At 9.50pm on Tuesday Chelsea’s players gathered on the Bernabéu touchline to prepare for extra-time, having just beaten Real Madrid 3-1 in their own stadium over 90 minutes: a sensational result in isolation, but with a tinge of dread now too, a sense of having run themselves to a state of exhaustion in pursuit of a retreating mirage.
Rodrygo’s goal 10 minutes from the end of normal time will be remembered for Luka Modric’s sublime diagonal pass, a weird, snaking, dipping thing, like an entity from some other physical plane. But the effect of that goal on the opposition was also striking.
There was still time for Thomas Tuchel to send on Christian Pulisic, and for Pulisic to miss the chance at the death that would have rescripted in an instant every version of this extraordinary game, recast Madrid's dynastic will to power as decadent amour-propre, altered the trajectory of seasons and careers, and anointed Tuchel once and for all as the great tactical white whale of west London.
The difference with Madrid, however, the big secret, is that they tend to take those moments.
And so half an hour of suffering beckoned. But the break was also box office in its own right. Antonio Rüdiger barked and slapped shoulders. For a while two middle-aged men in club tracksuits crouched behind Reece James and pounded furiously at his buttocks – vital work, so vital in fact that a third man briefly came and joined them.
In the middle of this Tuchel gathered his players in a tight circle and delivered a fluent two-minute speech, hands scything the air, skipping from foot to foot, replicating even in the gawky physicality of his pep talk the movements, the shapes, the concussive texture of his team’s performance.
With a day’s grace, and even in agreeably bad-tempered defeat, the image of Tuchel buried inside that circle seems to capture something vital. Not just about his effect on Chelsea’s players; but also the reciprocal nature of that relationship, the energy, the uplift injected into his own career.
There is no doubt Tuchel’s star has risen dramatically in England. Not least in the past two months as the public face of a distressed asset, wandering through this collapsing seat of power like one of nature’s dukes, bow tie askew, brushing the dust from his lapels.
Two things seem certain now as this ghost-ship season narrows towards Sunday’s FA Cup semi-final. First, whichever consortium ends up buying Chelsea needs to base its entire early years strategy around keeping Tuchel at the club.
This is not in any immediate doubt, beyond the odd casual whisper (and there are always whispers). Tuchel’s contract runs until 2024. He remains in his own Imperial phase, revered by the club’s support and right under the skin of this group of players. But there is still flux here. Every last member of the current hierarchy will surely depart with the change of owners. Football is a peculiar beast. And Tuchel is, right now, Chelsea’s single brightest star presence.
There is also another side to that ledger. It is easy to forget that this goggle-eyed super-brain, a man who seems now to have been born to fret and chunter and disco-finger about on the Chelsea touchline in his powder-blue quilted coat, was also in need of a home when he arrived at Stamford Bridge.
Tuchel was a success at Borussia Dortmund, but he left under a cloud, subject of a casual character assassination by the chief executive, Hans-Joachim Watzke, who questioned his “basic values”, from communication skills to loyalty and trust. So, just those then. He took Paris Saint-Germain to a slightly weird Covid-addled Champions League final but was then sacked and waved off gleefully by that rather sickly group of players, a departure that could probably also work as a character reference.
Here was an elite coach whose star had dipped, who seemed still to be finding a level, a way to work in this company. In this sense Chelsea have been perfect for Tuchel. When he turned up the squad was stacked deep with talent, but also tactically incoherent, fogged with Lampard-ism. Talented, familiar ostracised players were perfectly set up to be high-fived back into the fold. All of this was low-hanging fruit for a man whose entire waking life revolves around granular tactical detail.
What has become clear is that Tuchel thrives on working in a state of total focus, on fixing and tinkering at high speed, without external distractions; and that coming to Chelsea in mid-season was just the kind of impossible job to fit his talents.
The same could even be applied to the mind-boggling oddities of the past two months: unwanted and clearly destabilising, but in an odd kind of way suited also to Tuchel’s finer qualities, his eloquence, his basic honesty.
For a while in March Chelsea's manager seemed to have become the UK's most coherent public voice on the war in Ukraine, revered for his ability to speak a few simple truths. On BT Sport Jake Humphrey had a habit of cutting from Tuchel's post-match comments as though relaying an address to the galactic resistance from Yoda's cave. Joe Cole suggested Tuchel should become prime minister, and it didn't really sound like a joke.
If there was a tendency to swoon at Tuchel’s ability simply to keep the season rolling on it is worth noting his success even in that first year was based in that ability to focus entirely on the details in front of his nose, to block out non-essential pressures, to draw his players into that same bubble.
By contrast, asking Tuchel to manage a team of A-list superstars, to deal with the princely whims of Neymar on a daily basis, always looked an absurd piece of recruitment. Tuchel may be a more ludic and compelling tactician than Carlo Ancelotti. But can anyone really imagine him digging out the same results in charge of Real Madrid? Or succeeding at any of those clubs where saying less is saying more, where intense, non-negotiable tactical detail is essentially an act of self-sabotage?
Tuchel is a coach not an impresario, the kind of high-functioning obsessive who will flourish in the right soil. It seems telling that his clearest failure at Chelsea has been the inability to draw more or indeed anything at all from Romelu Lukaku, the closest thing to a superstar player, in his own mind at least, in the squad.
Like Mauricio Pochettino, his best moments are always likely to come from driving on a team of biddable energetic players at a level just below the outright superstars. He remains Chelsea's prized asset. But this is also a matter of chemistry, of mutual dependence. More so than Lords roped in, funds promised, or supporter engagement schtick, preserving that balance will be absolutely vital to the success of the latest new era. – Guardian