Game 33/60: Tottenham vs Chelsea
It was Thomas Tuchel’s third Chelsea game and it was by far the biggest one yet at the start of his first full month in charge – a trip to London rivals Spurs and their manager Jose Mourinho. Thus far the German coach had enjoyed a relatively easy couple of games to ease him into the job – this would be the one that sat him bolt upright and either led to a run of success or failure from the start. In comparison to earlier in the season, this wasn’t quite as formidable a team to be facing, considering Mourinho’s men were now down in 8th place, a far cry from the title challenge they had contemplated over. Still, this was no walk in the park and it would require a strong gameplan, along with tactics to outwit one of the best managers to ever do it, in order to return to Stamford Bridge with a win.
It was clear already that Thomas Tuchel’s preferred formation was that of wing backs, in order to be able to provide greater defensive solidity when needed, but also not limit the attack to a sparse field of available attackers. Like the return fixture back in November, this was a game empty of many clear cut chances, though it certainly provided a more watchable experience for a neutral than that initial league meeting.
Less than 10 seconds in, a long, searching ball over the top found the head of Timo Werner who looked as surprised as anyone to have made the highest jump and saw his looping effort land just past the crossbar, inches away from the perfect start. Halfway through the first half, the German was involved again as he got on the end of a through ball from Cesar Azpilicueta. The captain hadn’t kept it on the ground though, so it seemed Eric Dier would be able to clear the ball out for a corner at the worst, but a mistimed tackle led to him taking out the ankles of Werner in an undeniable foul preceding an inevitable penalty for the Blues. It was clumsy rather than reckless but, regardless of the reason, the outcome was the same for the Spurs defender and Mourinho looked exasperated on the touchline when he saw the Englishman kick out in a lame attempt to clear.
It would be Jorginho who had the chance to put the away side ahead and, in a shock to the system, he abandoned his hop, skip and jump routine in favour of a more simple run up. Most fans wouldn’t have minded though as he fired the spot kick past Hugo Lloris and Chelsea were 1-0 ahead, deservedly, at the break.
In the second half the pattern of the match changed very little and in the 60th minute an excellent run by Mason Mount led to him playing the ball into the feet of Werner who looked destined to finally score until Serge Aurier made an impressive last ditch tackle to deny him. Matteo Kovacic also went on a mazy run but it seemed he only realised what he was doing when he made it into the penalty area and a weak toe punt was of no bother to the Spurs captain in net.
Chelsea’s best effort came, as it so often did during the season, from Mount who came within Lloris’ fingertips of finding his side’s second of the night. The home side did make Mendy work once when he stretched to palm away Lamela’s long shot, though their golden opportunity was unquestionably a late header that Vinicius flashed just wide when he seemed certain to score. That late let off for Chelsea was nearly the final action of the game and when the final whistle did come Tuchel looked delighted – a win against rivals, still unbeaten and still yet to concede a goal. Things were looking good.
Game 33/60: Tottenham 0-1 Chelsea
Game 34/60: Sheffield United vs Chelsea
The run of games following the derby victory were also relatively kind in terms of the calibre of opposition on show. Next up was, statistically, the worst team in the league in Sheffield United – propping up the table for the best part of the whole season, it had not been a kind second season for the Blades. Irrespective of form though, it is unwise to underestimate any opponent based on league position else you run the risk of an embarrassing upset, as Manchester United had found out just a few days prior. In the end, it was yet another dominant showing from Chelsea, though there was one mishap in terms of the unbeaten start to life as manager for Tuchel. Strangely enough, the opening opportunity was as a result of poor defending from the team who, in recent games, had become renowned for a strong defence rather than the one sitting bottom of the league.
Oliver Burke raced into the box and his shot rippled the side netting when, in all honesty, the striker ought to have least tested Edouard Mendy. On top of this, Chris Wilder’s side were awarded a penalty for a foul by Ben Chilwell, only for the left back’s blushes to be spared by VAR overturning the decision on account of Chris Basham being millimetres offside. Aside from the opening quarter of an hour, there weren’t a whole host of chances for either side, until a swift Chelsea counter attack in which Chilwell played Werner through who cleverly had the presence of mind to cut it back to Mount and his shot was taken with aplomb, a pinpoint strike past Aaron Ramsdale to put the Blues ahead minutes before half time.
