Thomas Tuchel had his instructions the day he walked into Stamford Bridge. Short-term, top four. Nobody expected title-winning miracles and the Champions League pairing with Atletico Madrid was a tough ask, too. But if he could steer Chelsea into the Champions League next season, it would be considered a fine start and a job well done.
Ten matches in and where are we? Chelsea are unbeaten and, on Thursday night, returned to the top four with a win at the home of the champions, Liverpool.
But there’s more: in his first round of matches Tuchel has beaten teams managed by Jose Mourinho, Diego Simeone and now Jurgen Klopp, away. It is Carlo Ancelotti next, then Marcelo Bielsa. Tuchel is working his way through the great minds of modern coaching, and emerging as the brains of the operation.
Thomas Tuchel as good as revealed his gameplan for beating Liverpool prior to the game
This was a fifth straight defeat at Anfield, and they haven’t won there since December 16
He outwitted Klopp on Thursday night and we know this because he made his intentions plain before the match.
Asked why Timo Werner was in the starting XI ahead of Olivier Giroud – Tammy Abraham seems way down the order these days – Tuchel as good as spelled out his game plan. Werner was included for his pace, he said. Liverpool play a very high line and this gave him a chance to get in behind them.
So, there it was if anyone from Liverpool was listening: ball over the top to Werner. And Tuchel was true to his word.
In being so, he offered another clue to Liverpool’s struggles this season. Injuries at centre back, obviously. The 15 central defensive partnerships in 26 Premier League matches, without doubt. Yet also, as often happens, teams get worked out. Their vulnerabilities are identified, picked apart: even the good ones.
Jurgen Klopp didn’t play down the significance, so cannot dismiss the seriousness of the loss
Leicester have a way of beating Manchester City. Sheffield United’s clever strategies, their overlapping centre-halves, have been pulled to pieces. And the champions? Well, even before the injury to Virgil van Dijk there were signs opponents increasingly knew how to get at them.
In the six games before that fateful day at Everton, they shipped 13 goals – including seven at Aston Villa and three to Leeds with Van Dijk in the team,
On Thursday night, it sounded, and looked, as if Tuchel had worked Liverpool out and he was very open about that.
He may be one of those people who can’t lie. Ask him a straight question and get a straight answer: like when he watched Kepa Arrizabalaga keep two clean sheets in succession, then immediately announced Edouard Mendy was the first-choice and would start the next game against Southampton. Which he did.
This was different. To state what his team would be doing to combat Liverpool suggests there is an obviousness about the champions’ frailty that is impossible to disguise and pointless to keep secret. In the tunnel, before emerging for the second-half, Tuchel could be seen giving instructions to his players. Never has the gesture for long, over the top been more nakedly demonstrated.
Timo Werner was in the team for his pace, he said, and the German was true to his word
It is amusing, really, how unselfconscious foreign coaches can be about direct football. Sean Dyche or Sam Allardyce caught giving similar orders would be decried as dinosaurs. Tuchel arrives with none of that baggage. When he tells Chelsea to go long, he does so without moral dilemma.
Fabio Capello, as England manager, would regularly implore his players to bombard the box if chasing the game. He wasn’t averse to introducing Kevin Davies, either.
Arsene Wenger once stated that Emmanuel Adebayor gave Arsenal the option of, as he put it, playing differently. Translation: putting it in the mixer. They didn’t do it often, but he wasn’t ashamed when they did.
Nor is Pep Guardiola when Ederson plays 60 yard passes to create goals. He bought a goalkeeper whose kick was the talk of Europe. This is no coincidence. Guardiola did not recruit a world class goalkeeper, who was then revealed to have a secret weapon. He knew exactly what he was getting with Ederson.
In being so direct, Tuchel offered a clue as to Liverpool’s struggles at centre back this season
Manchester City play the most delicate football on earth: the irony being they can also do primitive route one more expertly than any of their less sophisticated rivals, when it suits. Which, in a way, was what Chelsea did at Anfield.
It wasn’t Wimbledon at the original Plough Lane. It wasn’t Stoke. Chelsea can still mess it about at the back with the best of them. They still play a hundred short passes, sometimes infuriatingly so. And on Thursday night they were very brave in intricately working a way out of defence, taking great risks against Liverpool’s high press.
But, once free, these sequences often ended with a punt in behind a vulnerable Liverpool defence to Werner. And, quite often, if Werner had the patience to stay onside, it paid off. And no apologies from Tuchel. It wasn’t like you weren’t warned.
Never has the gesture for long, over the top been more nakedly demonstrated than by Tuchel
The win for Chelsea returns them to the top four, which was what Tuchel was employed to do
This was the first time he had beaten a Klopp team away, but that is no longer the surprise it once would have been. This is an unprecedented trot for Liverpool at Anfield – a run of five straight home defeats is uncharted territory for the club across its 128 years.
Indeed, if Liverpool beat RB Leipzig next Wednesday would it count as a home victory, even if it comes in Budapest at a venue that is only Liverpool’s home by virtue of UEFA’s nomination? They need it.
It was December 16 when Liverpool last won at Anfield, against Tottenham, and they went top that night. It looked ominous. Now, the worry is a league table that shows the champions divorced from the top four and just about clinging to Europa League status, in seventh place.
Klopp did not bother to play down the significance of this match, so cannot dismiss the seriousness of the outcome. There are good teams ahead of Liverpool, improving teams breathing down their neck. And Liverpool aren’t even the best team in Liverpool right now. Fulham visit Anfield next. It would have been considered a gimme. But so were Burnley, West Brom, Brighton and Everton, once.