Thomas Tuchel surprised us all on Wednesday evening in the 2-0 victory against Tottenham in the first leg of the Carabao Cup semi-final at Stamford Bridge. Having been previously reluctant to veer too far from his tried and tested back-three system, Tuchel lined up with a back-four for (almost) the first time in his reign as Chelsea boss. A Kai Havertz opener followed by an unfortunate Ben Davies own goal saw Chelsea cruise to victory, in a game that really could have ended four or five goals to nil. Antonio Conte had no answer to Tuchel’s setup, one which may well be a glimpse of the future for Chelsea fans.
Hakim Ziyech was the key man for Chelsea’s system on Wednesday, filling in at right-wing-back as the team maintained its back-three shape off the ball. He pushed high up the field when Chelsea pressed Tottenham’s block and tucked in as the right-sided number 10 once Chelsea regained possession. This is very similar to how Christian Pulisic was used when Chelsea played Leeds at Elland Road last season, an indicator that the setup had been in Tuchel’s mind long before Wednesday’s game. Mason Mount, meanwhile, dropped in to form a midfield-three out of possession, and pushed forward into the left-sided 10 position when Chelsea had the ball, as illustrated below. Essentially; 3-5-2 off the ball, 4-2-2-2 on it. This meant that our defensive solidity was maintained, whilst, in attack, Tottenham’s midfield two was overwhelmed by the combination of Chelsea’s four midfielders and Havertz, who dropped deep to help link play. A masterstroke from Tuchel.
We should, however, consider the fact that Conte and Spurs will not have been prepared for this, setting up to deal with the back-three formation Chelsea had used in every game so far this season rather than the new-look back-four. With time to mount an adequate game plan, teams might use more central midfielders, or target the right-hand-side of Chelsea’s defence with overloads in order to expose Ziyech’s defensive weaknesses, for instance. For this reason, I think Chelsea fans may have to wait until next season to see this setup used more consistently. As links to West Ham’s Declan Rice and AS Monaco’s Aurélien Tchouaméni persist, it is looking ever more likely that Chelsea will sign an athletic defensive midfielder in the coming summer transfer window. This would allow Tuchel to use a similar system, but without the necessity for either of the number 10s to fill in at wing-back, as the defensive cover provided by a physical midfield signing would prevent Chelsea from being exposed on the counter.
Given that the 4-2-2-2 seems a realistic possibility for Chelsea next season, it’s worth considering some potential winners and losers that would come out of this formation change.
Romelu Lukaku – The best spell in Lukaku’s career came at Inter Milan under Antonio Conte, where the Belgian rose from being a ridiculed flop at Manchester United to being widely accepted as one of the world’s best strikers. Paired with Lautaro Martinez, he was extremely influential on the right side of the front two, using his speed and power to dominate the right channel. Much of this season, he has been used as a lone striker, a static reference point, constantly with his back to goal. We didn’t need Romelu to tell us for us to realise this clearly doesn’t suit him, as many began to claim, “we play better without him”. Using him this way is reminiscent of his time at Manchester United, where José Mourinho struggled to maximise his potential. As seen in the first half against Spurs, the 4-2-2-2 allows Lukaku to return to his favoured right channel, where he is more able to impact the game, by both hovering on the last line of defence and finding the runs of his strike partner.
Kai Havertz – Though Havertz also favours this right channel, he is very comfortable playing on the left of the front two, something he proved in Wednesday night’s game. Since Tuchel was appointed, it has become clear that Havertz should be played high up the pitch, and this split striker formation allows Chelsea to make the most of his intelligent movement in the box. The small matter of dealing with Lukaku means that defences leave more space for him to drift into, just as we saw with his early goal against Spurs. Equally, when he’s not the lone striker there is less of a need for him to be a presence on the last line of the defence, meaning he can use his ability to drop deep and link play. This constitutes a new dynamic in Chelsea’s build up, making the most of his understanding with the likes of Mason Mount, amongst others.
Timo Werner – Werner is yet another example of a player who is less comfortable when played as a lone striker. Much like Kai, Timo’s quality movement is most effective when he is joined by a strike-partner, preventing him from being marked out the game. Like Lukaku, his most successful days came playing in a front two overseas, off the left of Yussuf Poulsen at RB Leipzig, scoring 34 goals in all competitions in the 2019-20 season. Having either been played either too wide, deep, or central so far in his Chelsea career, the 4-2-2-2 could be the key to him rediscovering his goal-scoring form.