It wasn’t all easy in the second half though as the record of not conceding under the leadership of Thomas Tuchel was broken, albeit not entirely as rather than an opposition player finding the back of the net, it was one of their own. Antonio Rudiger was hesitant as to whether to clear a ball headed for Mendy away or not and in his delay he poked the ball past his goalkeeper and could do nothing but stare as it trickled into the goal. He needn’t have worried however, as Timo Werner was straight back at it just two minutes later, drawing a foul from Ramsdale, the Sheffield United keeper. Jorginho then calmly tucked away the winning goal, returning to his favoured ‘triple jump’ routine and, bar a few minor opportunities, the Blues saw out the remainder of the game with a degree of comfort, before heading back to London with all three points.
Game 34/60: Sheffield United 1-2 Chelsea
Game 35/60: Barnsley vs Chelsea
It was a change of competition for Tuchel as he took his attention away from the league for a brief time, instead turning it to the FA Cup 5th round and a fixture away at Oakwell, the home of Barnsley. It was a freezing cold Thursday night and it showed as both teams struggled to even consider attacking before they managed to solve the issue of constant frostbite. It was a slightly weaker Chelsea team, owing to the need to rotate and the lack of necessity to play at full strength but the players on the pitch were by no means second string in their entirety, with N’Golo Kante, Christian Pulisic and Hakim Ziyech just three of the starting eleven. One major change was in goal where Kepa returned to the team and he made an impressive save 11 minutes in, denying Brittain from yards out.
Tammy Abraham was then the man in the spotlight as he, justifiably, looked bemused at not getting a penalty not once but twice. The first call was bad enough as his legs were completely taken out by the Barnsley defender and the second as Andersen forced the striker down as he leapt for a cross. In typical ironic fashion though, due to the stadium being at Championship level, there was no VAR to assist the on-field referee and the calls were waved away dismissively. Moments before the interval, Barnsley had another chance as Brittain’s shot somehow made it through a crowd of players and trickled whiskers wide of the post – the first half was certainly not one to remember for the Blues.
The second however, in contrast, saw more promising moves from the away side, with the likes of Callum Hudson-Odoi and Rudiger having shots fly wide of the goal. It ended up being the man who had been so unlucky with a lack of sympathy in the box from the referee in the first half who got the opener, and in the end the winning goal, in Tammy Abraham. He was in the right place at the right time to tap home a low cross from Reece James and it was once again a goal straight from the youth academy, with Billy Gilmour also instrumental in the making of the move. The final major chance fell to the home side and it was once again Abraham involved as he heroically cleared an effort off of his own goal line to ensure that Chelsea made it through to the quarter finals of a competition they would hope would give them a good chance of a trophy, despite the quality of opponents remaining in the hat.
Game 35/60: Barnsley 0-1 Chelsea
Game 36/60: Chelsea vs Newcastle
It was back to the league, where the priority for the new manager remained getting a top four place for the club, despite him arriving with the team placed in 9th when he arrived. He had already brought them back up to fifth and a win against Newcastle, depending on results elsewhere, had the potential to move them back into the fabled Champions League places for the first time since early December.
Steve Bruce’s side, meanwhile, were not enjoying life quite as much with the Geordies still teetering on the edge of relegation. In the end, the Monday night fixture ended up being more a formality than a festival, although there were more chances for the opposition than Chelsea fans might have hoped. Abraham had some early chances but was unable to find the target and in one of the openings he was injured unknowingly by Jamal Lascelles and his evening was ended in just 20 minutes.
A searching ball over the top from Olivier Giroud found Marcos Alonso who headed down into the feet of Timo Werner and he saw his effort skim off of his leg to spin wide of the post in a chance he really ought to have put away, though with his form it wasn’t as much of a surprise as it would’ve been for others. The first goal came relatively soon afterwards, with the aforementioned German using his pace to accelerate up the pitch before firing a cross into the area which Karl Darlow palmed out to the welcoming feet of Giroud and he smashed the ball into the net, pleased with his impact as an early substitute. Werner himself then had another golden opportunity as Kovacic played a subtle one-touch pass through to him but his chipped effort glided ever so slightly over the bar.
The German had been desperately unlucky in this game, which was quite the metaphor for his entire season but finally, to break a run which had been on since November, he got a goal in the league for Chelsea. A Mount corner kick deflected off a Newcastle defender and Werner was waiting at the back post to tap the ball home and while the keeper did prevent the ball from hitting the back of the net, it had already gone far past the line, much to Werner’s relief. It was scrappy, it was lucky and it was his first league goal since November. The Magpies’ best chance came from a Joe Willock header who forced Kepa to scramble to his left and push away his effort after it bounced before the goal line, adding to the difficulty of the save. Reece James had one final effort soon after coming on from the bench but Darlow saved with his feet and the right back spent the rest of the game ensuring another clean sheet for the Blues, received welcomingly by fans who had spent months before wondering whether such a proposition was even possible.
