Tuchel’s tweaks: How small adjustments play a big role

The arrival of Thomas Tuchel at Stamford Bridge has shown us how a competent manager can transform a side deep down the dark abyss into Champions League winners. The call for better defenders has been answered by improving the defensive structure, the spaces on the defensive transition have been minimized by utilizing a better rest-defense shape, the pressing and counterpressing have both improved, and despite the issues with chance conversion, the team has a clear structure when moving forward.

Written by Ahmed Walid.

All of the above meant that Chelsea who were sitting in tenth place in the Premier League when Tuchel came in, finished the season as fourth in the league, FA Cup finalist and Champions League winners. 

Yet, there is still another aspect of Chelsea’s improvement that wasn’t mentioned and that is Tuchel’s in-game tweaks. As England showcased during the last World Cup and Euros, only having a defined setup without the necessary means to adapt in-game might not be enough sometimes. The opponent can surprise you with their plan, or a player might get sent off. The list of events potentially upsetting a game plan is endless. Having the ability to do to right in-game tweaks and do them quickly makes you prepared for the unexpected, and that is one of the things that are giving Chelsea an edge this season.

Plugging the midfield

The game that should light a bulb over your head right now is the away win against Tottenham Hotspur. A game of two of halves for Chelsea where after they were pressed and dominated in midfield in the first, before rampaging through Tottenham in the second. However, the switch did not come at half-time as one might expect, it came before that.

After 33 minutes, Tuchel’s side were toyed with in the center of the pitch as the dynamic movement of Harry Kane, Giovani Lo Celso, Dele Alli and Tanguy Ndombele created gaps in the Chelsea block and overloaded When one team has more players in a certain area or zone than the other team. Mateo Kovacic and Jorginho in midfield. Tuchel’s solution was to move away from the 5-2-1-2/5-2-3 shape out of possession to a 5-3-2 shape by dropping Mason Mount to create a trio in midfield alongside Kovačić and Jorginho. 

The switch meant that Kane’s movement no longer resulted in forcing Jorginho out of position as Mount became the one on the right side of midfield now. And with Jorginho in the middle of Mount and Kovačić, Lo Celso could no longer move inside from the right side to play behind Chelsea’s midfield. The slight tweak solidified Chelsea in the center of the pitch and the half-time substitution adding N’Golo Kanté to the mixture only made it harder for Tottenham.

Ten men defense

The Spurs game is not the only example that springs to mind. Earlier in the season, another Tuchel tweak made it a lot harder for Liverpool to score against ten men Chelsea. After Reece James got sent off towards the end of the first half, Tuchel maintained his back five by introducing Thiago Silva instead of Kai Havertz while Kovacic replaced the injured Kanté and Chelsea dropped deep into a 5–3–1 shape.

As Jurgen Klopp explained after the game, Chelsea decreased the number of players up the pitch and the shape dropped deeper than the first half. The interesting part though was how Jorginho moved horizontally across the pitch to hold Liverpool’s threat from the wing area and the channels. When the ball was on Chelsea’s left side he moved there to match Liverpool in a four-versus-four scenario when Diogo Jota roamed to support Liverpool’s right side.

The same situation happened on the other side of the pitch. Note Jorginho’s presence in the right channel to support Mount, Cesar Azpilicueta and Thiago Silva. This matches up well against the advanced Fabinho, Jordan Henderson, Andy Robertson and Sadio Mané – who is out of the picture here, coming back from an offside position.

This type of initial positioning from Jorginho inside Chelsea’s defensive structure allowed the wide center back to move out with Mohamed Salah or Mané, while the other two center-backs were positioned centrally inside the box in case Robertson or Trent Alexander-Arnold managed to put in a cross. The gap in between was filled by Jorginho. On the right side….

…..as well as the left side. Here, Jorginho’s role allows Antonio Rüdiger to move out and mark Harvey Elliot, leaving Andreas Christensen and Thiago Silva to deal with any aerial threat. The gap in between Ruediger and the other two center-backs is filled by the dropping Jorginho.

When Salah plays the pass into Alexander-Arnold, the option of Mané is covered by the dropping Jorginho, which allows Silva and Christensen to stay central, thus covering the other option which is a cross into the box. The lack of options for Alexander-Arnold forces him into a more difficult pass in behind Rüdiger, which the German defender manages to clear into a corner kick.

Jorginho’s alertness to dropping into that right channel allowed the wide center –backs to be more aggressive towards the touchline, as they knew there was cover behind and that centrally the aerial threat was also covered because the other two center backs kept their positioning and did not need to shift across.

By tweaking the approach at half-time to accommodate the loss of James, Tuchel managed to limit Liverpool’s chances in the second half. Jorginho’s horizontal movement maintained a four-versus-four balance out wide and the occupation of the gap between the wide center-back and the other two center-backs by the same player, allowed the wide center-back to be more aggressive against Salah or Mané. Meanwhile, it also meant that the other two central defenders did not need to shift across, maintaining their central position in the box in case a cross came in.

Forcing the issue

And then last Saturday Tuchel and his staff struck again. After a first half where they dominated Southampton using wing-back-to-wide-player combinations between Timo Werner and Azpilicueta on the right and Callum Hudson-Odoi and Ben Chilwell on the left, Southampton changed shape, moving away from the 4-2-2-2 formation to a 5-2-3 shape to battle the Chelsea combinations out wide.

Now with Mohammed Salisu supporting Kyle Walker-Peters on the right, and Jan Bednarek supporting Tino Livramento on the left, the combinations out wide from Chelsea and the underlaps Underlap means that the full-back joins the offensive play by playing on the inside of the winger he supports. This is the reverse of an overlap, where the full-back plays on the outside and the winger moves inside. from Azpilicueta and Chilwell were nullified.

Tuchel’s response was to change from a 3-4-3 shape in possession to a 3-1-4-2 with two midfielders in the channels – Mount and Kovačić here. The effect of this change is that with two players upfront for Chelsea, Salisu and Bednarek would be more inclined to keep their positioning centrally and make it a three-versus-two situation, which would force Southampton’s wing-back in a two-versus-one situation in case Mount moved over to attack the space.

And that’s what happened in both Chelsea’s second and third goal on the day. In the buildup to Werner’s goal, Ross Barkley’s positioning attracts Bednarek….

……resulting in Salisu not being able to support the wide area or the channel because he has to mark Werner. This leaves Walker-Peters in a one-versus-two situation and the Southampton wing back chose to mark Mount, which left Azpilicueta completely open to receive an astonishing cross field ball from Barkley.

Azpilicueta’s technique was as good as the ball played into him, and Werner found the net to make it 2-1.

A couple of minutes later, Salisu again could not afford to move out to support Walker-Peters because of the number of players Chelsea have centrally. Mount saw the space and attacked it….

……before putting the ball on a plate for Romelu Lukaku to score the third but the Belgian uncharacteristically hit the post. A pinball followed, and Chilwell’s strike just went past the line to seal the game.

The switch in shape forced Southampton’s center backs to be narrower due to the central threat of Werner and Lukaku, and the usage of Mount in a midfield three to attack the space between Salisu and Walker-Peters resulted in Southampton’s wing back being isolated against Mount and Azpilicueta. Eventually, it brought Chelsea the win.

James Ward-Prowse’s sending off definitely affected the game, but even before the red card, Chelsea’s tweak in shape improved them in the second half. And Tuchel has shown us that even with ten men, if you are prepared, you can increase your chances to pass the storm.

After an enthralling game at Anfield between Liverpool and Manchester City, it’s now Chelsea who sit on top of the Premier League, one point clear of Liverpool. Tuchel’s tweaks have a big hand in that.

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