Chelsea’s Three Little Birds: Boehly, Potter and Eghbali – Why every little thing is gonna be alright

Thursday was a busy day on Chelsea Twitter, as fans were blessed with a double ‘Here we go!’ from Fabrizio Romano. Continuing the trend set by the summer purchases of Carney Chukwuemeka and Cesare Casadei, Chelsea are set to further bolster their army of U20 talent with the additions of Andrey Santos and David Datro Fofana for a combined €32m. While many are excited by the Football Manager-style prospect of a Chelsea dominant for years into the future, others are quick to point out the need to address the less-than-ideal actuality facing Graham Potter’s disjointed and underperforming squad. 

Potter celebrates. https://theprideoflondon.com/2022/09/09/chelsea-graham-potter-take/

A bleak run of form just before the World Cup has left many Chelsea fans under a dark cloud of negativity, growing increasingly frustrated with the ownership of Todd Boehly and Behdad Eghbali. Many criticise the bulldozing entrance which saw them rip up the entire internal structure of the club, culminating in the sacking of Thomas Tuchel, who was so greatly adored by the Chelsea faithful. These events seem to have generated a widespread view that the new ownership is out of its depth, lacking the necessary knowledge to cut it at the top level of football. Any action now comes under immediate heavy criticism, and fans are questioning the signings of youth players amidst the need for ready-made reinforcements. However, in moments like these a bit of level-headed objectivity can go a long way. While Chelsea are in need of first team signings, we also have to appreciate the work being done to rectify the lack of sustainable progress the club has made over the last five years. The establishment of solid, long-term foundations for success is, really, incredibly exciting, and it is important to remember what Boehly & co have come here to do.

Also on Thursday, a month-old interview with co-owner Behdad Eghbali surfaced on Twitter. Encouragingly, it confirmed the ambition that many of us had seen in the new ownership, with Eghbali again displaying a desire to establish a multi-club model. It was interesting to see the Chelsea man reiterate the inefficiency he sees across many clubs in Europe, highlighting the opportunity for clubs to be more optimally and sustainably run. In fact, he explicitly states that Chelsea ‘was not terribly well managed on the football side, sporting side or promotional side’. He goes on to speak about the Red Bull model, citing their ‘50 to 100 million a year profit in player sales’ and underlining the importance of ‘using data […] and a cohesive global structure’ in order to ‘produce a winning product’. Indeed, Chelsea themselves have already entirely restructured their board, bringing in the ex-Red Bull technical director himself, Christopher Vivell. He brings his multi-club expertise to a team of Joe Shields, Laurence Stewart and Paul Winstanley, four specialists replacing Marina Granovskaia who, in theory, previously carried out the jobs of all four. Already, you can see the optimisation mentioned by Eghbali is being put into place, ready for the January transfer window. Logically, bringing in some of the best in their fields should prevent Chelsea from continuing to make the wrong decisions, squandering millions on failed signings and missing youth development opportunities. 

Potter, Eghbali, Boehly. https://www.reddit.com/r/chelseafc/comments/ziynet/todd_boehly_and_behdad_eghbali_chatting_with/

It may not be immediately clear how a multi-club model would do anything other than expand the assets of the Clearlake enterprise. Fortunately for the fans, both Eghbali and Boehly, in an interview dating back to September, have emphasised the model’s role in player development, allowing Chelsea to present their youth players with reliable pathways to the first team. See following from Boehly’s interview:

‘The challenge at Chelsea is that when you have 18-, 19-, 20-year-old superstars, you can loan them out to other clubs, but you put their development in someone else’s hands. Our goal is to make sure we can show pathways for our young superstars to get onto the Chelsea pitch while getting them real game time. To me, the way to do that is through another club somewhere in a really competitive league in Europe. […] What we really need is a place to put our 18-, 19-, 20-year-olds to develop them, in Portugal, Belgium or somewhere like that. Get them the (GBE) points they need and also get them out of South America and into Portugal, which is a perfect example, we think, and then to get them on the pitch for Chelsea.’

