Football Features

Chelsea’s most improved players under Thomas Tuchel – and the ones who are (probably) worried

By Harry Edwards

Published: 11:31, 26 February 2021

As we near February’s end, Thomas Tuchel is closing in on a month in charge of Chelsea. And it’s been a good month.

It was always going to be tough replacing Frank Lampard at the helm given the man’s status as a legend at the club and outrage from fans over his departure. But the German has started positively, unbeaten after eight games, leading Chelsea to the FA Cup quarter-finals, back into the race for the top four and to a good win over Atletico Madrid in their Champions League last-16 first leg.

He’s achieved this through a change in system (a switch to a back three) and giving all players in the squad a clean slate. As a result, some stars previously left on the sidelines have been brought back in to thrive, while others may be left pondering their immediate future at the club following a slow start.

So, who are these players?

The improvers

Marcos Alonso

Marcos Alonso’s Chelsea career looked to have ended at half-time in the 3-3 draw with West Bromwich Albion last September. Just the Blues’ third league game of the season, Alonso was subbed at the break after a poor performance and did not immediately return to the stands to watch his teammates, reportedly going to sit on the team bus instead.

Lampard was furious and Alonso did not make another domestic matchday squad until his departure, only sitting on the bench in the Champions League four times (with clubs allowed to name 12 substitutes, this wasn’t an achievement) but failing to make an appearance. In Tuchel’s first game in charge against Wolves, Alonso returned to the bench in the Premier League and a game later he was back in the starting XI — a spot he has largely kept under Tuchel.

The Spaniard has been the real winner of Chelsea’s switch to a back three, playing his best football for the club as a wing-back in their 2016/17 season en route to winning the Premier League under Antonio Conte. With added security behind him, Alonso has more freedom to roam forward and it’s no surprise that he scored on his first game back, with a lovely volley to secure the win over Burnley.

Alonso has started in six of Tuchel’s eight games in charge across all competitions, making a substitute appearance in another, and when he’s on the pitch the Spaniard is often one of the most advanced Chelsea players, due to the change in formation and system. He’s already starting to build a good understanding with Timo Werner, who has been deployed on the left, and is playing with a smile on his face.

The biggest sign of the change in Alonso’s game, back to a wing-back, is the number of crosses he has attempted with 13 in five Premier League appearances since Tuchel arrived, compared to just one in three under Lampard at the start of the season. He is yet to find the range with regards to accuracy and finding his teammates, but Chelsea’s strikers will also need to work on getting into the box.

Right now, Alonso seems hard to push out of the XI (and more on that later).

Callum Hudson-Odoi

From one wing to another, Callum Hudson-Odoi has been another (slightly surprising) beneficiary of Tuchel’s arrival. Now, the Englishman wasn’t bad under Lampard. In fact, he was very good but just wasn’t getting the opportunities to show it for a prolonged period of time.

A good performance for Hudson-Odoi was often followed by the winger being dropped to the bench, or even out of the matchday squad completely on the odd occasion. Of course, Lampard had a variety of stars he had to try and fit into his XI or 18, but some of the decisions regarding Hudson-Odoi were baffling. Under Lampard, Hudson-Odoi played 10 matches in the Premier League this season, but accumulated just 413 minutes. Already in six appearances under Tuchel, he has played 365 minutes, an average of 60 per game, compared to 41 previously.

But the biggest change, and potentially biggest improvement, for Hudson-Odoi has been the surprising shift to a wing-back. Just a few years ago Hudson-Odoi was being left out of the Chelsea team because Maurizio Sarri was unhappy with his defensive work. Under Lampard, he worked on the deficiencies and there were occasions when his tracking back helped Chelsea hold onto a result. But no one would have pegged him down as a wing-back.

I think that Hudson-Odoi is a very good player. The potential is for him becoming a great player and now he has to improve.

With the ball he is a very good player, he has to improve with movement without the ball. As a winger, he has to improve in the defensive phase but he has the potential to become a very important player.

Maurizio Sarri on Callum Hudson-Odoi in January 2019.

Well, as it turns out, he’s actually quite a good one. The new role afforded Hudson-Odoi more freedom to get forward, with the added security of Cesar Azpilicueta behind him, and he appears to be involved in attacks more frequently than he was under Lampard. And he’s done his bit defensively, ensuring Tuchel got off to an unbeaten start against Wolves, tracking back in the dying stages of the game to produce an excellent goal-stopping tackle.

Last weekend, Hudson-Odoi was on the end of some negativity from Tuchel, being harshly brought off against Southampton just 30 minutes after coming on as a substitute as the German was unhappy with “the energy and with the attitude and counter-pressing”, but that shouldn’t take away from his positive start as he bounced back with a solid performance against Atletico.

Timo Werner

We briefly mentioned Werner earlier and there’s no denying the German is enjoying his time more under Tuchel than he was when Lampard had the reins.

Werner wasn’t bad under Lampard but something just wasn’t working for him. Being played on the wings was starving him of the chances he needed to get involved in the game, and while he did start scoring, the drought came. And it was a long one.

