When appointed Chelsea manager in January, much was made of the tactical versatility of Thomas Tuchel’s previous sides. Whilst in the Paris Saint-Germain hot seat, Tuchel tinkered with more than 10 different systems, ranging from an attacking 4-2-3-1 to a more defensively solid 3-5-2. Already during pre-season we have seen the Blues experiment with several formations, venturing away from the 3-4-3 variants that proved so reliable in the second half of the 2020-21 campaign. With the expected addition of Romelu Lukaku to our already stacked array of attacking assets, questions are being raised as to how the champions of Europe will line up come the start of the season.
The tried and tested 3-4-3
Having just won the Champions League with this system, there is no immediate desperation to deviate from the 3-4-3. Made popular by Antonio Conte in 2016, Tuchel also saw this shape as his primary tactic, achieving great success with it. The fluidity of the attackers that occupied the front three positions last season allowed for a number of different options within these attacking areas: two strikers and one number 10, two wingers and a striker, or two number 10’s behind a main striker.
The beauty of this shape is that it offers you the defensive structure necessary while still pressurising the opposition and fielding enough attacking threat to cause problems. With the imminent arrival of Lukaku, we could either opt to partner him with either Timo Werner or Kai Havertz, both of whom offer different strengths, or Tuchel may choose to play two supporting players in behind the Belgian, where the likes of Mason Mount and Hakim Ziyech come into the conversation. Alternatively, there is also the option to deploy two more natural wingers, with Christian Pulisic and Callum Hudson-Odoi providing more of a threat in one-on-one situations down the flanks.
An obvious drawback with this set-up is that the inclusion of an extra centre back takes away the potential for a different attacking option, that may allow for another creative midfielder. Chelsea are yet to score more than two goals in a game under Tuchel and as some of the smaller sides in the division are more likely to try and frustrate us, having five defenders on the pitch at the expense of another creative player made be detrimental.
The high-press 4-2-2-2
One of the more uncommon and unorthodox formations that Thomas Tuchel has made use of in the past is the 4-2-2-2. Using Neymar and Angel Di Maria as roaming playmakers at PSG, this tactic focussed on creating chances for the prolific Kylian Mbappe and Edinson Cavani, while the midfield two required tenacity and dynamism, with the likes of Idrissa Gueye and Ander Herrera in the squad. This system would see the Blues switch to a back four for the first time under Tuchel, thus placing more defensive responsibility upon the clubs’ centre backs.
If this particular shape is to be implemented at Stamford Bridge this season, then there is perhaps no greater midfield pair than Mateo Kovacic and N’Golo Kante. Our Croatian is arguably one of the best around in terms of ball retention, offering a bridge between defence and attack in the transition. Kante’s role within the team is undisputed, with the Frenchman’s’ dominating performances at the back end of last season receiving shouts for a potential Ballon d’Or win.
In terms of the two attacking midfielders in this team, in order to most accurately replicate the PSG variant under Tuchel, Mount and Ziyech would probably be the two providing the killer passes for the strikers. One potential downside to this would be the lack of pace and direct running at defenders, with the two more likely to operate as inside forwards. While the full backs, probably Reece James and Ben Chilwell, would go some way to providing width to the attack, there would be added pressure on the pair to have the athleticism to get back quickly if required, due to the removal of a centre back. While this system would introduce more of a creative spark, the balance and width of the side may be unsettled, making it more of a risk than a guaranteed success.
4-3-3, 4-2-3-1 and how they would work in tandem
Last deployed by Frank Lampard, the 4-3-3 has increased in popularity and success in recent years, with the last two Premier League winning sides favouring the system. While Liverpool’s midfield three consisted of two hard working, box-to-box midfielders in front of the holding Fabinho, Pep Guardiola’s Manchester City have often lined up with two creative players in front of Fernandinho or Rodri, with former Chelsea player Kevin De Bruyne conducting much of the play. However, the Blues boss Tuchel has shown characteristics of both Guardiola and Jurgen Klopp in the past, insisting on a determined but crisp attacking style, that blends the ‘gegenpress’ with positional play.
In a Chelsea context, the holding midfielder would likely be Jorginho, who has enjoyed a dramatic upturn in form since the arrival of our German head coach. Fresh off the back of a starring role in Italy’s Euro 2020 win, the 29-year-old will be keen to continue his impressive run by dictating the play at Stamford Bridge once again. It goes without saying that Kante will retain his place in midfield, but where this system differs from those at Anfield and the Etihad Stadium is the third midfielder. After such an impressive season last year, you would have to believe that Mason Mount is a shoo-in to be the third man, blurring the lines between a 4-3-3 and a 4-2-3-1. We saw Mount perform a similar role in the opening games at the European Championships for England, in that he will drop deep to receive the ball, before driving forward and helping to create chances, or feed the ball out wide. I believe this set-up favours more natural wingers, which would see the likes of Werner and Havertz miss out.
And that may be the biggest downfall to this system should it be called upon at the Bridge. Despite not hitting the ground running last term, our German duo are two of the most likely sources of goals in the whole squad, both boasting impressive records in the Bundesliga before moving to London. This line up may place too much pressure on Lukaku (should he join) to provide the majority of our goals, with the likes of Pulisic, Mount and Hudson-Odoi not yet showing their prolific goal scoring potential. If this tactic is to thrive, these three would have to increase their goal contributions significantly.
Written by Luke Feather