Before a competitive ball has even been kicked the Todd Boehly-Clearlake Capital era is off to a shaky start in West London. After the loss of two senior defenders, the new owners have found the transfer window to be full of challenges, all the more so when you are trying to build a front office on the fly.
Meanwhile, the preseason results and performances on the pitch have not been what Thomas Tuchel would demand from his squad, and as the clock ticks inexorably towards Everton on Saturday’s opening day there are jitters around Chelsea. Perhaps they are all the more pronounced because this is a club that knows how a poisonous atmosphere in the summer months can infect the coming season, most notably in a 2015-16 campaign where it looked for a moment like Jose Mourinho could relegate his own champions but also under Antonio Conte two years later. Is this just a bedding in period for the new regime, or is there real cause for concern around Stamford Bridge?
Chelsea’s transfer business
Amid all the rancor over the transfers that haven’t happened, it can be easy to forget that Chelsea have added two very good players to their squad who can reasonably be expected to hit the ground running. That is certainly true of Raheem Sterling, scorer of over 100 Premier League goals before he has even turned 28. There is a natural spot for him in the squad if Tuchel continues with his 3-4-3 system, and his ability to first find space, and then the ball, in the box is among the very best in the country. Only Mohamed Salah averaged more touches in the penalty area per 90 Premier League minutes last season than Sterling, who averages 0.47 non-penalty expected goals just from shots in that part of the pitch over the last five years. He even overperforms that to a marginal extent, a marked contrast with the player whose minutes he profiles to most significantly eat into: Timo Werner.
Kalidou Koulibaly may not bring experience of the English game to Stamford Bridge but he is a titan of center backs, one who Chelsea have coveted for seven or more years since Conte phoned Aurelio De Laurentiis pleading to get the Senegal international. “I will give him to you if I don’t need him,” was the Napoli owner’s message. Eventually Koulibaly could not be kept in Naples any longer and Tuchel gets to work with a player who could comfortably succeed Thiago Silva as the anchor of a back three or take Antonio Rudiger’s role as the progressive center back now that the German has gone to Real Madrid.
What Chelsea have done, then, is impressive. The issue is more the deals they have not been able to get across the line, largely due to the pesky meddling of Barcelona, who are seemingly determined to translate Confessions of a Shopaholic into the European footballing universe. The Catalans swooped in to snare Raphinha from Chelsea, who themselves had been toasting their beating of Arsenal in the battle for the Brazilian winger. To rub salt in the wounds they then went and did the same over Jules Kounde, after a summer in which the lure of a move to the Nou Camp seems to have tempted club captain Cesar Azpilicueta. Though give the bad blood between the two teams, it appears Chelsea will not let their longtime defensive stalwart trade London for Catalonia. Even without his departure though, the Blues need at least one more center back to succeed the departed Andreas Christensen, now at — you guessed it — Barcelona. Presnel Kimpembe appears to be out of reach for Tuchel, who managed him at Paris Saint-Germain.
Chelsea, in response, seem to have adopted a motto of turn-around is fair play, as they close in on adding left-sided defender Marc Cucurella after Manchester City’s reluctance to meet Brighton’s £50 million asking price. Adding a player who performed strongly as both a wing back and left sided center back for Brighton would make sense for Tuchel, who as long admired that kind of flexibility on the right side of his squad with both Azpilicueta and Reece James.
Then there are the other positions they need. Loaning out Romelu Lukaku might have been a decision that pleased Tuchel, but he may need a more orthodox center forward to offer an alternative for Kai Havertz. It spoke to some level of muddled thinking that Boehly, acting sporting director as well as chairman, even entertained a move for Cristiano Ronaldo, one of the few players who would be a more uncomfortable fit to the club’s tactics without the ball than Lukaku. There are plenty of wide forwards who might fill in at striker in a pinch but the better option would be to move out the likes of Timo Werner and Hakim Ziyech. The latter was of interest to AC Milan but the Italian champions completed a deal for a younger option in Charles De Ketelaere.
Amid all the activity, an ageing midfield seems to be on the backburner, with only the returning loanee, Conor Gallagher bolstering that unit. Gallagher is an incredibly watchable player, but his curious cocktail of pressing and shooting is not easy to slot into XIs that aren’t built with him in mind. N’Golo Kante struggles to stay fit. Jorginho struggles to cover ground swiftly enough. Both are out of contract in 2023. But then there is so much else to address that this may just slip through the cracks. Though, in the most ironic of twists, there are now rumors swirling that Chelsea could find their answer in the midfielder Barcelona have deemed surplus to requirements, Frenkie de Jong.
The preseason struggles of Chelsea
Those issues in midfield, secondary though they may be to the transfer business of the summer, were eminently visible in a frustrating 4-0 defeat to Arsenal. For all that results in preseason should be taken with a pinch of salt, there was clearly enough to cause concern for Tuchel, who questioned “the level of commitment physically and mentally” from a side who looked a long way off their opponents.
