Since his arrival last month, Thomas Tuchel’s toughest game on paper looked like the trip to Tottenham. In reality, though, it was merely another match against a side happy to give Chelsea the ball. José Mourinho’s Spurs are a reactive team at the best of times and they retreated further into defensive mode with Harry Kane missing: Chelsea were able to hoard possession and earned a crucial win in the race to finish in the top four.
Jorginho’s early penalty was enough. Spurs were too fearful, leaving it late before trying to equalise. For Tuchel, it was one to file alongside the stalemate with Wolves in his opening game and the wins over Burnley, Sheffield United and Newcastle: another game in which the main task was breaking down unambitious opponents.
Chelsea have mostly found a way and have improved in a creative sense since facing Wolves, who benefited from Tuchel having little time to prepare after replacing Frank Lampard. Precision and ruthlessness have lifted them into fourth place. Yet Tuchel, who has ruled out selling Christian Pulisic this summer, has started with five relatively kind league games. Chelsea have controlled matches easily and have conceded only once, an own goal from Antonio Rüdiger against Sheffield United.
While the early signs are promising, Tuchel is waiting for his first proper test. The problems under Lampard this season tended not to come when Chelsea faced smaller sides but when they were subjected to coordinated pressing and how their lack of organisation was exposed when they lost possession. They were vulnerable to counterattack and the extent of Chelsea’s progress under Tuchel will become clearer when they visit Southampton, even if Ralph Hasenhüttl’s injury-hit side have lost six successive league games.
It is a contest between two managers who made their names in the Bundesliga and who owe much to Ralf Rangnick, a proponent of the fast pressing game that defines modern German football. A visionary figure, Rangnick has inspired a legion of coaches in Germany. The 62-year-old opened Tuchel’s eyes when he managed him at third-division Ulm and, after moving into a sporting director role at RB Leipzig, he was responsible for hiring Hasenhüttl following the Austrian manager’s spell at Ingolstadt.
“I learnt from Ralf that it’s not necessary to follow the striker to the toilet,” Tuchel says. “He was the first guy to tell us that. He made a third division team be stronger than we actually were with new tactics, with the back four not man-marking but defending in the space in a 4-4-2 or a 4-5-1. It was a gamechanger.
“To watch football games after my experience with Ralf was different because I had a totally different view of what’s going on. Ralf had his experience at Leipzig for sure and he worked with Ralph more less as the father of everything that happens at Leipzig. There are many coaches influenced from this kind of philosophy.”
Hasenhüttl led Leipzig to second in their first season in the Bundesliga and has impressed since joining Southampton in 2018. Southampton have become a fit and dangerous team. They have already troubled Chelsea this season, overrunning Jorginho and N’Golo Kanté in midfield when they drew 3-3 at Stamford Bridge. “The way from Ralph is impressive,” Tuchel says. “He had a very successful season at Leipzig and now a big impact with his aggressive style at Southampton. This is the challenge tomorrow.”
Chelsea are in a better place to cope under Tuchel, who has introduced more structure with and without the ball by switching to 3-4-3. Jorginho and Mateo Kovacic have been smooth in midfield, Callum Hudson-Odoi and Marcos Alonso have shone as wing-backs and Timo Werner is more dangerous as an inside-left forward.
Yet Southampton will look to disrupt Chelsea’s attempts to play from the back. Rüdiger and Alonso can struggle to pass accurately under pressure, while Jorginho and Kovacic will not have it all their own way against an energetic midfield. Hasenhüttl will surely note that Tuchel’s side wobbled when pressed during their win over Barnsley in the fifth round of the FA Cup. Barnsley are managed by Valérien Ismaël, who has played and coached in Germany.
It is about to get more frenetic. Although Chelsea will probably dominate the ball when they face Atlético Madrid in the Champions League on Tuesday and host Manchester United next weekend, the pace is about to rise. Tuchel is about to discover whether his players can keep up.