Thomas Tuchel seemed to have all the right answers a year ago. In fact the only time he was unsure about how to respond was when Chelsea approached him about replacing Frank Lampard. After all, Tuchel had just experienced a bitter split with Paris Saint-Germain, and the thought of going to Chelsea did not immediately appear to be the wisest move.
Questions had to be answered. What if Tuchel found life at Stamford Bridge just as draining as at PSG? Would he ever want to work at a top club again? Or would he decide that he no longer needed to handle star egos and demanding executives?
As discussions with Chelsea progressed, though, Tuchel came around to the idea. The powerful director Marina Granovskaia did not listen when the German asked whether she really wanted to fire a club legend. Lampard was gone and Tuchel, who had built a rapport with the club’s technical and performance adviser and former goalkeeper Petr Cech, was in.
The pressure was on. Chelsea had slipped to ninth and the dressing room was an unhappy place. Tuchel focused on restoring harmony, introduced greater tactical nous and, although Chelsea limped into fourth place and lost the FA Cup final to Leicester, the season ended on a high when Manchester City were defeated in the Champions League final.
By then Tuchel could do no wrong. He outsmarted Pep Guardiola in Porto and, having signed on an initial 18-month deal, triggered a clause stating that he would receive another two years if he won the Champions League or Premier League.
Tuchel, who met Roman Abramovich the morning after beating City, was content. He had embraced the culture at Chelsea, who left him to focus on coaching, and he could trust Granovskaia and Cech not to interfere. Managing upwards was not a problem for Tuchel, who had learned from clashing with his bosses at PSG and Borussia Dortmund, and it seemed that Chelsea were ready to challenge City's domestic supremacy.
Now, though, the notion of Chelsea overtaking City feels improbable. The European champions lie 12 points behind Guardiola’s side, and Tuchel was downbeat during his side’s 1-1 draw with Brighton on Wednesday.
It is hard not to wonder whether this is the start of a gradual decline. Chelsea have won four of their past 13 league games before hosting Tottenham on Sunday, and although the squad is behind Tuchel, problems have cropped up. There is no sign of Antonio Rüdiger, César Azpilicueta and Andreas Christensen extending before their deals run out this summer, and Romelu Lukaku’s £97.5 million move from Internazionale has not worked out.
Hailed as the final piece in the jigsaw, Lukaku mostly looks out of place. The Belgian’s body language was poor against Brighton – his argument with the increasingly unsettled Hakim Ziyech at half-time was revealing – and his controversial interview with Sky Italia remains a source of tension.
It felt pointed when Tuchel criticised Lukaku after Chelsea’s defeat by City last weekend. Yet was it a risk? Player power has been a recurring theme during the Abramovich era, and Tuchel must know that it would be easier for the club to side with their record signing.
Yet it would be absurd to ponder parting with Tuchel. He has made mistakes – he could have rotated more, his approach in both games against City was too passive and he has not got the best out of Lukaku – but they are not terminal.
Covid absentees, a draining fixture list and injuries have played a part. N’Golo Kanté has struggled to stay fit, and it is not making excuses to point out that Chelsea are not the same without Ben Chilwell and Reece James, their first choice wing-backs.
Part of this is self-inflicted. Last summer Tuchel wanted a right-sided defender, but Chelsea could not agree a fee with Sevilla for Jules Koundé. Now the 32-year-old Azpilicueta is filling in for the hamstrung James at right wing-back when there could have been an opening for Tariq Lamptey or Tino Livramento, two gifted academy products.
It is a worrying trend. Livramento has flourished at Southampton and Lamptey has been a revelation at Brighton, but neither youngster saw a pathway at Chelsea. The feeling is that the squad still contains too many players whose time has gone.
For instance, it is no surprise that Marcos Alonso has not been as dynamic as Chilwell on the left. The 31-year-old has never been quick. He should have been moved on a while ago and yet, with Lyon reluctant to release Emerson Palmieri from his loan, the only alternative to the Spaniard is Kenedy after his return from Flamengo.
Is Kenedy, who has not played for Chelsea since 2018, the solution? Clearly not, yet he is not the only player whose presence raises an eyebrow. Why, for example, is Ross Barkley still around? Is Saúl Ñíguez, who has struggled since joining on loan from Atlético Madrid, more use in midfield than Billy Gilmour or Conor Gallagher?
There has to be more regeneration. This squad has been put together by six permanent managers: Roberto Di Matteo, José Mourinho, Antonio Conte, Maurizio Sarri, Lampard and Tuchel. There is no clear playing identity and although a ruthless streak has brought Chelsea plenty of trophies, that approach is beginning to look outdated when City ensure that everything runs smoothly under Guardiola and Liverpool are built in Jürgen Klopp’s image.
Chelsea, who have not challenged for the title for five years, need a rethink. This season they have won the Super Cup and could win the Club World Cup and Carabao Cup next month, but that is not enough. The hierarchy must look inward and ask whether they would have given Klopp five years to win a title, or allowed Guardiola to keep building after winning nothing in his first season in England.
The difference is stark. City are not significantly richer than Chelsea, but their operation is calmer. They prepared for Guardiola’s arrival, have a clear style and know how to win titles. By contrast Tuchel arrived mid-season and is playing catch-up with Klopp and Guardiola.
Admittedly Tuchel’s squad is hugely expensive. He has Lukaku, Christian Pulisic, Ziyech, Callum Hudson-Odoi, Timo Werner, Mason Mount and Kai Havertz in attack, but Chelsea remain blunt. The front players have not improved under Tuchel.
This time last year, though, Lampard was talking about how Chelsea no longer had “goal or assist machines” such as Diego Costa and Eden Hazard. The attack feels thrown together. Lampard said that Chelsea were not ready to win the league and not much has changed.
It should give Chelsea pause for thought. Cech and Granovskaia worked with Tuchel when Lukaku stepped out of line, but more is required.
By repeatedly letting underperforming players off the hook and adhering to a cycle of hiring and firing, Chelsea have become a cup team.
It is too volatile and, while there will always be enough talent for a clever coach to make an instant impact, Tuchel’s one-year anniversary next Wednesday should prompt Chelsea to consider why they are behind City. It is not about money, it is about culture, and Chelsea need to let Tuchel create a new one if they want to win the league.