Chelsea look like an improved team under Thomas Tuchel, currently unbeaten in 10 games since the German took charge, and their defence has been the main reason.
With Tuchel immediately switching to a back three, Chelsea have conceded just two goals in their eight league games so far, one scored by Antonio Rudiger and another by Takumi Minamino – the only opposition player to breach the Blues’ net.
This is by no means the first time Chelsea have played with a back three, as Antonio Conte utilised it en route to the Premier League title in 2016/17, and it isn’t even the first time this group of players have been deployed in it. Under Frank Lampard, Chelsea used a back three on nine occasions in the Premier League, with all but one coming in 2019/20. But it didn’t have the same effect.
Chelsea conceded 13 goals using Lampard’s back three last season, at an average of 1.63 per game. But why have the results been so different, especially when the personnel hasn’t really changed?
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Lampard vs Tuchel: Shape
If you look at the basic defensive shape of the two teams, Chelsea’s back threes under Lampard and Tuchel aren’t too dissimilar.
The centre backs are in pretty much identical positions, with the exception of the RCB for Tuchel’s team, with Cesar Azpilicueta often seen high up the pitch, overlapping Reece James, using his experience as a right-back.
The wing backs have switched roles, with the left more advanced under Tuchel whereas the right was further forward for Lampard, though this wouldn’t have any real impact on how Chelsea defend as a unit.
Even the midfield two are in fairly similar positions, albeit slightly more spread out in Tuchel’s system. But, again this wouldn’t effect the defending too much, based on positioning alone with the exception of making the right side more secure that it may have been under Lampard.
Instead, the players used in that midfield, and those behind them, will be playing a bigger role.
Lampard vs Tuchel: Personnel
Consistency is key in football, especially when trying to build partnerships and momentum, and it may not be more true than with defence. But Lampard did not have that at Chelsea with his three-at-the-back.
In the eight Premier League matches in which Lampard used three centre-backs last season, the former Chelsea manager tested five trios in six different systems from the start of games. The first, against Wolves in a 5-2 win at Molineux had Fikayo Tomori on the right, Andreas Christensen through the centre and Antonio Rudiger on the left in what appeared to be a one-off in the Premier League.
There was then a run of three consecutive games over Christmas in which Lampard again used a back three, and this time there was some consistency in the players. Kurt Zouma started on the right against Tottenham Hotspur and Southampton, Rudiger was through the middle and Tomori on the left. But in the final game, Tomori was back on the left, Zouma through the middle and Rudiger on the right.
So in four games, three players were used at least three times, but they did not keep the same position for all of those matches. It’s also worth noting that the three-at-the-back only made it to 34 minutes against Arsenal before a switch to a four-man defence.
Later on in the season, Azpilicueta was brought into the back three but played in two different positions, both as a left-sided centre-back and a right-sided one, while Christensen was tested through the middle and on the left.
In stark contrast, Tuchel has used three centre-back trios across his eight Premier League matches so far, starting with Azpilicueta on the right as he should be, Thiago Silva through the middle and Rudiger on the left in the first three matches.
We’re dealing with hypotheticals here but Tuchel may have run with that trio for longer had Silva not have got injured in the 1-0 win over Tottenham. But he did, forcing the switch to Chelsea’s most-used centre-back trio under Tuchel of Azpilicueta on the right, Christensen through the middle and Rudiger on the left.
Since that trio made its Premier League debut under Tuchel, it has been used in four matches, only breaking for the 1-1 draw against Southampton in which Zouma replaced Christensen at the centre of the defence. So that’s three trios used, with Azpilicueta and Rudiger playing in the same position eight times out of eight and only the central defender changing.
It’s that consistency, allowing players to get comfortable in their roles, that has helped Chelsea remain secure at the back. Then there’s the presence of N’Golo Kante in the midfield, back in a double-six and providing that vital extra cover.
Lampard vs Tuchel: Tactics
Consistency is once again the key when it comes to tactics. For Lampard, the three-at-the-back was the Hail Mary to try and sort out leaky defences. And although we often saw him use it for one or two consecutive matches, Lampard would always revert back to his favoured four-man defence when the cracks started to show.
We cannot see what happens on the training pitch, but it would be safe to assume Chelsea didn’t train for the back-three long-term and that showed on the pitch. On the hand, the three-man defence is very much the way forward for Tuchel’s Chelsea and it’s a formation he has favoured in the past. So Chelsea are going to be practicing with it every day, getting comfortable and working out how to make the most of it as they did in Conte’s reign.
This is evident at first in Chelsea’s passing.
Under Lampard in the Premier League last season, Chelsea had very little cohesion as a back three. The players, unfamiliar and perhaps uncomfortable with the roles, weren’t passing the ball amongst themselves, instead built for the fast counter. Chelsea’s best passing game under Lampard’s back three last season came against Southampton as they attempted 808 passes (in a 2-2 draw), while their worst was the home game against Tottenham which they won 2-1, attempting 551 passes.
That high would rank second among Tuchel’s passing in games thus far, with Chelsea’s highest tally under the German coming in their first match against Wolves, with a total of 898 attempted. However, it is interesting that the lowest passing game for Tuchel is actually lower than Lampard’s. It came against Liverpool last week during which Chelsea attempted 549 passes, against a very attacking side. On average, Tuchel’s passing is 681 per game compared to 618 under Lampard, but the more important thing is the frequency of the passes.
Chelsea’s back three under Tuchel are all getting involved, with Christensen very influential at the heart of the defence, receiving the ball from both sides before distributing, mostly to Azpilicueta. Then there’s the connection between the Spaniard and his wing-back, with Azpilicueta again making himself an option when Chelsea are being patient, not to mention the back three and midfield passing a lot more frequently.
And finally a look at the defensive solidity of the two teams. On the graphic above, the darker the shade of red, the easier Chelsea are to pass through. For Lampard, Chelsea were most vulnerable at the entrance of their half and their final third, allowing teams to cut through them far too easily to approach the defence – which could you put down to the midfielders in front of them.
This wasn’t the fault of the back three alone, and Lampard’s midfield must also be taken into account, using the Mateo Kovacic-Jorginho pairing on five of the eight occasions, whereas Tuchel has been consistent in his use of Kante. That’s the reason why Tuchel’s second-most vulnerable area, after the final third, is the middle third of the opposition half. Of course, Chelsea’s attackers are going to be easier to get through but opponents are then finding it difficult to break into the Blues’ half. It’s something not many would thought possible of this Chelsea side, but Tuchel has worked wonders in his brief tenure so far.