In part, you can put the mixed results down to Tuchel trying different things. In their two final games of the preseason tour, Chelsea deployed the four man defense it has long been suggested that their manager might gravitate towards. It did not particularly work. Martin Odegaard kept finding pockets of space in which to cause mischief, in particular in those half spaces on the flanks that the Blues’ back five so effectively gummed up at their defensive peak. Twice in just one move at the Camping World Stadium Odegaard finds all the space he could possibly need to pick holes in the Blues defense. Sterling, in his first start since leaving City, seems baffled at how much space Arsenal’s primary creator has been given.
It happens again seconds later. Sterling has followed the overlapping Ben White, Saka has a runner with him but Emerson has not picked up Odegaard, who then floats in a cross to the back post. Oleksandr Zinchenko might have done more than thump the ball into a defender.
It was not just against Arsenal. Charlotte FC could find pockets to exploit at will. On one occasion Reece James was dragged into a one on one against Yordy Reyne; Callum Hudson-Odoi was too late to get in position when the ball was played back to Christian Fuchs to cross. At the back post Marcos Alonso has switched off, allowing Karol Świderski to ghost in behind and very nearly embarrass Edouard Mendy, who has looked to be in skittish form this preseason.
On occasion on their US tour, Chelsea players looked like they simply did not know where to be. In reality, some of these issues Tuchel can rectify quite swiftly by reverting to the back three formation that worked so excellently for him in his first 18 months in charge. Chelsea swiftly became masters of a system that allowed them to cover most of their defensive third whilst remaining compact without the ball before suddenly stretching the field to its outer limits when possession came that way. His grand plan does not have to be unveiled on day one at Goodison Park.
What may be of more concern is what Tuchel himself viewed as a relatively lackadaisical approach to these warm up games. “We were simply not good enough,” he said after the Arsenal defeat. “We were simply not competitive.” Line ups and tactical issues can explain some of the preseason difficulties. So can a draining schedule that saw Chelsea crisscrossing the U.S, but the head coach clearly sees issues that are more deep seated than that. After all the drama of the last six months, might there just be a sense of mental exhaustion engulfing the Blues?
The head coach
Certainly, this must have been one of the most challenging period in Tuchel’s managerial career, rivaled only by the time when his Borussia Dortmund side’s bus was attacked with a bomb. It has not just been the on field obstacles posed by his side’s competing on four fronts for much of the season, one which may have ended trophyless but did see them take Liverpool to penalties in both major English cup finals. Amid all the high drama of the club’s sale from Roman Abramovich to Boehly and company, the 48 year old was the subject of widespread praise for the emotional maturity with which he approached circumstances that ranged from the most significant of global issues — Russia’s invasion of Ukraine — to who would drive the bus for a team with precious little money at their disposal.
Already beloved by Chelsea supporters for how he took a faltering side and made them European champions in a matter of months, that affection grew as he became the port in the storm that surrounded Stamford Bridge in those early months. Tuchel led the club through its most trying months in recent memory with a composure, grace and good humor that won him a depth of admiration across the game but particularly in West London.
But the eventual sale to the consortium has not ended the demands placed on Tuchel. Undoubtedly his power base has expanded into the vacuum left my the departure of long-time front office official Marina Granovskaia, something that was most apparent in how his plans seemed to put the kibosh on any serious interest in Ronaldo. If anything, however, Tuchel seems more involved in recruitment than he would like; rather than simply telling those above him what profile of player he wants, he is said to be far more involved in the process this year.
Whoever has the final say on decision it is clear that Tuchel is not happy… clear as crystal because he has said so. In bemoaning the fact that his squad was still light on players to put the ball in the net, the German told reporters after the Arsenal loss: “The analyzing of the season does not change because of this game. Unfortunately, it proved my point and the last week proves my point. I would prefer to not be right and I did everything to prove myself wrong, but at the moment I feel I was right when I look at the last season and at the parts of the game where we struggled and how we struggled.
“We got sanctioned and players left us. We know that some players are trying to leave us, and this is where it is. We had an urgent appeal for quality players and a huge amount of quality players. We’ve got two quality players – that is no doubt – but we are not competitive like this and, unfortunately, we could see it today.”
This perhaps is the greatest concern for Chelsea as they head into the new season; that cracks are forming between manager and club just as they did under Mourinho and Conte. That is not to suggest for a moment that there could be a comparable level of toxicity, particularly in relation to the former, but instead that the bonds between Tuchel and the club may become frayed. That would be hard to do. This is a coach who swiftly and sincerely reached the conclusion that he wanted to lay down roots at Chelsea, to become the man for the long term at a club whose defining principle for two decades had been that the winds of change could blow this side beyond their rivals.
Even the slim possibility that Tuchel’s view might change ought to be the one issue emerging from preseason that keeps Boehly up at night, far more than losing out to Barcelona for the next big signing, that the unity fostered from the Champions League run of 2021 to the high drama of 12 months later might be weakened. If it was, that and that alone that this preseason brought, it would be a cataclysmic summer for Chelsea.
- Premier League finish: 5th
- Top scorer: Raheem Sterling and KaI Havertz tie… on a lot more goals than Romelu Lukaku’s 15
- Player of the season: Reece James
- Something unexpected: This proves to be Thomas Tuchel’s final season in the job