Christian Pulisic – Despite the recent equaliser against Liverpool, Pulisic’s time under Tuchel so far can only be described as inconsistent, bordering on disappointing. The 3-4-3 used by the Chelsea manager has often seen Pulisic stuck dribbling in between the lines, exposing his lack of creativity, and leaving him too far from goal. Playing in the front two of the 4-2-2-2 would favour his goal-scoring instincts and movement in the box, without leaving him as isolated as he has been when used as a lone striker in recent games.
Mason Mount – Although Mason has had an excellent year, finishing in the top 20 of the 2021 Ballon d’Or and playing a pivotal role in Chelsea’s Champions League success, it’s important to remember he has not been playing in his favoured position. His skillset is perfect for the 8 role and, like Pulisic, playing on either side of the front 3 leaves him with too much responsibility to create between the lines. Playing a 4-2-2-2 wouldn’t have him as an 8, but it does allow him to occupy deeper areas and play a greater role in the build-up, whilst still being able to arrive late in the box and finish off Chelsea attacks. He would not be the primary creator in this system.
Hakim Ziyech – Ziyech is another on Chelsea’s list of forwards who haven’t thrived in Tuchel’s 3-4-3. He is a player who likes to remain wide on the right side of the pitch, finding the runs of those inside the box with in-swinging crosses from his infamous left foot. Reece James’s ability to come infield would facilitate Ziyech remaining wide, their connection something to look out for if Ziyech remains at Stamford Bridge next season. With an extra striker in the box, the chances are Ziyech’s assist count would benefit. The same can be said for Callum Hudson-Odoi, who has displayed a fantastic understanding with both Kai Havertz and Romelu Lukaku so far in his Chelsea career.
Jorginho – Jorginho is a player who divides opinion. Tuchel’s back-three system has seen the holding midfielder’s strengths maximised and his weaknesses masked, so much so that he managed a top 3 finish in the 2021 Ballon d’Or. The combination of the three centre backs and two holding midfielders means that, in the first phase of the build-up, a passing option is always available, allowing him to circulate possession and orchestrate passing moves out from the back. This structure also protects him on the counter, rarely leaving him isolated in transition. Given his inability to cover ground quickly, a move to a more expansive system could leave Jorginho out of sorts, especially with the potential arrival of a new defensive midfielder.
Antonio Rüdiger – Also benefitting from Tuchel’s arrival, Rüdiger’s aggressive style of defending is very well suited to playing in a back-three. The German’s form has earnt him much praise, now seen as one of Europe’s best defenders. His raw speed means he is comfortable defending out wide, knowing the central areas are covered by the other centre backs. Toni’s drives into the opposition half have become a fixture in Tuchel’s Chelsea team, often igniting both the crowd and the team during tough periods of games. Unfortunately, a move to a back-four would restrict his ability to charge out from the back, there being less defensive cover for him in this shape. It’s still yet to be seen whether he could adapt his game to suit the 4-2-2-2, but it’s certainly a formation that plays less to his strengths.
Cesar Azpilicueta – After last year’s Champions League success, Azpilicueta is now regarded amongst many Chelsea fans as a club legend. His loyalty to the club is unquestionable, but so are the signs of his impending decline. He was given a new lease of life by Tuchel, returning to the same RCB position which saw him widely accepted as one of the league’s best defenders during Chelsea’s 2016-17 title-winning campaign under Conte. On the right of a back-four, Reece James would be the clear first-choice option, leaving Dave with a seat on the bench.
Thiago Silva – Thiago Silva has been nothing short of a world class signing for Chelsea. Joining on a free transfer from PSG, he has defied the odds by performing as a top 3 CB in the league at the ripe old age of 37. Despite proving under Frank Lampard that he is perfectly capable in a back-four, the older he gets the less confident you’d feel leaving him with less protection. As his speed declines, his inability to defend the wide areas would be a worry for Tuchel.
Of course, a formation change would impact the whole squad in various ways, but these are the players who stood out to me as the ones who would either benefit or suffer most from a move to the 4-2-2-2.
Notably, every winner is under the age of 30, and every loser, apart from Rudiger, is over the age of 30. Make of that what you will, but it seems that with every day that passes, the squad becomes more suited to a back-four system. To me, the catalyst needed for Tuchel to consider leaving the back-three behind will be the signing of an athletic defensive midfielder. Regardless, Tuchel’s semi-final line up was just one of many examples of his impressive tactical flexibility, having made many in-game tweaks throughout his tenure, most valuably on route to the Champions League final. This adaptability should leave Chelsea fans with no doubts as to the capabilities of the German, as he continues to show he has what it takes to be at Stamford Bridge for years to come.
Written by Tom Driver