data collection began in 2003/04.

Tuchel used the 5-5 principle in possession. At the back, Chelsea used a 3-2 to build-up with the centre-backs and midfielders.

Whenever Wolves used three men in their forward line, the two Chelsea midfielders would use the half-spaces to position themselves. Usually, Jorginho moved to the other side the line, while Kovačić was with his defence.

Jorginho’s relative forward positioning was supported by Azpilicueta pushing high and wide on the right in possession. This can also be noticed in the previous instance.

Often, Ziyech and Havertz dropped in between the Wolves midfield and forward lines to create a 3-2-2 as Chelsea looked to progress further forward with the ball.

As Chelsea advanced further into the opposition half, the two wide centre-backs sometimes moved forwards and towards the touchline, effectively joining the midfield to make it a 1-4 at the back.

Chelsea’s attacking rotations

As they progressed into the opposition half and attacking third, Chelsea used a number of positional exchanges and movement routines to pry open the Wolves defence.

Havertz and Ziyech switched wings sometimes to try and mix it up, but this was more situational than tactical. The routine which we will be discussing below only took place on the right with Ziyech in his natural position.

40% of Chelsea’s attacks were concentrated on the right flank, and they had a lot of positional rotations there. Ziyech often dropped deep, allowing Hudson-Odoi to get far forward while holding the width. Azpilicueta had a license to get forward from centre-back too.

Azpilicueta pushing further forward than Ziyech was only occasional, but the Moroccan international did drop deep on a regular basis. In doing so, he stretched the Wolves defence on the right and open up space on the flank for Hudson-Odoi to run in behind the visitors’ backline. While the ball pulled the Wolves defence to the right, Chilwell found acres of space on the left wing.

As Hudson-Odoi prepared to cross, he usually had three men to aim for – Giroud, Havertz and Chilwell. The first two were usually in a crowded area in the centre of the box, but, as aforementioned, Chilwell could ghost in at the far post unmarked, so he provided a very good option. Hudson-Odoi ended up delivering 11 crosses from such positions, more than any other player on the pitch.

One of the routines Chelsea employed can be traced to Tuchel’s Dortmund days – side overloads. Since Chelsea mostly attacked from the right, they overloaded that side too using Ziyech, Hudson-Odoi, Jorginho and Azpilicueta. The four pulled half of Wolves’ outfielders to the flank, before playing their way out of the overload with the help of some quick one-touch passing.

Another advantage of overloading the right was that Ziyech, by far Chelsea’s best distributor, could deliver the telling crossfield ball. Chilwell bombed forward on the left, exploiting the vast spaces created by the overload and easily getting a chance to cross.

Late on in the second half, Tuchel made three changes in personnel, but none of them affected the tactics. Christian Pulisic’s introduction in place of Chilwell saw Hudson-Odoi move to left wing-back to accommodate the American international on the right, while Tammy Abraham replaced Giroud in a like-for-like change. Finally, Mason Mount’s introduction in place of Ziyech also saw him slot right into the ex-Ajax man’s place on the right, but none of these substitutions could alter the scoreline.

Chelsea’s possession play summarised

In essence, Chelsea attacked with a 2-3-5 as one of the two wide centre-backs (usually Azpilicueta) pushed forward. The front-three looked to position themselves narrow and between the Wolves lines, while the wing-backs stayed as far out wide as possible to use the space on the wings (a concept Tuchel used with four in the middle at PSG).

Chelsea’s average positions (below) do a perfect job of summarizing all that we have discussed in terms of their possession-play – Azpilicueta (28) is further ahead than the other two centre-backs (2 and 6), Jorginho (5) is ever-so-slightly further forward than Kovačić (17), the three forwards (22, 18 and 29) are congesting the centre and Hudson-Odoi (20) is much further up the pitch than Chilwell (21). The newly-converted wing-back was generally much further out wide too, but his stint on the left wing in the latter stages of the game has skewed his position.

Chelsea out of possession

Despite their complete dominance of possession, Chelsea had some defending to do. In fact, they came closest to conceding when Neto’s chip bounced away off the crossbar. Here is how the Blues worked when they were without the ball, starting at the front.

Tuchel is known to love a nice high-press, but he didn’t employ anything remotely resembling one last night, presumably because he simply didn’t have enough time to work with the players and instruct each of them.

But, Chelsea did apply a light press. Depending on which side the ball went, Chelsea shifted to that side, using the wing-back and midfielder on that side to prevent Wolves from playing through them.

As discussed above, Chelsea looked to win the ball back in midfield. If the ball was indeed played centrally, the Blues would surround any Wolves players receiving it with some of the holding midfielders and front-three.

Chelsea were most exposed in transition to defence, especially when Azpilicueta’s forayed forward with the wing-backs, meaning that the Blues’ numbers were a bit thin at the back. Just Silva and Rüdiger remained at centre-back, while both midfielders were in front of them.

Further back, Chelsea dropped into a 5-2-2-1 if they couldn’t turn the ball over in midfield. The wing-backs joined the defensive line, while the two wingers dropped away from the striker but did not join the midfield line.

Chelsea were mostly able to keep things tight at the back, with their four shots conceded being the lowest in a single match this season in all competitions.

Conclusion

After spending just over a day with his squad, delivering a performance like this was nothing short of a statement of intent from Tuchel. While certain Chelsea fans were lamenting their xG of just 0.73 after accumulating over 800 passes in the match and comparing this to Sarriball, they must understand that the German tactician neither knows any of the players well enough to have half a clue about his best eleven nor had enough time to get even a quarter of his tactical ideas across to his players.

Given the circumstances, this was a great showing, and it could well be the start of a historic TuChelsea era.

Stats courtesy Whoscored.com and The xG Philosophy