Chelsea's champions league glory: Inside Thomas Tuchel's triumph and the story within
|Ceaser Azpilicueta lifts the trophy aloft after a great performance at the Estadio Do Gradao stadium on Saturday. (Photo credit: Getty Images)
There’s a conversation around how Lampard feels about his sacking and the players that didn’t come through, he’ll look back in retrospect, if he’s got any iota of conscience, he’ll send a thank you note to Roman Abrahamovic for firing him when he did, especially if indeed he’s a true Chelsea fan…
Twist it how you will, Chelsea are the champions of Europe,
Thomas Tuchel is an elite coach and Roman Abrahamovic is the best owner you can
wish for. I said what I said.
Four months into the job and Thomas Tuchel already has a
champions league winners’ medal, a taste of the FA Cup final and he had to do
this by only working with a single-player he’s worked with in recent past,
Thiago Silva, no excuses, not complaints.
His qualities came to the fore during the build-up to
Saturday night’s contest against Manchester City in Porto, a game which very
few experts across Europe expected them to win.
“It was a masterclass in preparation from start to finish,”
and going further, “Tuchel played on the fact so many people were talking about
Manchester City lifting the trophy. Throughout the week he used it to motivate
the players. He knew that the ‘underdog’ tag worked for them.”
Evaluating Chelsea, Manchester City and the Champions League
For the vast majority of the Chelsea squad, it was the
biggest game of their lives. Self-belief may have been dented by losing three
of their previous four matches, including the FA Cup final against Leicester
City, but there was little sign of tension within the camp.
Another insider continues: “He handled the players
perfectly. After battling on three fronts from the moment he took over, he knew
what the group needed. The atmosphere was kept light throughout.
“Many of them were exhausted after an intense schedule. So
what does he do? After the final Premier League game of the season against
Aston Villa, he made the Monday a very light recovery session. The players were
back home by early in the afternoon and were also given the Tuesday off.
It gave people the chance to rest their bodies, catch up on
some sleep, just forget about Chelsea for a while. Man management at its peak,
no one was talking about the embarrassing defeat to Villa, no one had time to
discuss Azpilicueta’s red card, recover and return, nothing more.
“A vivid example, one of the senior players just spent the
day in his house watching the odd film. It worked wonders. He came back on the
Wednesday so refreshed. It was just what he needed.
“Obviously, the intensity was stepped up in training,
particularly in the last session on the Thursday before they flew out (to
Portugal). But again, once the team got out there, Tuchel just tried to keep it
as fun as possible around the hotel and so on.
“You could see in the final session on the pitch at the
Estadio do Dragao how many players were smiling. You wouldn’t know they had
such a massive match ahead of them. They were there to enjoy it, not be
intimidated by the size of the occasion.”
Tuchel’s impact won’t come as a surprise to those who have
operated under him before, or those who have witnessed what he’s done at Chelsea
since replacing Frank Lampard on January 26.
Just so we’re clear, it’s not the first time the Blues are
winning the trophy, in fact they had more people trusting them to win this than
the one Roberto Di Matteo led them to in 2012, but the story is slightly
different, not by the size of the opponents but by the aura of the occasion and
the fine lines within.
Whether you’re speaking to someone who has worked with
Tuchel in the past or a member of the victorious Chelsea dressing room now, a
common theme emerges: the German knows how to inspire.
This Chelsea squad is a blend of personalities. Some players are more vocal than others and there is always a danger in this scenario for the quieter members to become a bit neglected, especially when there’s a change of coach.
Reece James does his talking on the pitch. Off it, he is
quite quiet and reserved. The departure of Lampard and his influential
assistant Jody Morris sparked concern among the academy graduates who had been
promoted under them into the Chelsea squad.
Tuchel’s decision to go with an experienced side in his
opening fixture against Wolves — the only homegrown youngster in the starting
XI that night was Callum Hudson-Odoi — only added to those fears.
But it’s the only encounter James has sat out under the
German, the defender featuring in 29 of his 30 games in charge. James was
already a player of some promise, but he’s taken his game onto another level
with Tuchel in charge.
It is clear who he wants to credit, too. “The coach wants me
to believe in myself more and believe that I can become one of the best in the
world,” James explains to The Athletic. “He gives me a lot of coaching advice,
on game situations, how and where I can do better. On some occasions I get
shown clips, and on others we just have a conversation face-to-face.
Bring it down to the streets of Lagos and social media, the
feeling at first was that of a pregnant woman, everyone was cautious, the new
manager bounce will always prove the difference but for how long?
Not many expected differently on the result fronts, his
first game in charge was a goalless draw and fans of Frank Lampard were already
waiting to pounce, but things went north immediately and everything simmered
into the base of the vase like the morning water, the story begins from there.
“He is definitely a friendly guy but when he is serious, he
is obviously very serious. When we are not playing well, he is not afraid or
scared to tell us.