This really is nail on the head from Boehly. How many times have we seen talented Chelsea youngsters either stagnate at a poor loan, or force a permanent move away for their own development? Just look at the progression of the likes of Marc Guéhi, Jamal Musiala and Fikayo Tomori since leaving the club. What might have been for Callum Hudson-Odoi had the right structure been in place for him to maximise his potential in his favoured position? How did Billy Gilmour go from starting regularly in the Premier League under Frank Lampard, dubbed the ‘Scottish Iniesta’, to being sold by the club for a measly £9m? I could go on and on, but the point is that Chelsea have grossly mismanaged the abundance of talent produced for years at their very own training ground. For Boehly to identify this issue publicly and accurately, and present us with a convincing solution, must inspire confidence. His mention of Portugal as a facilitated entry point for young Brazilians displays his knowledge of the task at hand and might provide a hint as to the eventual destination of Andrey Santos. Regardless, it’s clear that Boehly and Eghbali are extremely ambitious with their plans for Chelsea, and that the new owners are committed to the prolonged and sustainable success of the club. 

Yes, I do still miss him. https://twitter.com/ttuchelofficial/status/1569032860782182400

As mentioned above, many fans seem to have difficulty getting excited about this, still hurt by the ruthless sacking of their beloved Thomas Tuchel. While understandable, some perspective needs to be applied here. The truth is Tuchel never displayed a desire to develop the young players at the club. Instant success was always prioritised, hence his blocking of Hudson-Odoi’s Borussia Dortmund loan to keep him as wingback cover, amongst other questionable decisions. Even with the new ownership in place, Tuchel had the power to break the cycle. Yet, after less than one week of Chelsea’s pre-season tour of the US, Tuchel sent home Billy Gilmour and Harvey Vale, neither of which seemed to have imminent loans lined up. Meanwhile, the likes of Ross Barkley, Michy Batshuayi and Kenedy, all entering the final year of their contracts, remained. Apart from the glaring mismanagement of the squad from the previous board, leaving these players under contract and on a never-ending cycle of unproductive loans, Tuchel must be held accountable for his decisions. Both Jorginho and N’golo Kanté were entering the final year of their contracts, and Billy Gilmour had shown the ability to perform as a 6 at the highest level. Academy Player of the Year Harvey Vale had the potential to provide effective squad depth in the attack, where both Timo Werner and Hakim Ziyech were heavily linked with moves away. Yet, Tuchel preferred to keep the deadwood in the squad. It was difficult to understand, and decisions like these are simply not compatible with the new direction of the club. Boehly himself has made this clear:

‘The reality of our decision was we just weren’t sure Thomas saw it the same way we saw it. No one’s right or wrong, we just didn’t have a shared vision for the future. It wasn’t about Zagreb, it was about the shared vision for what we want Chelsea Football Club to look like. It wasn’t a decision made because of a single win or loss, it was a decision made about what we thought was the right vision for the club.’

Omari Hutchinson vs. Aston Villa. https://twitter.com/cfckel/status/1601972256204374019

Emotion removed; this makes sense. Now, under Potter, we are seeing the likes of Charlie Webster, Omari Hutchinson and Lewis Hall training regularly with the first team. This isn’t a token gesture, it’s because they are good enough to be there. Under previous managers, that fact hasn’t always been enough. It’s crucial that these players are given the time to grow in and around the first team set up, rather than being given one five-minute cameo, under all the pressure in the world, before being thrown back to the academy and deemed below standard. It’s also essential that the manager is allowed the time and space to do this, as seems to be the case currently. In his latest press conference, Potter stated:

‘I met up with Bedad (Eghbali) and had a good chat. I’m even more confident, more aware of the support I have now than I was three months ago. That tells you something. It’s a credit to them and their support. It’s been fantastic. […] We all know the pressure and the demands at Chelsea, but we have also got enough people who can see the perspective. I’m really looking forward to the weeks, months, years ahead.’

