Inside Thomas Tuchel's Champions League triumph at Chelsea - Part 2
|Roman Abramovich would look back at his decision to fire Frank Lampard and hire Thomas Tuchel and go on to reward himself with a new Rolex watch. (Photo credit: UCL)|
Tuchel was at the Mainz helm for five years, taking the relative minnows to as high as fifth in 2010-11. Despite the lack of budget, their lowest finish was 13th in the 18-team Bundesliga on two occasions, never really threatened for the drop, that was phenomenal.
There’s something different about Tuchel’s training method, the intensity is next to none but there’s also a fair level of flexibility which brings to cognizance each player’s peculiarities, there are methods for every player, this is special.
“For me, it’s been good. It’s taken me back a little to the Germany days (when he was on loan at Borussia Monchengladbach between 2015-17), which I enjoyed a lot. – Kirchoff continued.
“In what way? Obviously the language and the way he shouts on the pitch. You guys (media) can see he is very passionate on the sidelines. Also, just the things we are trying to do are more ‘German’. It’s hard to explain but it’s the feeling you get, and it is good for me personally.”
Another practice Tuchel is still using that Kirchhoff experienced is training with smaller footballs. The Chelsea players were first pictured working with them ahead of Burnley’s visit in January.
“Probably one of the strangest things he’s done, that none of us are used to, is playing with the small footballs,” James reveals. “That kind of confused us at first but we have done it quite a bit (since then).
“They were already out on the pitch before training started. There was a whole bag of them. The point of the exercise didn’t get explained, we just got told to play a game of football, but now it was with a small ball. We looked at each other for a few seconds and then just got on with it.
“Do things like this keep us on our toes? Yes, of course. Sometimes when you have the same routine and just keep doing the same things, it can be a bit boring. A change every so often does you good and keeps you thinking.”
“It’s all to do with the idea of implied learning,” Kirchhoff explains. “We didn’t learn by being told what to do but by doing it: by playing in very small spaces, for example. You got better at finding space and close control without realizing it at first. Thomas always pushed things a bit further.”
The days of low budget and weird formations
Tuchel wanted his players to focus on their own development.
“Sometimes, he’d put up extracts from a newspaper article or a book in the dressing room, things he found interesting,” says Kirchhoff. “He often said it wasn’t about the result but the process.
By getting better every single day and going to the very limit of your ability to perform, you could affect your chances of getting a result.”
It shouldn’t be forgotten that Tuchel has had a point to prove.
He won four major trophies at PSG between 2018-20 and led them to their first Champions League final last August, in which they narrowly lost 1-0 to Bayern. One day shy of four months later, he was fired.
People close to Tuchel say his two and a half years working in Paris was key for his development as a coach.
Part of the reason why things had gone awry at previous club Borussia Dortmund was his insistence on almost total control over the professional life of his players, including a ban on eating refined carbohydrates.
The players’ favourite Italian foods were ditched from the menu and replaced by wholemeal pasta with lighter sauces.
How he was able to stop Chelsea players from eating cheese in London has to be studied and packaged as a masterclass crash course for the likes of Ryan Mason to study. (Just kidding)
In France, however, he took a much more relaxed approach.
There was no point telling Neymar he could only eat wholemeal pasta. Tuchel understood quickly that some battles were not worth fighting and concentrated on team building instead.
Appointing assistant Zsolt Low was key in that regard: the 42-year-old Hungarian, who had played under Tuchel at Mainz, is the kind of good-natured, easy-going guy who builds up a genuine rapport with everyone in the dressing room.
Tuchel had analysed his own shortcomings when it came to forming deep emotional connections with players and concluded that he needed somebody to foster that bond for him.
Low’s personable style helped Tuchel handle what can be a difficult dressing room.
A few testimonials as Chelsea found the perfect mix
Former Bayern technical director Michael Reschke tells The Athletic: “Thomas has learned a lot from his experience in Paris, when he worked with players who couldn’t be fully integrated into a system. You can’t tell Neymar or Mbappe precisely how they should play. Thomas had to adjust and become a bit less dogmatic.
“Zsolt Low also plays a key role. He’s a guy able to connect to everyone at an emotional level. It’s a sign of strength to trust those around you and pick strong people to work alongside you.”
In a strange way, the pandemic has made things easier for Tuchel and his staff.
They’re all in London, living in the same hotel near both Stamford Bridge and the club’s training ground in Surrey, talking football all the time.
There have been no distractions because their families still reside in Paris and there is no time lost doing anything else.
There was also nowhere to go until things opened up again last month.
