Switch to back three and a mental shift - How boss Tuchel has created ‘Blue Wall’ at Chelsea
The manager has earned a record of just 24 goals conceded in 50 matches
It is actually a goal that Chelsea scored – rather than prevented – that Thomas Tuchel cites as an example of their incredible defensive record. It has been 50 matches since he arrived at Chelsea in January.
Fifty matches, 31 clean sheets and only 24 goals conceded – and five of those were in one crazy game against West Bromwich Albion last season. It is the best record in European football. It is a “Blue Wall”.
No one in English top-flight history has managed a side who have conceded fewer in as many games – not even Jose Mourinho in his first, uncompromising spell at Chelsea. That defensive rock, built around John Terry and Ricardo Carvalho, conceded 27 goals in 50 games.
There were just 15 goals (at 0.39 goals per game) conceded throughout Mourinho’s first title-winning season in 2005-’06, a record that looks impossible to beat, but while we are only 12 matches into this campaign, Chelsea have let in only four.
At this rate, over a 38-game season, they will concede just under 13 goals (0.33 per game). When asked to explain what he termed the “invisible work” that goes to achieving such a record, Chelsea’s head coach cited a goal scored during last weekend’s 3-0 victory away to Leicester City.
It was the second one, scored by midfielder N’Golo Kante, and Tuchel takes up the story as to why it is an insight into Chelsea’s strength, with the quick presence of Antonio Rudiger on the scenes of celebration a clue. Rudiger is the second player to hug Kante, after Callum Hudson-Odoi.
“If you look at the goal from N’Golo against Leicester, when he runs more or less half the pitch and scores a fantastic goal with his left foot, I was surprised when I saw that Toni Rudiger was [one of] the first to be there, to congratulate him, because I thought ‘how fast is he for this to happen?’” Tuchel says.
Further analysis explained why. “You see that while N’Golo is driving forward, Toni is closing the space and doing this kind of ‘invisible work’ to close the striker down,” Tuchel adds. “I think it was [Ademola] Lookman who was in that corridor, and if the shot is blocked and the ball goes there, he [Rudiger] would be the first one to go into a counter-press. He takes the responsibility for covering that, which meant that Lookman could not turn and initiate a counter-attack that ends maybe with [Jamie] Vardy and a goal.
“So, this is the kind of work which means we are taking care of our roles, and Toni is doing this very humble work.
“He [Rudiger] could have just stood back and watched, but he didn’t.”
It is part of what Tuchel called a “mentality shift at the club” since he succeeded Frank Lampard. In Lampard’s final 10 games, Chelsea conceded 13 goals, and it is telling that Rudiger has been brought back so successfully by Tuchel after being largely frozen out under his predecessor, who preferred a pairing of Thiago Silva and Kurt Zouma. Tuchel’s decision, within 24 hours of arriving, to switch to a back three helped Rudiger, Cesar Azpilicueta and, undoubtedly, Thiago, who, at 37, remains outstanding but needs the support of quicker centre-backs either side of him.
The mobile Andreas Christensen has been ideal in Chelsea’s formation, with such an effective midfield shield of Kante, Jorginho or Mateo Kovacic in front of the defence. Chelsea also have a formidable goalkeeper in Edouard Mendy, who has helped them outperform the XG (expected goals) against.
It is remarkable, though, that Tuchel has achieved such a strong defensive record while rotating. There have been five central-defensive combinations this season and five also at wing-back. Despite his appraisal that it is about the “commitment and quality” of the players, it is also clearly testament to the work he has done on the training ground.
“We are constantly on it, but it’s not the case that we spend 90pc of our time thinking about defensive solutions,” Tuchel argues. “The open-minded players, and quality of the players in combination with the mentality of the club is a very good mix to produce numbers like this . . . and many times attacking is a good way to defend.”
As the goal against Leicester proved.
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