This is extremely encouraging, and it truly looks like Chelsea are finally going to be backing a manager for the long run. Part of doing this is accepting the bumpy ride that is part and parcel of the process – things are not always going to be perfect. Potter’s press conferences and general demeanour leave plenty to be desired, and the new ownership certainly didn’t handle their first transfer window particularly well. There is no doubt that improvements must be made. But, like most successes in life, you need to endure the difficult times first. If we have to play Europa League football next year, so be it. It’s proven to be an extremely effective competition for player development. Choose to see the positives. The same fans calling for Potter’s head will have mocked Arteta as a useless manager after Arsenal’s three straight losses at the start of last season, now silenced as the north Londoners sit top of the table, 19 points ahead of Chelsea at the halfway point. It’s like selling your Bitcoin stocks during the March 2020 dip, before seeing it skyrocket over 1000% into 2021. Don’t be that guy. Have some patience, have some faith. At the end of the day, this is the direction the club is going in. As a fan, why not be excited? Why not support your club, your youth? I promise you, in good time, we will be back. 

To quote Mr. Marley:

Bob Marley on a visit to Brazil. https://g1.globo.com/pop-arte/noticia/2021/05/11/bob-marley-no-brasil-o-dia-em-que-o-musico-jamaicano-jogou-futebol-com-chico-buarque-e-moraes-moreira-no-rio.ghtml

Written by Tom Driver

4-2-2-2: a formation we could see more of?

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. 

The evolution of Tuchel’s hybrid setup (Source: Twitter – @AliRadhi)

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. 

Winners:

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.

Havertz’ movement in behind for his goal v Spurs (Source: Twitter – @PremLeaguePanel)

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.

Timo Werner celebrates a hat-trick against Borussia Mönchengladbach (Source: Trivela)

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.  

Mason Mount with the Chunkz Frankenstein celebration v Liverpool (Source: Goal)

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. 

Losers:

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. 

Jorginho and Rüdiger (Source: Twitter – @Mohxmmad)

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. 

Tuchel and Thiago Silva (Source: Sportbuzz)

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

Declan Rice – The missing piece in Chelsea’s squad

It’s been quite the year for Declan Rice. From captaining West Ham to their highest league finish in over 20 years, to starting in the final of the Euros at Wembley in July and now scoring for the Hammers in Europe, the 22-year-old just keeps progressing. Despite West Ham’s dubious £100m valuation, reports suggest Rice does want to leave, and there’s very little doubt in my mind that he’ll end up at one of the Premier League giants. With Chelsea and Manchester United seemingly the most interested, his signing could well be the missing piece in either squad, converting title challengers into clear favourites. So, what’s all the fuss about? Isn’t he just another Eric Dier?

Rice celebrates after England’s historic Euro 2020 win against Germany (Source: Getty Images via Evening Standard)

What makes Rice special is that he carries out the basics of defensive midfield play to a very, very high level. He’s an excellent ball-winner and can cover a lot of ground rapidly, meaning he is very effective in transition, where he’s relied upon to break up opponents’ counter attacks. Rice’s athleticism, tenacity and ability to defend on either side all contribute to his high success rate in one-on-one duels, acting as a shield to West Ham’s back-four. Notably, much of the work he does off the ball is often overlooked, positioning himself to cut off passing lanes and force the play out wide. Rice is also an efficient counter-presser, winning the ball back quickly when it’s given away and shifting it straight to a nearby teammate. In fact, constant counter pressing is a key part of a certain Thomas Tuchel’s footballing philosophy, but we’ll get onto him later. The truth is that physicality and intensity are the hallmarks of any Premier League title-winning midfield, as proven by the presence of a strong base in all the greatest league-winning sides. Most recently, we’ve seen the likes of Fabinho, Fernandinho and Matic, but the trend dates all the way back to guys like Mikel, Essien, Makelele and Vieira. This season will be no different, and Chelsea can only rely on the protection provided by its back-three system for so long. 