Game 36/60: Chelsea 2-0 Newcastle
Game 37/60: Southampton vs Chelsea
A trip to St Mary’s was on the cards next for Thomas Tuchel’s tricky Blues as they had become affectionately known by fans. In a bizarre twist of fate, the Saints had gone from the highs of topping the Premier League just a few months before to being on a six game losing run in the same competition, now down to mid table and even threatening to go lower. Among that run was an astonishing 9-0 defeat which was made all the more incredible by the fact it was the second successive season that Ralph Hassenhuttl’s team had suffered such a loss. Surely then, for a team such as Chelsea on such a good run, this would be plain sailing on the south coast? As ever, football and its unpredictable nature had something to say about that and it ended up being a far more frustrating fixture for Chelsea than most would’ve predicted prior to kick off.
The Blues bossed the game statistically, with 71% of possession throughout the match but of course the only statistic which truly matters is that of goals scored and that was the area which lacked fruition for the away side. For the first time in Tuchel’s reign, an opposition player scored against his Chelsea team and the defence really didn’t cover themselves in glory for the big event. One simple pass from Nathan Redmond took out the vast majority of the Chelsea back line, where a gap the size of Jupiter between Azpilicueta and Rudiger had developed. Takumi Minamino, on loan from Liverpool, was on the end of the pass and he stayed calm as he expertly dummied a fake shot to take Azpilicueta out of the picture before tucking away the goal to give Southampton the lead at St Mary’s. Tuchel looked beyond exasperated on the touchline, furious that such a sloppy goal had been allowed to be conceded, especially given the utter dominance the Blues had shown thus far in the game, though to no avail in terms of goals scored.
That shot ended up being the only one on target for Southampton and from then on it was effectively an attack vs defence training drill in a competitive fashion. Kurt Zouma thought he’d scored but his header was saved by Alex McCarthy and that was the only major chance of the first half. In the second, however, there was more action at the Southampton end as Mount won a penalty after a foul by Danny Ings and the midfielder then comfortably scored the following spot kick – always a great moment for a Portsmouth fan. The only real clear cut chance that then occurred in the remainder of the game fell to Reece James with five minutes left and Chelsea searching for a winner. The young right back leant back far too much from a Mount cross though and blazed a half volley high over the crossbar. That was ultimately the big chance for the Blues and it wasn’t taken, meaning they left back to West London with only a point and a goal conceded – not the best preparation going into a last 16 tie with European heavyweight Atletico Madrid.
Game 37/60:Southampton 1-1 Chelsea
Game 38/60: Atletico Madrid vs Chelsea
A mammoth game lay ahead for the Blues in the form of a first leg round of 16 Champions League tie against Atletico Madrid. The Spanish side had knocked out Liverpool days before football was suspended in March 2020 and were flying high at the top of La Liga so, despite the good run of form that Tuchel had developed at the club, this would be a very, very different proposition to navigate for both he and the players.
With covid-related travel restrictions causing difficulty regarding quarantining, the match was played in Romania, although it was the ‘away leg’ for Chelsea, meaning Atletico would be looking to limit any away goals being scored against them given the ramifications of this. As such, the notoriously defensive-minded Diego Simeone set his team up with a clear plan in mind – defend and don’t dare attack.
This was evident right from the off, with a seven man defence even being a feature repeated on more than one occasion, much to the delight of tactical analysts everywhere who finally had a new formation to talk about: the 7-2-1. Speaking of formations, it was business as usual as far as Tuchel was concerned as he remained with Alonso and Hudson-Odoi at wing backs, both of whom had had something of a renaissance with the new manager, this being the biggest game by far in the latter’s career. An early yellow card for Mason Mount set the tone for the game in it being scrappy and slow, and the booking also meant that the Englishman would miss the second leg – a huge blow for Chelsea.
Regardless, he continued to play like a seasoned professional, not letting the threat of being sent off hang over him in any way and it ended up being one of his finest performances in the famous blue shirt. For the first 15 minutes, it was Atletico who enjoyed the plurality of chances but they never came close to troubling Mendy and from then on it was a defensive masterclass from Tuchel’s side – so much so that they limited the opposition to no shots on target whatsoever, a phenomenal achievement given the quality of attackers in the opposite line up.
