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.”
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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 Gradao.
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 motivation.
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 they are.”
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 other.
“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 better.”
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 Norbert Klopp.
“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 passing patterns.
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 them.”
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 Chelsea fan…