I should say now that Jorginho was fantastic in the club’s Champions League success and Mateo Kovačić has started the season very well, it’s just that Rice is a different profile of player. Jorginho, for example, is brilliant in the first phase of build-up in Chelsea’s current system, allowing them to play out with ease. However, we’ve seen many times that he gets crucified in transition, simply because he lacks athleticism. Similarly, Kovačić has a habit of not picking up runners and of being out of position, meaning that when he’s paired with Jorginho, the midfield can be bypassed very easily. Of course, Tuchel recognises this, hence why he chooses to play with the added security of a back-three. Yet, as shown last season following Thiago Silva’s red card in the collapse against West Brom, when the system is disrupted, the protection goes, as well as any sense of midfield control. Pointing this out is a matter of fact, not an agenda against either Jorginho or Kovačić, who would both (particularly Kovačić) benefit very much from having Rice alongside them. As for Kanté, well, he’d finally have his Matic replacement. 

Matic and Rice go head to head at the London Stadium (Source: Getty Images via Hammers News)

Needless to say, it’s not very often that Chelsea are on the wrong end of a first half red card, but playing a back-three has its own negatives, negatives which became more apparent in recent games against Tottenham (1st half) and Juventus. Yes, it is the system that won Chelsea the Champions League, but it’s important to recognise that these were high entropy games, end to end encounters, full of space to drive into after containing opposition pressure. Naturally, therefore, fewer attackers are needed as attacks require less careful construction and more exploitation of space and in-the-moment decision making. The problem arises when teams sit in deep against Chelsea, who tend to suffer from a painful lack of creativity. Side-to-side football, no penetration, 40-yard shots from Rudiger, it gets rough. In all honesty, this is not a new issue in Tuchel’s reign, and his league form last season was not as good as many suggest, with points dropped against Wolves, Southampton, Leeds, West Brom, Brighton and Aston Villa. The common theme? Low blocks. The solution? Simple. More attackers on the pitch. Rice’s sweeping presence would facilitate a four-at-the-back system, allowing Chelsea to attack less predictably, more dynamically and far more expansively, knowing that in the case of a turnover of possession, Rice will be there to win back the ball.

It is no coincidence that Tuchel, as stated by many reports, is a big fan of Rice, with the German always having played a back-four at his previous clubs. Despite the credibility of these reports, some fans have jumped to dismiss them amidst suggestions that Rice is unable to play in a possession-based setup. While these concerns are understandable, and there were times during the Euros where he looked uncomfortable on the ball, I would say they are overstated. Unlike Eric Dier (sorry Eric), Rice has very good technical ability, and during his time at West Ham he has displayed a wide range of high-level passing, in particular the long-range diagonal to the wings, a pass he is able to hit with precision. He has shown he is able to play in tight spaces, acting as the link between defence and midfield, but this is an area in which he can improve. We mustn’t forget he’s still 22 years old, and he can most certainly be coached into becoming more comfortable in possession, working on things such as his body orientation when receiving the ball under pressure. Considering the defensive presence he brings, as well as aspects not even mentioned yet (including his aerial ability and powerful drives through the opposition midfield), reservations about Rice with the ball at his feet shouldn’t be enough to discourage Chelsea fans from wanting to sign the midfielder. Besides, Tuchel clearly isn’t put off. 

Mason Mount and Declan Rice have been best friends since the age of 8 (Source: Getty Images via TalkSport)

Signing Rice would not only return the defensive power and athleticism Chelsea’s midfield has been starved of for so long, but also a young, hungry England international with everything to prove, having been released from Chelsea’s academy all those years ago. His leadership qualities and personal connection with many of Chelsea’s XI, such as Mason Mount and Ben Chilwell, would certainly help to reinforce an already-confident Chelsea dressing room. Having the option to play both the well-oiled back-three system (against possession-based sides) and a new-look, fluid back-four system (against deeper defences) would surely see Chelsea as favourites for the Premier League title. Equally, there’s no doubt that Rice would fill the gaping, title-preventing hole in United’s midfield. So, Marina, is it going to be us or them?

Written by Tom Driver