Werner forced the first smart stop from Jan Oblak, firing a shot in towards the near post but it wasn’t nearly enough to trouble the Slovenian keeper. In a game which predominantly consisted of two defensive setups trying to outmaneuver one another, it was always clear that something spectacular would be required to open up the opposition. That came in all its glory in the 68th minute when an Alonso cross made its way to Giroud whose touch moved it away from him, only for the striker to leap audaciously into the air and fire an absolute rocket of an overhead kick past the flailing hands of Jan Oblak. Initially, it seemed as though the audacious acrobatic effort would be cruelly ruled out by an offside flag from the linesman for offside and a first replay did seem to confirm this as the correct decision.
One painstakingly long VAR check later however, it was overruled and the goal allowed as while Giroud was standing past the last defender, the ball came to him via a slight deflection from Hermoso as he attempted to clear it, sending the Blues into pandemonium. It really was a classic Champions League goal and one that would be written into the competition’s history instantly. From that point onwards, Chelsea saw out the game in relative comfort – a surprise given the fact they had been put down as underdogs by a significant margin before a ball had been kicked.
Clearly a second goal would’ve been desirable, but taking any sort of lead back to Stamford Bridge was the ultimate goal heading into the game. To have completed this aim and in such convincing fashion astonished almost everyone watching and a first win in Europe at Chelsea for Tuchel was, although nobody knew it at the time, the start of something truly special in the months remaining during the rest of the season.
Game 38/60: Atletico Madrid 0-1 Chelsea
Game 39/60: Chelsea vs Manchester United
During the season I, and many others, appeared to discover a correlation between two variables which may lead to great disappointment for many football fans. The hypothesis being that, with the greater buildup and excitement to a ‘big game’, the worse and more boring said game turns out to be.
Of course, there are exceptions and anomalies to the theory but, for the most part, this negative correlation suggestion appears to be relatively accurate, particularly in Chelsea’s next opponent in Manchester United. The Red Devils and the Blues played out a dull 0-0 draw a few months back and, without wanting to be blunt, this was perhaps even worse. Of course Chelsea were coming into the game having just put out their strongest and most strenuous performance of the season in Romania so were never going to be able to play the most stylish football, given the energy levels were significantly depleted. United on the other hand had travelled to Spain with a 4-0 lead, meaning they were far more refreshed, especially as that match ended 0-0 too.
Therefore, it appeared as though Solskjær’s side would have a great advantage over their opponents. That wasn’t to be though and the game ended up being hinged on one early debatable decision over a potential penalty for United. After Mendy parried out a free kick, it bounced once and then Hudson-Odoi appeared to make contact with it on the top of his hand while in the box. After a lengthy VAR review, involving a catalogue of replays and camera angles nobody knew existed, it was decided that the player did not deliberately handle the ball and the game continued. A petulant Gary Neville continued to complain about the law having changed a few weeks before, meaning there was ‘no consistency’ throughout the season, but most would agree that a fairer rule is a good substitute for a supposed absence of uniformity.
Most of the best chances for the home side ended up involving the previously mentioned Hudson-Odoi as he first attempted a spectacular volley, preceding a cross from himself which Giroud, the hero of Bucharest, narrowly missed getting his head on.
More opportunities came for Chelsea when Chilwell made an excellent run and passed the ball into Ziyech in front of goal who slashed a shot straight at David De Gea, with Reece James’ follow-up shot also being blocked. United’s solitary chance came when Scott McTominay went for goal from the edge of the box and Mendy was forced to get down low to keep the effort out. Otherwise, they rarely threatened the Chelsea goal and when the full time whistle went there was a sense of ‘we all saw this coming’ detectable from players, fans and pundits alike. So unentertaining was the match that most engrossing moment was in Ole Gunnar Solskjær’s post match interview when he appeared to suggest that, as the Chelsea website had referenced a VAR call in the reverse fixture in their preview, the VAR officials were less likely to give a penalty – presumably because they feared the wrath of Chelsea’s social media admin?
Anyway, a draw was by no means a bad result although it did leave the Blues in 5th place and likely rueing the few missed chances which did occur.
Game 39/60: Chelsea 0-0 Manchester United
Games Played: 7
Games Won: 5
Games Drawn: 2
Games Lost: 0
Month in three words: Practically Perfect Start.
Written by Noah Robson (@Noahr24_)
Edited by Tom Coley (@tomcoley49)
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