Although Tuchel’s arrival hasn’t seen Werner return to the main striking role, it has moved him slightly more central, which has done him the world of good. The German is now closer to the goal, but still has the freedom to push out to the left when he wants, rather than starting out there. That was always his game at RB Leipzig, starting centrally to move out wide, opening up gaps for his strike partner.

The German has that aforementioned good understanding with Alonso but has also been combined well with Mason Mount and Tammy Abraham, making an attacking trio that is threatening to explode with goals (they just need to fine-tune their finishing).

Against Tottenham, it was Werner’s quickness on the ball that won the penalty from which Jorginho scored the game’s only goal and a few days later he won another (and recorded an actual assist) in Chelsea’s 2-1 win over Sheffield United.

Then he finally broke his long Premier League goal drought, in what was an excellent personal performance against Newcastle, tapping home at the far post from a corner. He has his confidence back and it can’t be too long before the goals start to flow.

Mateo Kovacic

Mateo Kovacic is a good midfielder and was a regular under Lampard, being named the club’s Player of the Season for 2019/20. But this season Lampard was not getting the best out of Kovacic, sticking him in a more reserved role, restricting his true abilities.

Under Tuchel, he has been allowed to play with a bit more freedom, unleashing more of his powers to the midfield, and it’s showing. Per 90 minutes, Kovacic is creating more chances, attempting and completing more take-ons (his trademark from the Sarri season) and is taking more shots. Of course, the shots aren’t leading to goals, but Kovacic is getting himself into the attacking positions Chelsea need him to be to progress up the pitch.

Kovacic has started all of the Premier League matches under Tuchel so far, and the German has been very public with his love for the Croatian.

“I love him, it’s very easy, I love him,” Tuchel told Chelsea’s 5th Stand app recently.

“You can wake the guy up at 3am and he would be at Cobham at 3:15am and ready to give everything, ready to listen and ready to play with full energy.

“You need to calm the guy down in training, [make sure] that he’s not doing too much. He’s super reliable, totally open, yeah, it’s a pleasure to have him.”

Players who may be worried

Kurt Zouma

Kurt Zouma was arguably Chelsea’s best centre-back under Lampard, and top scorer at one point, starting frequently until mid-January when he was replaced by Antonio Rudiger and, unfortunately, the Frenchman hasn’t really been given a chance since.

Even with Tuchel giving players a fresh start, Zouma has only played twice under the German, one appearance in the FA Cup and his first in the Premier League against Southampton at the weekend. He appears to have fallen behind Thiago Silva, Rudiger, Azpilicueta and Andreas Christensen in the centre-back pecking order, only coming in when the Blues are stretched thin.

And when he did start against Southampton, Zouma came under fire for his role in Takumi Minamino’s goal, failing to track the Japanese forward’s run (instead following Rudiger) before jogging back in his attempts to prevent Chelsea from going behind. His performance was criticised by fans and it’s hard to imagine Tuchel will have missed the incidents, so only time will tell how it affects Zouma’s role in his team.

Ben Chilwell

On the other side of Alonso’s rise has been the (mini-)fall of Ben Chilwell. The Englishman was one of the new arrivals of Chelsea’s spending spree last summer and once he returned to fitness he became Lampard’s starting left-back, performing well particularly in attack,

But he hasn’t worked out as a wing-back under Tuchel. In Tuchel’s first game, against Wolves, Chilwell was given 76 minutes as a wing-back but couldn’t break down a tough defence, eventually giving way for Christian Pulisic. Since then, Chilwell has played just 62 minutes, another start against Sheffield United, having to watch on from the bench in the remaining five matches.

Even when Alonso was taken off at half-time against Barnsley, Reece James was brought on and Emerson switched to left-wing-back, with Chilwell an unused substitute yet again. Alonso isn’t perfect, but Chilwell has a lot of work to do to prove to Tuchel that he can play as a wing-back.

Hakim Ziyech and Christian Pulisic

We’re combining these two together because their reasons for worrying are very similar.

Hakim Ziyech and Pulisic were having stuttering seasons under Lampard already due to injuries and a lack of form, and these problems have only increased with the arrival of Tuchel. The switch to a more narrow attacking formation means both Ziyech and Pulisic, who are more comfortable on the wings, can only really come in as late-game substitutes if Tuchel wants to try something new.

And when they have been given a chance, it hasn’t really worked. Ziyech has played four times for Tuchel across all competitions so far, and started the first match against Wolves in a central role. But he was unable to inspire the Blues, and it was a similar case against Barnsley, though Ziyech was played in a wider role there alongside Pulisic, who also struggled.

The American has played five times under Tuchel so far but has only started once, being less familiar with playing centrally than Ziyech. He has recorded an assist, setting up Alonso’s goal against Burnley but that was all about the Spaniard’s finish than Pulisic’s involvement. The main problem with Pulisic has arguably been his desire to impress, both with Lampard and Tuchel, trying to make up for lost time on the pitch.

Pulisic often makes the wrong decision going forward, either holding onto the ball for too long in wanting to change the game himself, or playing the wrong passes. At the moment it’s hard to see either him or Ziyech breaking into Tuchel’s XI.