How Thomas Tuchel made a twinkling tweak to transform Chelsea’s attack- Wingback inventions and a front five

“Klopp’s Liverpool go straight for your throat , Guardiola’s City and Tuchel’s Chelsea kill you with a thousand cuts.”

Yes, I know you are a bit confused right now, but here is a bit of context. A few weeks ago, I came across a tweet that attempted to liken the approach of the top three teams in the Premier League to methods of execution. I really could not agree more with this statement.

It encapsulates the approach each of these teams take to win games accurately. Jurgen Klopp, for me, is a tactical Roman Emperor, with a great human approach. Sometimes, his streaks of stubbornness could be a bit of a stumbling block, but it is this whole belief in his methods and arrogance that make his team excel. Pep Guardiola is a tactical innovator who leaves his opponents bewildered with never seen before approaches. In spite of his innovative brilliance, he is the type whose creations could end up blowing up in his face (just like what happened when he decided to play no defensive midfielder in the Champions League Final), but those are what make him great.

With Thomas Tuchel, there exists the ultimate tactical chameleon. His ability to blend his team in and adapt the approach of his teams to each and every opponent is what makes him special. Some say he lacks a bit of a human side, but there have been no signs of that so far in his 10 months with the Blues. Well, I am not here to talk about managers and their strengths and weaknesses, but I feel this is a good base for my argument that Tuchel deserves a lot more credit for a tactical tweak he has made in the past games to make Chelsea more potent in attack.

Thomas Tuchel, Chelsea's Champions League manager.
Thomas Tuchel, Chelsea’s Champions League manager.

It’s late September, and Chelsea have just lost back to back games against Manchester City and Juventus. Unsurprisingly for a club with a huge pressure to win, there is a huge inquest amongst the fans as to why the team was not getting the desired results. The conclusion was clear. The team were neither creating nor converting enough chances in the final third. Chelsea’s attack was simply too incoherent. At this point, Chelsea and Tuchel had a relatively kind run of fixtures to solve this problem, with their next eight games being against Southampton (twice), Brentford, Malmo (twice), Norwich, Newcastle and Burnley. I personally wanted Tuchel to try out a back four in these games. Little did I know the solution would come just by a slight tweak of his preferred back three system in the attacking phase.

The Malmo game came along. Chelsea picked up a 4-0 win, but it came at a cost of losing two of their recognized strikers in the shape of Romelu Lukaku and Timo Werner. This was cause for alarm, or was it? In the next game against Norwich, I began to notice something distinctively different about the way Chelsea attacked. Firstly, Ben Chilwell, a left wing back, was occupying central midfield positions more frequently than usual. He then began to make runs in behind Norwich’s centre backs. Reece James, the right wing back, began to arrive in and around the opposition box more than usual. And this time it was not just to provide an overlapping option for the cross into the box, it was to get on the end of attacking moves. The pair caused Norwich all sorts of problems, and both fittingly got on the scoresheet.

Thomas Tuchel has taken a move right out of the Pep Guardiola playbook. The use of inverted fullbacks. Not only has he replicated perfectly, but he has given it an even greater attacking edge. The whole concept of full backs coming infield is one that has been fascinating for many tactical observers in the world of football.

Firstly, it’s implementation by Tuchel means Chelsea are able to attack with five players, which would mean a numerical advantage would exist if they face teams with a back four. However the beauty is not only in the numbers, but the effects of varied movement. With James and Chilwell originally starting as wingbacks, it is very much impossible to mark them, and on most occasions track their runs, because who marks defenders outside of set piece situations? Also, as they advance through the half spaces in the forward areas, they are able to attract the attention of opposition defenders, hence creating space out wide or in behind for the attackers to exploit.

In the game against Leicester, it was clear that Hakim Ziyech had much more time in the wide areas to play his game and create chances. This was all thanks to the threatening in field movement of James. On the opposite side of the field, Callum Hudson-Odoi also had similar joy, because of the positions Chilwell was able to take up centrally and occasionally out wide as there were many positional rotations amongst the attacking five players. It was an absolute joy to watch. Chelsea played liquid football.

With the two wingbacks, Tuchel has been able to introduce a threat that really cannot be prepared for. Defending against Chelsea’s new attacking structure is asking teams to literally pick their own poison. Do they allow James and Chilwell to pose danger freely in their halves as they try to stop the front three? Or do they try to stifle the two wingbacks, consequently leaving one attacker free in behind or with space out wide?

This is the football equivalent of a checkmate, and Thomas Tuchel deserves massive credit for making this slight tweak.

Written by Kwabena Budu (@kwabenzz)

Edited by Tom Coley (@tomcoley49)

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