One member of Tuchel’s staff joked that he went to bed in his club tracksuit each night to save himself a few minutes the next morning.
But that total focus on the job enabled the Chelsea head coach and his team to hit the ground running in London and get a lot done very quickly.
But when it came to the final itself, it was a family affair for Tuchel.
He was joined in the team hotel by his wife and two children.
There is a suspicion that it was the first time he had seen his kids since January.
To make the occasion complete, his parents made the journey to see their son’s greatest moment.
There were doubts from everywhere else, many thought this was City’s year as Chelsea's form can also be questioned as they lost three of their last four, of the three reverse results.
None was expected to go against the Blues, not Arsenal, not Leicester at the Cup final and certainly not Aston Villa.
Having 29 fixtures in 113 days is still not straightforward though, especially with the pressure of every single one feeling like a must-win match.
While showing tension at times on the sidelines, behind the scenes Tuchel has largely kept his cool.
There was a lot of criticism in the team meeting following a shock 5-2 home loss to relegation-bound West Bromwich Albion on April 3 and he was furious in the post-match press conference following the 1-0 defeat against Arsenal at the Bridge two weeks ago.
However, as one source puts it: “He wasn’t going to kill everyone or deflate them. He knows how to lose it now and then, but he doesn’t walk into the dressing room smashing doors and throwing teacups.
“He stayed very positive, even when Chelsea lost games towards the end of the season. When Chelsea lost against Aston Villa on the final day (last Sunday), he knew the players’ minds were on the Champions League final. He stayed upbeat about everything. He pulls players aside telling them, ‘We have big games coming up, you’re special, I’m relying on you. I need this, I need that’.”
Chelsea's run-in approach
Over the run-in, the modus operandi has been not to dwell on a game if it’s gone wrong and not be distracted by the prospect of a Champions League final either.
“To be honest, (until the week beforehand) it was like we hadn’t reached the Champions League final yet,“ Christensen adds. “For him, it was very important to get top four in the Premier League and qualify for next season’s competition.
Obviously, he would have hoped that we’d done it earlier (rather than on the final day, despite that defeat at Villa) so we could start mentally preparing for it. But for us, it’s been so important, especially after losing the FA Cup final, to get in that top four, so it wasn’t really something we were thinking about before the Champions League final.
“There was a point where we had two cup games in a row (Porto in the second leg of their Champions League quarter-final, then an FA Cup semi against Manchester City) and he wanted to split that from the Premier League. He said, ‘The Premier League is done now. We have two games in other competitions. Let’s do that, then that, and after that, we get back to the Premier League.”
In front of the cameras, Tuchel has maintained his composure, for the most part.
His Champions League final pre-match press conference was the epitome of calm and he reacted to every question with respect and provided a considered response.
The hurt that remained fresh – Tuchel and Champions League
Losing to Bayern in the final last year with PSG hurt.
When Chelsea defeated Real Madrid earlier this month to book their place in this season’s final, Tuchel waited until he thought everyone had left Stamford Bridge before showing his heartfelt emotion, walking out into the middle of the pitch and let out a huge roar.
He definitely saved the best till last.
Every decision was spot on, none more so than starting the goal-scoring hero Kai Havertz.
But as Chelsea hung on to their one-goal advantage, they were driven on by the man on the touchline.
Tuchel also took every opportunity to rally the Chelsea fans inside the stadium to get behind the team.
It was extraordinary to behold.
It was a perfect time for the fans to meet him again – after the failed attempt at Wembley.
Roman Abramovich, again has to be the best owner the fans can hope for, it’s awkward having to get used to new faces, he doesn’t care so much about majority of the players.
It’s always down to the manager for him, after all it’s easier to change one manager than 22 players.
Had Lampard still been in charge, would Chelsea win the champions league?
Will Chelsea make it into the top four and reach the FA Cup final?
Sentiments and emotions are for the weak, brutal honesty offers more good than we know.
Abramovich took out his beloved club legend, the rest is history, and should Lampard be true to his love for Chelsea, he should send a thank you message to the Russian for the boot he got.
Chelsea will now plan for the new season, as the champions of Europe.
Jose Mourinho couldn’t achieve this over two spells, the trio of Luis Felipe Scolari, Carlo Ancelotti and Antonio Conte tried in vain.
We can point at the 2012 triumph of Di Matteo, but no one will associate luck to the 2021 success, no one had to miss a penalty for Chelsea to win.
“He believes in us,” James concludes, “that we can win many trophies and titles together. As time goes on and we get stronger as a team, we can definitely achieve that.”
One hell of a eye-opener for everyone involved at Chelsea.
Information sources: The Athletic and Reuters