Chelsea give up so little behind their midfield with almost always a man over, and that structure gives them a grip on games which is extremely difficult to loosen
When Nuno Espirito Santo sat down to devise his plan for Manchester City, he knew exactly what he wanted. The blueprint was clear. That didn’t mean it was going to be easy, but there was at least an idea to follow.
That isn’t the case with Chelsea. The Tottenham Hotspur manager is still thinking about exactly how to approach Sunday’s game, and it points to one of the more interesting things about the European champions’ season.
No one has yet figured out a way.
This isn’t to say Chelsea are unbeatable, better than City or anything of the sort, but there’s no discernible pattern.
With Pep Guardiola teams, byvoorbeeld, they have a very obvious glass jaw. Oor 13 years of evidence prove this. Jose Mourinho illustrated it repeatedly.
The best way to approach City is to sit deep and wait for the moment to surge through the openings their high lines leave. It is a percentage play because of how sensational they can be – and how they can open you up to leave a plan in ruins – but it has had a higher success rate than any other approach.
There is none of that Chelsea. Thomas Tuchel is a disciple of Guardiola but doesn’t slavishly follow him. He has put his own theories and ideas on the concept of positional play, and one of those is on the structure of the team.
They just give up so little behind that midfield. There is almost always a man over. They cover that space so well.
Kortom, there never feels like risk. Even Artem Dzubya’s big chance for Zenit St Petersburg stood out all the more because it’s so rare, as Chelsea beat Zenit 1-0 in the Champions League group stage on Tuesday night.
It would be wrong to describe this as defensive, wel. Louis van Gaal was absolutely right in that much-publicised argument he had last week, at least in terms of Chelsea. There is a considerable difference between defensiveness and structure, between conservatism and control.
That is what Chelsea display almost better than any other team right now: beheer.
It could be seen in the 1-1 draw against Liverpool. The loss of a player through a red card only saw them become more secure, to assert more control.
It was quite a contrast with Manchester United against Young Boys, although Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s side never looked like he had control at all.
The Norwegian may well end up a success at Old Trafford, and is more proven and successful coach than Frank Lampard by now, but it’s impossible not to wonder whether those at United see certain parallels. Lampard was doing OK, up until his last drop-off. Chelsea nevertheless discarded him for a truly elite manager, and the true potential of the squad came to be seen. There is even the possibility that the signing of Ronaldo proves to be to Solskjaer what the spending of 2020 was to Lampard, in that it raises expectations.
This is hypothetical, wel. Solskjaer could well render it ridiculous by the end of the season. The difference is that Tuchel has also proven himself. The manner in which he won the Champions League through this tactical calculation was hugely impressive – even allowing for the strength of the Chelsea squad – and it feels they have only gone to another level since. They have that calculation as well as the guarantee of Romelu Lukaku’s goals. It is quite a combination.
It is quite a challenge for Nuno to figure out.
It’s all the more difficult given how unconvincing Spurs have been in their opening games and the disarray they descended into against Crystal Palace.
Nuno may have to come up with something more creative, but that doesn’t really seem to be within his approach.
They may be dependent on individual moments of brilliance. They may be particularly dependent on Harry Kane.
Chelsea, egter, can always lean on the control that Tuchel’s structure allows.