It started with Jose Mourinho. Then came Diego Simeone, twice, followed by Jurgen Klopp, Carlo Ancelotti and recently Pep Guardiola.
Five of the sharpest coaching minds in European football, all outwitted by Thomas Tuchel since the German took over Chelsea in late January.
In fact, Tuchel’s side did not even concede a goal in their victories over Tottenham, Atletico Madrid, Liverpool, Everton and Manchester City in a three-month period in which Chelsea transformed from a shaky defensive side into arguably the strongest in Europe.
Ignoring the loss of statistics with 5-2 from West Bromwich Albion, when Chelsea played almost an hour with only 10 people due to the expulsion of Thiago Silva, and the team conceded only four goals in 20 games under Tuhel.
These are incredible numbers that underscore the task ahead of Real Madrid – and its own coach, Zinedine Zidane – heading to the Champions League semi-finals, starting on Tuesday when the first stage takes place in Spain.
“If it is not possible to play our best match, we can not allow the opponent to play his best match. That is also the definition of implementation, “Tuhel said on Monday.
“So we have a strong connection in the team, I feel like we’re very, very physically engaged in the games, ready to work together, to suffer together.”
Here’s what lies behind this reversal that helped Chelsea enter the FA Cup final, return to the Premier League four and reach the Champions League semi-finals for the first time since 2014:
IN THE COLD
Tuhel had only 24 hours with the team before taking the lead for his first game as Frank Lampard’s replacement, and he immediately decided to bring back two experienced defenders who were not in disfavor. Club captain Cesar Aspilicueta and Antonio Rudiger – strong, disciplined and meaningless defenders – started the 0-0 draw against Wolverhampton on January 27 and have been props ever since. The move to the back three saw Aspilicueta and Rudiger play on both sides of Thiago Silva, offering protection to the 36-year-old Brazilian, who is new to the English game after his move from Paris Saint-Germain and perhaps vulnerable to his relentless intensity. Even when Silva was absent and Andreas Christensen filled in the middle of the top three, the defensive structure was solid. “The most important thing is quality and commitment, doing the things that are needed,” Tuhel said. “Can I help cover my teammate when he faces a challenge?” Do I play my role and am I 100% reliable? Can defenders rely on midfielders? Can midfielders rely on strikers? This is clearly yes. “
The defense aid is Tuhel’s decision to place two deeper central midfielders as defenders. On Tuesday, it will be N’Golo Kante and Jorginho, with Mateo Kovacic injured. The two sitting midfielders rarely give up in front of the defense and cover both sides when the wings on the back – usually Ben Chillwell on the left and Reese James on the right – fall forward. It is a fixed structure that has helped strangle opponents and force them to play more widely. Even Manchester City struggled to create a clear chance at Wembley Stadium when Chelsea won 1-0 in the semi-finals of the FA Cup.
FLOATING FRONT LINE
Typical of this new ruthless work ethic is the make-up of Tuhel’s front three, in which there is no longer room for an outgoing and targeted person like Olivier Giroud or Tammy Abraham. Instead, the preferred trio now seems to be Christian Pulisic, Kai Haverz and Mason Mount, mobile players who are happy to follow and who value defensive work almost as much as what they do next. Chelsea’s attacking numbers have not yet reached the heights under Tuhel. “I don’t think many questions can be asked when the results are going well,” Pulisic said. “It’s great to watch fun, attacking and free-flowing football all the time, but when it comes to the end of the season, the results matter.”
COMPETITION FOR PLACES
No player is sure of his place under Tuhel – even in the door. First-choice goalkeeper Edouard Mendy has twice lost his place to Kepa Arizabalaga for FA Cup and Premier League matches. There is a regular rotation in the role of defender, while the previous three change regularly, with Timo Werner and Callum Hudson-Odoi joining the team. This is keeping the players on their toes and keeping everyone involved. “It makes the connection very, very strong, very close,” Tuhel said.