“Does it help knowing he has managed some of the best
players in the world at Paris Saint-Germain in Neymar and Kylian Mbappe? Yes,
of course. It’s obviously great when a new manager comes in that he has managed
the highest clubs and such big players as well — world-class stars. It helps
the team (and) the players.”
The team selection for that Wolves game was always going to
attract a lot of scrutinies. Newly-appointed Tuchel decided on his line-up on the
short flight from Paris to London with his assistants Zsolt Low, Arno Michels
and Benjamin Weber the day before the match.
There was little time to formulate a plan for facing Nuno
Espirito Santo’s men, why should he overanalyze it? He looked at the pool and
made a safe selection, it was the simplest of tasks, the draw wasn’t what the
impatient ones wanted but it helped Tuchel to make future decisions.
A few players had uncertainties, one of them was Andreas
Christensen, he had a good run at some points under Lampard, new manager, new
favourites, lots of agitations;
It meant that, when meeting the Chelsea players for the
first time, several awkward chats were held regarding who was and who was not
going to feature against Wolves 24 hours later. Christensen was another one to
miss out although, unlike James, he wasn’t even named on the bench.
“It didn’t start great,” the Dane admits to The Athletic. “I
wasn’t in the squad but he came to me straight away and said that he’d just got
there and it was hard to change something. He kind of had the team in mind that
he was going to play just because of that. But he said, ‘After that, you just
have to prove yourself’. I worked hard and he kept true to that word.
“Did I like the fact he pulled me to one side? Yes,
especially in that moment, because I had been out of the team for so long. You
kind of hope a new manager means a new start, so not being in the first squad
is a tough one because you think it’s just going to be the same.
“That talk was very important for me, just so I’d personally
not become completely depressed or not work hard in training, being the victim
instead of working hard to get back in the team. That was important for me to
go forward. For me personally, it’s (playing under Tuchel) been great. I’ve
been getting a bit of confidence back.”
There was a bigger story from the first selection, though.
Mason Mount, probably the youngster most synonymous with Lampard’s regime and
his captain against Luton Town in the FA Cup for the former manager’s final
game a few days earlier, was only picked as a substitute.
It is understood Mount didn’t take kindly to the news. As he
stood there with a couple of team-mates who were also being omitted, the
midfielder spoke up, making it clear to Tuchel that he wasn’t too enamoured with
the decision and was determined to prove his worth.
There was a bit of an exchange between the pair and it was
the talk of the training ground. Journalists were already heading to the mill
with juicy stories of unrest, Tuchel is a hothead, he is opinionated and will
not give much hoot about a young lad that wants to play so badly.
However, instead of viewing it as an early challenge to his
authority or a lack of respect, Tuchel liked what he saw and was hearing from
the 22-year-old. There were no grudges, but an early understanding and bond
forged. Mount has been a regular ever since.
The more experienced statesmen have been key as well. Take
captain Cesar Azpilicueta, who was being increasingly phased out by Lampard at
age 31 but has been a mainstay for Tuchel.
He was crucial on Saturday night, cutting out Phil Foden’s
cross and clearing it over the bar midway through the second half. Had that
gotten to the other end for a simple tap in by Ilkay Gundogan, we’d probably be
talking about City today.
“Of course his arrival was important for me,” says
Azpilicueta. ”From day one, we had an important bond. He laid out what role he
wanted me to play in the team from his very first day and very first team talk.
He made it very clear what he wanted, where we could hurt the opponent and
where we could improve. Since then, we have improved and that’s been key.
“He shares responsibility. He made it very clear what he
wanted from me as a captain. We always had very honest conversations.”
Antonio Rudiger is another veteran who was barely used by
Lampard. The Englishman had a change of heart in the final few weeks before he
was fired and brought the Germany center-half back into the fold, but it didn’t
bring the upturn in results that was required.
Before the recall, Rudiger and Lampard weren’t even on
talking terms, they don’t see eyeball to eyeball and the World Cup winner was
on the January transfer list, had Lampard saw out January, Rudiger maybe wouldn’t
be a Chelsea player at the start of February.
It helped that Tuchel had tried to sign Rudiger for Paris
Saint-Germain the summer before. The 28-year-old felt wanted and respected by
his new manager and when he joined Chelsea, Tuchel made it clear how important
Rudiger was going to be, both on the pitch and as one of his leaders.
It is no coincidence he has been in the best form of his
Chelsea career over the past few months. We’ll talk about the part where he
took out Kevin De Bruyne later, the present discussion is about the ruggedness,
timely interventions and aerial prowess, he was instrumental at the Estadio Do
Significantly, when Rudiger was involved in an altercation
with goalkeeper Kepa Arrizabalaga at the training ground last month, Tuchel
stood by him, in private and publicly. While not happy about the incident — he
ended the German’s involvement in the session early — he spoke to Rudiger on a
couple of occasions after he had made peace with Kepa.
