LONDON — Thomas Tuchel is not one of Chelsea’s most expensive signings, but he showed in Sunday’s 3-0 Premier League win at Tottenham that he is rapidly becoming one of the club’s best.
The leap in stamina required from Champions League winners to Premier League title contenders requires precisely the sort of managerial acumen Tuchel delivered to turn a tight game into a comfortable win.
Of course, it helps when a player with the calibre of N’Golo Kante is at your disposal off the bench as a half-time substitute with the game goalless, but Tuchel sensed an opportunity by taking off Mason Mount and adjusting his 3-4-2-1 system in an intervention from which Spurs never recovered.
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Few Chelsea managers have embraced the game’s ruthless culture like Tuchel. After a brutal sacking at Paris Saint-Germain last year — on Christmas Eve, no less — he is acutely aware of the nature at clubs built remorselessly for success. As such, the 48-year-old has the enthusiasm of someone not interested in waiting to win, shunning talk of longevity to revel in the here and now.
Against Tottenham, he came, he saw, he substituted. Tuchel spent much of the first half on his feet in the visitors’ technical area, visibly frustrated at poor decision-making in the final third. Some of the scrambled thinking was due to Tottenham’s relentless early press, which harassed Chelsea’s back three and central midfield duo into mistakes that encouraged a raucous home crowd.
Mount was a particular focus of Tuchel’s ire, notably midway through the opening period when checking back to retain possession rather than risking a drive forward to maintain a counter-attack. This followed an earlier instance when delaying his pass to Romelu Lukaku blunted another breakaway.
It was, nevertheless, a surprise that Mount was replaced at the interval, even if it marked the second successive weekend on which Tuchel has made a half-time change following Saul Niguez’s dreadful debut against Aston Villa. Perhaps, though, most important was the message he sent.
“It seemed we changed the system but we just played it with more belief, more energy, more quality, sharper,” Tuchel said. “It was simply too sloppy and not sharp enough in the first half. We relied too much on our skillful play in the first half. We forgot to bring the right attitude and energy to this game.
“This had to change and, well, if you have N’Golo on the bench and you want to step up in these parts of the game, it’s the best player to bring on because he is unique and can change any momentum,” the Chelsea manager continued.
“So the change appeared to be, in terms of characteristics, a bit more defensive but we wanted to improve our compactness, ball wins, and spirit as a team.” The impact was almost immediate. The reshuffle in midfield saw Kante operate slightly deeper than Mount, giving Chelsea a better chance of escaping the Tottenham press. Within four minutes of the second period beginning, the away side was ahead.
Marcus Alonso had just had a brilliant volley tipped over by Spurs goalkeeper Hugo Lloris, but the left wing-back’s subsequent corner found an unmarked Thiago Silva to plant a header into the net. It was the standout moment in another fine display by the Brazilian defender, who turns 37 next week.
Chelsea were frustrated in their pursuit of Sevilla’s Jules Kounde over the summer, opting not to pay the centre-back’s €80 million release clause despite Kurt Zouma joining West Ham, but that decision can be vindicated by their remaining defenders excelling as Silva did here, defying a mismatch in pace with Son Heung-Min Son through exquisite positioning and commanding a reasonably high defensive line.
Kante, meanwhile, is hardly renowned for his goal scoring — his strike, which took a wicked deflection off Eric Dier, was only his 12th goal in more than 200 appearances for Chelsea — but the space he was afforded to line up his shot was further evidence of how Tuchel’s tweak, with Mateo Kovacic, shifted slightly to the left, scrambled the home side.
Two goals in eight minutes ended the game as a contest. Spurs manager Nuno Espirito Santo had been brave in his team selection and Spurs began with tremendous energy despite a Thursday trip to Rennes, but Kepa Arrizabalaga, deputising in goal for the absent Edouard Mendy, was not truly tested and Nuno then failed to react as the game changed around him.
Mitigation can be found in his limited options and the risks he took in sending out a patched-up Dier and two of the three players who spent the week training in Croatia after breaching regulations to play in South American World Cup qualifying, Cristian Romero and Giovani Lo Celso.
This was only Nuno’s eighth game in charge, something he hinted at after the game when citing “a lack of time for us to work together,” but while such comparisons should be riddled with caveats, Tuchel won six, drew two and kept five clean sheets in the same period, while also implementing a clear shift in ideology.
Moreover, while Chelsea were typically clinical in replacing club legend Frank Lampard in January, Tottenham chased a plethora of dead-ends and changed their minds on at least one occasion before settling on Nuno as the full-time successor to Jose Mourinho. Improvement is required quickly, not least in the context of Harry Kane’s desire to be elsewhere.
An afternoon that began united in grief over the passing of Jimmy Greaves, one of the game’s greatest goalscorers and prolific for both Tottenham and Chelsea, ended with a huge gulf between the two sides, which tees up the Blues for next Saturday’s clash with champions Manchester City and leaves Nuno with mounting questions to answer ahead of the following day’s North London derby against Arsenal.
“Tottenham Hotspur, it’s happened again,” sang the travelling Chelsea fans after another victory against their old rivals. This time, they had Tuchel to thank.