A week is a long time in football — and never has that been truer than in this truncated season, where fortunes can turn on their heads in a matter of days.
Thomas Tuchel is in danger of learning that the hard way and, for the first time since taking the Chelsea job, the Blues manager finds himself under scrutiny ahead of tonight’s rematch against Leicester.
Six days ago, Tuchel had barely put a foot wrong since being parachuted into Stamford Bridge in January. His side were preparing for an FA Cup Final against tonight’s opponents and a Champions League Final with Manchester City on May 29, having earned a precious psychological advantage over the champions-elect with a last-gasp win at the Etihad Stadium.
Tuchel was on course to make the greatest impact of any new manager in Premier League history, and with every week he enhanced his reputation further, while damaging that of predecessor Frank Lampard, who had insisted the squad were not ready for honours.
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But with narrow 1-0 defeats to Arsenal and Leicester, Chelsea’s top-four cushion is down to just one point and Tuchel’s side have already lost one final after the Foxes’ Wembley win on Saturday.
For the first time since succeeding Lampard, Tuchel’s decisions are worthy of question, and he must strike the right balance in his team selection this evening or risk a top-four finish no longer being in Chelsea’s hands going into the final day of the season.
Since his appointment, no manager in the top flight has rotated his side more than the German, who has made 74 changes to his starting XIs — two more than City and five more than Arsenal, who have been the other most frequented changers.
What initially looked like a show of the strength of Chelsea’s squad is now in danger of appearing as indecision. In the last two matches, Tuchel’s big calls have simply not come off. He was forced to replace Billy Gilmour at half-time against the Gunners after handing the teenager a rare start, while Kai Havertz was also hooked in the second half after failing to offer a focal point in attack.
At Wembley, Tuchel’s attacking selections again fell short, with Hakim Ziyech and Timo Werner disappointing. For both matches, this season’s top scorer in the FA Cup, Tammy Abraham, was left out of the squad altogether, prompting an exasperated outburst from his partner on social media.
The decision to omit Ben Chilwell against his former club also looked misguided, while there were questions about the wisdom of persisting with ‘cup’ goalkeeper Kepa Arrizabalaga, who dived for Youri Tielesmans’ stunning winner with his wrong hand.
Even Tuchel’s most astute call, the decision to start Reece James at centre-half to nullify Jamie Vardy, ended up appearing costly, with the England international giving away the ball before Tielesmans’ strike. It demonstrated how quickly the optics can shift for someone in Tuchel’s position.
With one of the biggest games in Chelsea’s history 11 days away, Tuchel could do with putting an end to suggestions that he does not know his best team by getting it right tonight. A win would move Chelsea above Leicester and leave Brendan Rodgers’ side vulnerable of dropping out of the Champions League places on Sunday.
“Maybe it’s a mix of everything,” said Tuchel, when asked for his interpretation of his tinkering. “Overcoming FA Cup and Champions League rounds is what you wish for. But suddenly you end up in a pretty busy schedule and, honestly, we also mentally suffered from it. This race to top-four, we were constantly pushing to close the gap.”
He also admitted that a top-four spot had always been the main aim this season, illustrating the importance of the tonight’s match and the small margins for error.
“This is the target when I stepped into this club, I want to be very clear. The task was, ‘Let’s try everything to be in the top four’,” he said.
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