With $250 mil spent in the summer Chelsea went into the season looking to close the gap between themselves and Premier League rivals Manchester City and Liverpool. In a global pandemic which forced many clubs to remain cautious in their transfer approach, Abramovich chose to compete or die with various marquee signings for his West London club. Adding onto the youthful arsenal established in a transfer ban season under Frank Lampard, top 4 was the minimum with little room for error. Inevitably, the Chelsea nature of unyielding expectations had it’s way and Frank Lampard was axed after his first poor run of form leaving the squad unsettled with a lack of identity, direction, and passion. Thomas Tuchel was the man appointed by the board to replace Lampard. On one hand it was a questionable decision, with his often described spiky personality seemingly a poor fit for a controlling board like Chelsea, while on the other a sensible appointment to instill a tactical identity for a squad devoid of one.
Compete in all remaining competitions and achieve top 4 – this was the expectation for the ex-PSG manager. With only an 18 month deal offered, Tuchel had little time to prove his worth and acumen to the club, and he seemed to recognize that. He wasted no time and transitioned to the squad into a true defensive stronghold, but in a rather unique way. The concept of “defensive possession” seemed to best describe the system, with a focus on being possession dominant, combined with an emphasis on structure and balance in the team to nullify the attacking prowess of their opponents. Tuchel’s reign started extremely strong, winning many games by starving opponents of not only goals, but opportunities against the defense. Often winning games 1-0 or 2-0, Chelsea slowly became the team no side wanted to face. Ultimately, this became most true in Chelsea’s Champions League cup run.
Having won their group with Frank Lampard at the helm, Chelsea’s first opponent in the round of 16 was Atletico Madrid. The Spanish side were sitting comfortably atop of La Liga at the time of Tuchel’s appointment, and were one of the most in-form teams. With a scheduled date in late February, it seemed highly likely the Blues would have an early exit in the competition in a similar fashion to how things ended in the previous year. In the build-up to the game Chelsea had a favorable run of fixtures – Premier League teams which allowed the squad to get a rhythm in the new system without risking too many points being dropped. The true test came in these later February fixtures, with the matchup against Atletico being immediately followed by Manchester United and Liverpool in the league. Tuchel’s Chelsea passed and performed quite well in these fixtures, with the first game against Atletico relying on a wonder goal by Olivier Giroud, but earning a draw against 2nd place Manchester United, and a dominant performance against Klopp’s Liverpool. This truly kicked off the confidence in the squad and some of the revived players. The belief in the system was clearly present, with players such as Antonio Rudiger, Andreas Christensen, Jorginho playing what had likely been their best performances for the club. The strength of the squad and its confidence continued to grow and with forcing Atletico to play on the back foot in the 2nd leg, Chelsea were able to capitalize in yet another dominant performance and knockout the Spanish champions in a 2-0 victory. The result was a massive morale booster which showed glimpses of resilience in a youthful and largely inexperienced squad in the distinguished competition.
While taking down Atletico was an exceptional feat, the path forward also provided glimmers of hope to truly go far with PSG, Bayern Munich, and Manchester City, the top 3 favorites, all being drawn on the opposite end of the bracket. This left Chelsea to face Porto in the quarter finals, with potential opponents of either Real Madrid or Liverpool in the semi-final. Once again, overcoming the unexpected obstacles Chelsea faced against Porto, the result was as expected with Chelsea progressing from their 2-0 win in the first leg, being enough after their 1-0 loss in the second on aggregate. Real Madrid was the victor in the other matchup and they were an opponent unlike no other. Filled with world class individual talent, as well as loads of experience and success in this competition, there began to be doubt if Chelsea could truly reach the final. A team composed of many players which had only 1 season of top flight football under their belt, along with numerous big money signings which had been struggling to adapt and stay in-form in their performances. This truly was a different side to the one that had done the unthinkable and taken down one of the strongest sides in Spain, if not all of Europe in 2012 after their struggles throughout the season. There were no established characters, legacies, and accomplishments like in 2012. Characters, leaders, as well as many of the established top players in all of Europe existed in the team. Drogba, Terry, Lampard, Mata, Cole, Cech, Torres, all coexisting in the same squad, many of which are now established legends of the game. Although a similar context and narrative with a midseason change in manager, the chemistry and experience throughout this squad lacked to that of the 2012 team. It seemed like a resilient nature and compete or die attitude was not present in this group of individuals…Or so we thought?
Instantly in the first match Chelsea looked the more obviously dominant team, showing that a well refined system and unit of role players who worked hard could outperform the individual talent. However, the theme which perpetuated under Tuchel’s reign throughout had been the wasteful nature of the team’s ability to put away the chances they created. Going 1-1 into the second leg, the Blues had a point to prove, and repeated their dominance against this Real Madrid this time winning 2-0 while still being wasteful in their opportunities. This meant Chelsea were in the UCL final for the first time since 2012, and the magical run with it’s overlapping characteristics continued to be likened in nature.
