Thomas Tuchel made his intentions clear from the start. There was no talk of building slowly when he arrived at Chelsea at the end of January. The German understood that Roman Abramovich has high demands and he responded accordingly, focusing on his new club’s winning mentality and promising to turn Chelsea into a team that no one would relish playing.
It has not taken Tuchel long to make his vision come true. The former Paris Saint-Germain manager had no need for a transitional period after replacing Frank Lampard. In the space of four months Tuchel has turned Chelsea from a disorganised side into one capable of setting up a Champions League final against Manchester City by outrunning and outwitting Real Madrid at Stamford Bridge on Wednesday night.
Zinedine Zidane had no answer to Tuchel’s intelligent tactics. Chelsea were superior throughout the tie, attacking brilliantly and blunting Madrid’s attack with organised defending, and it was clear long before Mason Mount’s late clincher that Abramovich was right to ditch Lampard.
This is a personal victory for Tuchel, who has already beaten Pep Guardiola, Jürgen Klopp, José Mourinho, Carlo Ancelotti, Diego Simeone and Zidane. Hard though he tries to shift attention elsewhere, the former PSG manager deserves the praise. Even if Chelsea have a squad full of talented internationals, it should not be forgotten that the team looked broken under Lampard. They were ninth in the Premier League before Abramovich acted and few could have imagined they would reach the final when City took them apart at Stamford Bridge on 3 January.
When Tuchel took over, though, he never gave the impression that Chelsea were a team crying out for huge repairs. He looked at his squad, found little wrong with it and simply tweaked the system, switching to a 3-4-2-1 formation that gave Chelsea a better structure.
It has been pragmatic at times. Chelsea have not always thrilled. Increasingly, though, there is a sense of a plan coming together in attack. Aware that he needed to spark Timo Werner and Kai Havertz into life up front, Tuchel has worked with the young German duo, giving them time to settle, and was rewarded when both excelled against Madrid. Chelsea attacked at speed, creating chances at will, and it was obvious why Tuchel has resisted calls to start conventional forwards such as Olivier Giroud or Tammy Abraham.
Madrid struggled to handle the movement of Werner, Havertz and Mount during the first half and Christian Pulisic added another dimension when he came on. The only criticism was that Chelsea kept fluffing their lines.
Yet there was rarely a sense that they would rue their profligacy. Chelsea look impenetrable at the moment, with Édouard Mendy impressing in goal. They have kept 18 clean sheets in Tuchel’s first 24 games and look equipped to take on City in Istanbul on 29 May. Tuchel has already recorded one big win against Guardiola this season, outwitting his friend when Chelsea won their FA Cup semi-final against City last month.
Abramovich expects nothing less after the expenditure of last summer. Yet PSG’s sorry performance in their semi-final against City is proof that money alone does not make a team. It takes a smart manager to build a cohesive unit and Tuchel, who meets Leicester in the FA Cup final next week, has put the pieces in the right place.
The natural temptation is to hark back to previous mid-season managerial changes by Abramovich, who saw Avram Grant take Chelsea to the Champions League final in 2008 and Roberto Di Matteo win the tournament four years later. But this is different. Chelsea were on auto-pilot under Grant and they had plenty of luck under Di Matteo. There is no comparison to be made with this controlled run under Tuchel.
It is a triumph of management. Although Tuchel is an intense character, he has lightened the mood. Even those on the sidelines have remained engaged, demonstrated by a bit-part player such as Emerson Palmieri tearing forward to score an excellent goal moments after coming on during the dying stages of Chelsea’s win against Atlético Madrid in the last 16.
This is a group pulling in the same direction. Tuchel has brought clarity and has revived players who struggled under the previous regime. Antonio Rüdiger was a rock in defence against Madrid and Andreas Christensen has grown in stature, eradicating the errors from his game.
Tuchel has located strengths rather than weaknesses. Improbably, César Azpilicueta has shone as a right wing-back in recent weeks. Ben Chilwell has embraced the challenge of learning how to play at left wing-back. Jorginho, such a divisive figure in the past, did not put a foot wrong in midfield after picking up an early booking against Madrid.
Chelsea, who are fourth in the Premier League with four games remaining, play with so much poise. N’Golo Kanté is back to his rampaging best in midfield and Tuchel knew it was too early to give up on Werner and Haverz. Chelsea have been too impatient in the past and ended up looking foolish after selling Kevin De Bruyne, Romelu Lukaku and Mohamed Salah.
When Eden Hazard returned to Stamford Bridge on Wednesday, though, Chelsea were no longer wistfully thinking of the past. After waiting to make it past the last 16 for seven years, they are back in the big time and are not going to suffer from impostor syndrome with Tuchel in charge.