Football Features

“Return of the back (three)” – Thomas Tuchel’s managerial debut ends in stalemate as Wolves hold Chelsea

By Muhammad Butt

Published: 20:22, 27 January 2021

In a stifling night of football, Chelsea and Wolves played out a 0-0 draw in Thomas Tuchel’s first game in charge.

The result does little for either side, but the performance bodes well for Tuchel’s time in charge. What did we learn?

1. Tuchel’s possession obsession can work

Everyone who knew Thomas Tuchel knew he would come in and place a greater emphasis on possession, but what we saw against Wolves, considering the German has had just one training session with the side, was frankly absurd.

Chelsea moved the ball with liquid precision in and around Wolves. They never forced the ball into the box in an attempt to hurry things up and were so comfortable recycling possession and keeping things moving. In a way it was a throwback to the days of Maurizio Sarri, where possession and passing was king.

The Blues made an absolutely massive 879 passes against Wolves which is the most Chelsea have made in a single Premier League game since 2018 under Sarri. In fact since the start of Sarri’s season in charge only once have the Blues attempted more passes than they did tonight (August 2018 against Newcastle).

Obviously it wasn’t quite as effective as Tuchel would have liked, generating just one really good chance (for Ben Chillwell off a Kai Havertz cutback) but the ease with which Chelsea adapted to the new manager’s methods bodes well for Tuchel’s time in charge, however long or short that may end up being. He is able to communicate his vision, which is a very clear one.

2. Wolves lack bite

You can see why Wolves have pushed to sign Willian José on loan from Real Sociedad because goodness gracious, Wolves are a side lacking in bite. They can defend just as well as they used to, with all that discipline and determination, but they can’t do anything with the ball.

They had the best two chances of the game but the first fell to them by accident as they got lucky with a deflection and the second one came in the dying embers of a game where, if they were the Wolves of last season, they would have probably already won it.

Willian José did come on and amusingly enough his big impact came in defence as he blocked a goalbound header from Kai Havertz, but going forward Nuno Espirito Santo will want him to impact the other end of the pitch.

3. Return of the back (three)

While Chelsea’s line-up looked for all the world like a 4-2-3-1, it actually ended up being a 3-4-2-1 with Callum Hudson-Odoi at wing-back. The shape allowed Chelsea to create overloads in possession without having to field a midfield three.

This bodes extremely well as the club’s highest-profile midfielder (N’Golo Kanté) only thriving in a midfield two. So being able to play a formation like this will increase Tuchel’s ability to keep Kanté in the side while not hurting his passing game like a 4-2-3-1 would.

Moreover the 3-4-2-1 means that there’s room for César Azpilicueta in the side as part of the back three. That’s very important given how vocal and impactful of a leader he is.

And of course playing this shape means that all the wingers and attacking midfielders in the squad (including the misfit Timo Werner) can play what are essentially free roles where they don’t have to be concerned about tracking full-backs as they do when playing wide.


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4. Mount is no longer untouchable

Mason Mount was basically the first name on the team-sheet under Frank Lampard. The youngster had played more games than any other Chelsea player during Lampard’s time in charge (with 80 appearances in total) and in 2020/21 he had played in 18 of Chelsea’s first 19 games, starting 17 of them and completing the full 90 minutes on no less than 16 occasions.

But for Thomas Tuchel’s first game in charge, Mount found himself on the bench. Obviously Tuchel has barely had time to coach the players and said that he picked an experienced line-up in this game purely because he had no real reason to leave anyone out, but for a player who so epitomised the Lampard era to be dropped is telling.

This isn’t to say that Mount will be banished, he’s far too good for that (and he came on today for the last 10 minutes and looked bright) but his untouchable status is now gone and he’ll be subject to the same rotations as everyone else.

5. Kai looks comfortable

Let’s not mince words, Kai Havertz has been pretty awful so far for Chelsea. Despite Chelsea’s gargantuan £71m investmant, the German attacking midfielder has struggled for minutes and struggled to impress in those minutes.

Tonight however Thomas Tuchel put him straight into the starting XI and the resulting performance was… not bad? He didn’t set the world alight but Havertz looked controlled and comfortable in a way he hasn’t in a Premier League game.

There were three standout moments, one surging run that took him his own half to the edge of the Wolves area, a delightful display of pace, power and terrific technique. Then in the second-half a lovely run in down the left saw him cut the ball back for Ben Chilwell for what was Chelsea’s best chance of the game, then right at the death he headed a corner goalbound only for it to be cleared away.

It’s just one small step, but for a player who looked so poor up to now it was a giant leap for his Chelsea career.