Throughout Tuchel’s half-season campaign he bested multiple top managers including the likes of Mourinho, Klopp, Simeone, Zidane, and Guardiola. Although his path to accomplishing top 4 was unconventional and reliant on results elsewhere, he did also reach both the FA Cup final and the UCL final. After the loss of the FA cup to Leicester City, the only remaining cup was the most prestigious award in all of European football. Tuchel faced Pep for the 3rd time this season and although having got the better of him on 2 occasions previously, Pep had won this cup before, and the timing and preparation of his Manchester City side seemed inevitably in their favor.
However, leading up to this point and having discussed the squad composition during the magical 2012 UCL victory, it’s important to discuss the composition of the current victors of the UCL. Our goalie Edouard Mendy was brought in from Rennes for $25 million to take over the below-par record signing Kepa and resulted in a fantastic acquisition. Our back line which rotated due to fitness and availability either consisted of fringe players in Christensen and Rudiger, likely on their way out under Lampard, and put in their best performances in a Chelsea shirt in this system in a dramatic turnaround of form. An ageing legend still at the top of the game in Thiago Silva as well as Azpilicueta who although traditionally a RB, remains at the top of his game in a 3 back at RCB. At wingbacks we have two youngsters in Reece James playing his first full season in top-flight football, and newly acquired $50 million Ben Chilwell who’s highest level before this was his experience in the EPL with Leicester. Our midfield consisted of a combo of any 3 of these players; N’Golo Kante, Jorginho, and Mateo Kovacic who was largely injured leading up to the final. Kante is the most obvious player of quality in the team, however Jorginho is an extremely divisive player for the fanbase, with limitations that need to be protected, but similar to others, played excellently when called on. Kovacic, although a player with an excellent technical skill set, seems to have grown stagnant in his development and production towards the team and as a result has not established himself as a top midfielder in Europe thus far. The front 3 selection being the most varied based on opponent and form is even more interesting in this context. Having acquired Werner, Havertz, and Ziyech, all 3 seemed to have had their struggles in consistency throughout the season. While certain opponents and tactical setups have played to the strengths and driven the line-up decisions of Thomas Tuchel, none have cemented themselves to be the top European attacking threat they were purchased to be, as of yet. On top of this Werner is still only 24 and Havertz 21 with both having limited experience in the competition which rings even more true with the remaining 2 attackers. Christian Pulisic, and Mason Mount are the 2 other regular first choice players under Tuchel, and although Pulisic showed consistent high-level form during the project restart, he failed to carry the consistency into this season. Mason Mount remains the sole reliable attacker/creator in the team to drive Chelsea forward and carry a consistent, tangible threat. While Pulisic has played top-flight football for quite a few years, his injury record and inconsistent output never placed him in elite company. Mason Mount on the other hand is traditionally disliked by the side of the fanbase which seems to favor Jorginho. For all of Mount’s inconsistency and usage in a multitude of positions in his first season for Chelsea, it seemed he really hit his stride this year and is our most probable player of the season at just the age of 22. With this in mind, Chelsea relative to City were nowhere near in contention for such an accomplishment, especially taking into consideration previous outputs of players and the position they entire squad was in when Lampard was sacked. As a result, this spotlights not only the drastic reversal of the squad attaining this level of performance to be reaching such heights.
However, for all their differences, this team entered the final with the same mindset as the 2012, all odds against them and playing their hearts out until the final whistle. Against very likely the strongest team in Europe, Chelsea did not just win the UCL final, they earned it. A dominant performance with excellent tactical execution and willingness and grit from the players to win this cup is what made the difference. Many pivotal moments from key players never in this position before completely changed the game, while a baseline quality performance was upheld by the entire squad. From Reece nullifying any threat Sterling created down his flank, to Rudiger saving what was quite literally a goal in a last ditch block against Foden in the box, to Werner’s excellent decoy run with Kai’s composure 1v1 after receiving a perfectly weighted pass from Mount to score the only goal. Tuchel had earned his 3rd win in a row over Pep. However, this time it came with the UCL Cup, and the implications for the future are greater than ever.
For a squad this inexperienced, to showcase the character and ability to come away with the title for the most prestigious competition in Europe cannot be understated. Additionally, it highlights the opportunity for a reign of dominance, which Chelsea could establish by building on the foundations present. This side is different from 2012 – while 2012 seemed to be a last shot at glory for those maturing further into the game and nearing the ends of their careers, 2021 is the inverse of that as the final 2 digits of the year suggest. However this does not mean the task at hand is complete, rather it confirms and sheds light on the priorities and needs of the club for the future to sustain this.
Chelsea had won the UCL, so where do they go from here to increase the chances of repeatability and nurture consistent progression? Firstly, instilling trust in our youth academy talents and utilizing the pipeline with first team involvement with coordinated efforts for development and adaptation. Secondly, a similar transfer approach we exhibited the summer leading up to this, pursuing top-level talents and targets without settling for 3rd or 4th choice options. This second choice comes with a caveat of remaining sensible in our approach, addressing areas of need rather than pursuing the best available players in each window leaving us with a bloated squad and positions still to be addressed with heavy investments that are near impossible to recoup. With these principles, the foundation of the team at hand, and the tactically adept manager Chelsea have in Thomas Tuchel, all the pieces exist to reassert dominance of the West London club throughout Europe for years to come. The outlook, although not guaranteed, is promising, and while 2012 signified the beauty of the game, 2021 could represent the dream of the game.