The ink on Thomas Tuchel’s contract was still drying when Chelsea’s manager got down to business. The German had arrived in a whirl, rushing to London the day after Frank Lampard’s ruthless sacking, but he had a team to knock into shape. Tuchel sped off to take training once negotiations were done and although he had only 24 hours to prepare for his first game, he dismissed the possibility of watching from the stands when Chelsea hosted Wolves, telling associates that handing responsibility to someone else was not his style.
It was an early sign that Tuchel was unfazed by the task. The 47-year-old knew that Chelsea, who had given him an 18-month deal with an option for another year, do not like being made to wait for success. The pressure was there from the start, growing when Tuchel went with experience over youth against Wolves and drew 0-0.
Young players who broke through under Lampard were uneasy. Yet Chelsea have not taken long to become a different team: more cohesive, more tactically aware. Tuchel has been in charge for a month and the trust has returned. Those close to the club speak of a lighter mood around the training ground since Lampard’s departure, attributing it to Tuchel’s superior coaching, man-management and communication skills. The former Paris Saint-Germain manager has made it look easy so far, even though he walked into a tough situation.
Tuchel, who has lifted Chelsea from ninth to fifth and remains unbeaten after eight games, has been an energising presence. Surprisingly, the atmosphere was cold and distant under Lampard, who sometimes struggled to connect with individuals. One player who was out in the cold this season went several months without talking to Lampard, who often gave the impression that he was not happy with the make-up of his expensive squad.
“Managers can’t be picky with players,” one source says. The vibe is different under Tuchel. He has restored senior players such as Jorginho, Antonio Rüdiger and Marcos Alonso and knows he must succeed where Lampard failed with the German forwards Timo Werner and Kai Havertz. The switch to a 3-4-2-1 is partly down to helping Werner, who has looked better as an inside-left. “Tuchel is not overawed by egos or a big squad,” the source adds. “And training is unbelievable.”
Chelsea’s squad is packed with established internationals who felt they did not receive enough tactical instructions under Lampard. It has changed under Tuchel, who has introduced a better structure in defence and attack. He tells players what he wants and Chelsea have become difficult to break down, conceding only two goals before hosting Manchester United on Sunday. Rüdiger, who clashed with Lampard and the former manager’s assistant, Jody Morris, has made a positive impact on the left of a back three.
César Azpilicueta, the club captain, has also become more influential and the players are said to be buzzing. There is more laughter. Tuchel, whose assistants have hit it off with longstanding staff members, gives a hug to every player before games. He explains his thinking to players when he leaves them out. A case in point is when Kepa Arrizabalaga, whose confidence was shattered under Lampard, started during the win over Newcastle this month. Tuchel spoke to Édouard Mendy, making it clear that he was still Chelsea’s No 1 and would return against Southampton.
Yet it is not all sweetness and light. When Chelsea were 2-0 up against Newcastle at half-time, Tuchel promised his players two days off if they held on. In their following fixture, though, the team saw the former Borussia Dortmund manager’s ruthless side when he substituted Callum Hudson-Odoi during the draw with Southampton after bringing on the 20-year-old at half-time.
It was a potential flashpoint given that Tuchel criticised Hudson-Odoi in public. In private, though, he cleared the air with the player in a team meeting. His excellent relationship with Hudson-Odoi was unharmed. Some saw it as a message to the collective: carry out my instructions or suffer the consequences.
The tough love clearly worked given that Hudson-Odoi, out of favour under Lampard, impressed after starting at right wing-back when Chelsea took a giant stride towards reaching the last eight of the Champions League by beating Atlético Madrid 1-0 on Tuesday. Everyone worked hard, giving Tuchel his best win yet. “He is very expressive,” Mendy says. “He shows when he likes something.”
The use of Hudson-Odoi in an unfamiliar wing-back role has also shown Tuchel’s willingness to think outside the box. This is a manager whose reputation for innovation was seen when Chelsea, who host Sheffield United in the last eight of the FA Cup next month, trained with miniature footballs. Tuchel plans for specific games, leaving Olivier Giroud on the bench against Southampton before giving the striker the chance to score the winner against Atlético, and focuses on qualities rather than weaknesses. Alonso, for instance, has been brought in from the wilderness because of his effectiveness as a left wing-back.
Inevitably some players have struggled. Hakim Ziyech has been peripheral, N’Golo Kanté is regaining sharpness in midfield and Ben Chilwell has fallen behind Alonso. In attack Tammy Abraham has been substituted twice at half-time and the striker’s future is uncertain, with Chelsea targeting Dortmund’s Erling Haaland this summer.
The interest in Haaland is a reminder that Chelsea are not satisfied with their squad. Although there is a clear idea under Tuchel – speed, possession, relentless counter-pressing – they have not clicked up front. Mason Mount has been the most consistent attacker by far and Tuchel’s habit of showing displeasure when things go wrong could become a sticking point if results dip.
This is Chelsea, a club of ceaseless ambition, where managers rise and fall. Tuchel has fallen out with bosses at his previous clubs and he knows the demands under Roman Abramovich: qualify for the Champions League before challenging for the title. It will not be easy, but he has started as he means to go on.