Thomas Tuchel’s arrival at Chelsea FC turned an exciting but disorganised attacking outfit into a very organised, solid, effective defensive unit seemingly overnight.
It was chalk and cheese. Chelsea went from conceding 0.93 goals per game under Frank Lampard to 0.53 under Thomas Tuchel. A 43% decrease. Even more striking when you consider it was two halves of the same season, the latter of which contained the typically more difficult later stages of domestic cups and the more elite opposition in the Champions League knockout phases.
Even more striking is the fact that Chelsea conceded just twice in Tuchel’s first 14 games as manager of the club. The team had conceded 13 goals in the 10 games prior.
It was an immediate and obvious turnaround in defensive output.
There are a number of different ideas related to the explanation for this; some of them rooted within Lampard and his management philosophies, as well as differences between his and Tuchel’s personal preference of defensive players on the pitch.
What I will focus on is a single facet of what is a much bigger concept. I will focus on the formation Tuchel used, and, in particular, how this formation was reflected in reality by the players on the pitch as Chelsea won their second Champions League title.
In basic terms, for most of the 2020/2021 season under Tuchel, Chelsea utilised a defensive 3-4-3 formation. Wing backs move into a five out of possession, and push wide to stretch the pitch in possession. Against Manchester City in the 2021 Champions League final, it was closer to a 5-4-1. Both, in many ways, offer the same positional framework, only perceived differently through a defensive or offensive scope.
The important thing to remember when looking at formations or a team’s shape, and how it corresponds to a team’s system or style, is that it is only a basic, rough framework for starting positions. It is malleable, players do move around, they don’t always follow instructions rigidly; football is a very fluid game.
An example of this positional fluidity is seen in the first minute of Chelsea’s game with Manchester City.
Three clear lines develop – the defensive four, the middle three, and the forward three. Chelsea employed defined centre-backs in the game – Rudiger, Silva, and Azpilicueta – and two defined wingbacks on either side – Chilwell and James, behind Kanté and Jorginho.
What becomes immediately apparent is Rudiger’s movement forward to create a middle three rather than the defensive five.
Rudiger actively attacks the ball while the other defenders move to a compact flat line of four.
He moves to man-mark the opponent free between the forward and middle lines (B. Silva 20), Chilwell on the Chelsea left pushes up to press his winger (Mahrez 26).
With Rudiger pushed up, Chilwell following him, Jorginho goes back from his spot in the middle line to fill the vacant left-back position. By engaging the ball and aggressively pressing the opponents in possession, Chilwell and Rudiger are able to attack the midfield without fear of leaving their positions open. Jorginho has tucked into the left back position for Chilwell and Kanté is in his hole maintaining coverage of the midfield for Rudiger. When one player pushes up, another pulls back. One in, one out.
When defending a dead ball in the corner, with defensive players taking up marking positions inside the penalty area, it is vital to move quickly to reestablish position if the second ball is lost closer to the offensive third.
When the ball is initially cleared by Chilwell, the defenders move cautiously forward in case possession is not retained. They maintain their shape that is tight and compact to the left side.
Once possession is lost and the ball controlled by an opposition attacker ahead of the midfield line, close to the attacking third, both lines fan right to stretch the pitch and reset into their line of four with one man pushing forward.
Reece James is the player to push up to attack the ball, with Azpilicueta in the right centre back position covering the man in the half-space (De Bruyne 17). Kanté is also in the half-space ready to move forwards to intercept and Azpilicueta can pull back into the right-back channel.
By moving across with the ball, a defender is able to engage a player in possession, and even stay with him, without surrendering position because they will always be supported by a teammate in close proximity moving to enter and cover the vacant area.
Even when the ball is turned over during an attacking move, and one of the advanced lines is broken, the willingness to make up ground as fast as possible to cover defensive areas of the pitch makes countering very difficult.
When Kanté loses the ball, Zinchenko is able to dribble through the vacant centre, through the midfield line, to face a single midfielder and the defensive line – now a 5.
Chelsea respond to having their line broken by blocking forward passing lanes and becoming very tight and compact, allowing spaces on the wings but moving close to the men in the central zones. Marking them out as the main, more likely danger.
Chilwell moves out to engage the man on the ball, his centre backs cover his space and push up to man-mark potential receivers. It all becomes very compact behind the one man engaging the ball. James, on the opposite flank, can stay slightly wider in the unlikely event that a reverse switch is played long-range to the runner on his outside (Sterling 7).
By blocking those passing lanes, and by Chilwell holding up the man on the ball (Walker 2), Chelsea force Man City into recycling the ball back into the centre where forward players can press and allow further time for the team to reset into the familiar and comfortable defensive shape.
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