When questions were being asked about it at the next press
conference, Tuchel played it down and backed his man. Again, that show of
support didn’t go unnoticed. Let rainfall in the summer and fire during
winter, where do you think Rudiger’s loyalty would lie?
The likes of Tammy Abraham — who was not even named on the
bench for the Champions League final — and Emerson will probably not agree, but
insiders suggest that Kepa’s involvement sent out the biggest message of all
that anyone could feature.
Edouard Mendy has kept his role as the first-choice keeper
but Kepa has started seven times for Tuchel, including in the FA Cup final;
another player that was headed for the exit door, you can bet the players
frozen out don’t have much to offer anyways…
A source explains: “In the first weeks, he (Tuchel) was so
open, to really give every player a chance. That’s why he has the whole squad
behind him, even the goalkeeping situation. It was a surprise for many that he
played both of them, but it was great for the whole team’s mentality, the
It meant that in training, even if someone wasn’t involved
in the previous match, in their minds, they felt there was a possibility they
could get in the team again.
“Kepa’s situation was really difficult, especially mentally.
An expensive transfer (Chelsea paid Athletic Bilbao £71.6 million, a world
record at his position, in 2018) and I don’t think anyone expected he’d get so
many games and so many minutes under Tuchel.
For a goalkeeper, it is even more special for an outfield
player. That showed a lot to everyone — that there is no player who isn’t under
consideration. It motivated every player in every single training session.
“Tuchel didn’t just speak to them about football either.
He’d really get to know them, talk about their personal lives and their
upbringings, to get a flavour of their personalities and what makes them the men
Mateo Kovacic’s demotion under Lampard was perhaps one of
the most startling, given the midfielder had been one of the most influential
performers last season. Tuchel quickly got him back involved.
“He came in and, from the first minute, the players felt a
great connection with him,” Kovacic said of his new manager in the build-up to
the Champions League final. “That’s from the first minute and first game. It
was like he was here for two years and everything came quite naturally. We
understood his way of play, approached his way of playing and understood each
“I think the team changed (in) how we approach the games: we
were more confident and solid at the back. We didn’t concede hardly anything in
the last months since he came, so we have been quite solid. We were playing
with confidence, so I think he changed a lot. I think this team will only get
Perhaps Tuchel’s ability to communicate with someone as
conservative as Reece James isn’t that astounding.
His coaching career began working with youngsters at
Stuttgart and then Augsburg. His reputation grew quickly and he was hired by
Bundesliga outfit Mainz to run their under-19s in 2008. Such was his impact, he
was the club’s senior coach 12 months later, succeeding a certain Jurgen
“He could read the opposition and their game. He’d say,
‘This is where they’re vulnerable’. And he was always right. He gave us
specific instructions and also the means to put them into practice, by doing
certain things in training, like playing on a banana-shaped pitch, cutting off
the corners. At first, you think, ‘What’s that about?’ But after a while, you
see there’s a plan behind it because it forced you to do specific things that
were helpful in the game.
Pep Guardiola, the man Tuchel has just deprived of the third
Champions League crown of his coaching career was the manager he looked up to
from a very early stage, once pausing a documentary on the Spaniard for two
hours while sitting on the Mainz team bus to study a graph showing Barcelona’s
Obviously, he had his own ideas too, but the desire to
emulate his mentor was obvious. Defender Jan Kirchhoff got to play for both of
them, having been in Mainz’s under-19s and then first-team under Tuchel and
then having a season with Guardiola at Bayern Munich.
“Tuchel’s ideal was Guardiola’s Barcelona football,”
Kirchhoff confirms. “He wanted to play in a similar way but he was, of course,
realistic about Mainz’s abilities. There’s so much value in knowing the quality
in your team, maybe Mikel Arteta missed this particular memo trying to make
Arsenal who they aren’t.
Kirchoff said of Tuchel – “We were a pretty good footballing side, on our terms; we wanted to have the ball and build from the back. We honed our game by practising many rondos (drills where one group of players has the ball with overload advantage — so three versus one or four against two, for example — over another group of players) and doing positional exercises but he also taught us how to funnel the opposition into the right spaces when we didn’t have the ball. We’d leave specific areas open and set traps for them. Against some of the best teams, he didn’t mind playing strictly counter-attack football.
“We talked at length about what we needed to do to beat a
specific side and very often, things we had practised or prepared for in video
analysis played out exactly like that on the pitch.
“He is very emotional on the touchline, because he expects
so much of you. I never found that a burden. Extraordinarily good coaches like
him or Guardiola are very intense, that’s part of the deal. They live and
breathe football, and that attitude transmits to the team.
They want to do everything well, and that creates a strong
feel for the collective — everybody wants to give their all, every day, every
game. That’s why teams immediately get better once he starts working with
There’s a conversation about how Lampard feels about his
sacking and the players that didn’t come through, he’ll look back in retrospect,
if he’s got any iota of conscience, he’ll send a thank you note to Roman
Abrahamovic for sacking him when he did, especially if indeed he’s a true