Thomas Tuchel has admitted that the absence of Chelsea’s first choice full-backs is the ‘biggest reason’ to explaining why the Blues fell off in the Premier League title race despite the most recent Burnley win.
The Blues have continued their resilient form since Roman Abramovich put the big for sale sign outside Stamford Bridge more than a week ago.
First off, their spirited performance in the Carabao Cup final coupled with the two displays against Luton and Burnley in different competitions demonstrates the improved mentality of the team.
But is it a surprise that in all three of these aforementioned fixtures, Reece James has featured in some capacity after his nine week injury absence?
His commanding threat down the right paid dividends this weekend at Turf Moor as the 22-year-old opened the scoring on Saturday with his low driven attempt that nestled into Nick Pope’s far corner.
James then also provided an assist for one of the other three goals and his performance overall, alongside receiving customary praise from manager Thomas Tuchel, drew a big Trent Alexander-Arnold comparison ahead of the FIFA World Cup as Gabby Agbonlahor reckons he should start over his biggest competitor in Qatar.
“We missed him for such a long time that we almost got used to it,” Tuchel said in his post-match press conference in Lancashire. “I think it was like nine weeks and we played something like 25 matches in that time.
“We were constantly trying to find solutions and we did find solutions as a team, and we managed to win games and even trophies in this period.
“But once he is back and plays three times, and first time from the beginning, you see what we missed. Huge quality and it’s very impressive how decisive he is.”
Kai Havertz, who received an assist from the right-back in question, also delivered his verdict on how he thought his teammate fared in this round of fixtures.
“He’s a special player for us, a very important player for us,” Havertz told Chelsea’s in-house media. “He’s a full-back, but he also scores. He’s a great character and a very good player.”
With all the praise swirling around James, it’s not difficult to conclude why the current World and European Champions fell off dramatically in December 2021 in the title race with dropped points in many games including Brighton, Everton and others.
Now, reflecting on what went wrong and why Chelsea’s title challenge derailed, Tuchel pointed to James’ and Ben Chilwell’s absence as the ‘biggest reason’ to explain this dip.
“I said it many times, I think the biggest struggle for us in this season in this moment is the injuries of key players and long-term injuries of key players and Reecey is one of the key players, and also Ben Chilwell,” Tuchel stated in the embargoed part of his post-match press conference.
“We had players out for many weeks and that cost us. On top of that was the COVID situation where we sometimes struggled in a crazy way where we arrived in Wolverhampton with 14 payers and stuff like this.
“Yeah, I think this is the biggest reason in the period where the gap opened because we need everybody. Having these kind of players available, doesn’t mean they are automatically always on the pitch, but it does something to the group because everyone needs to fight for it and then you create an atmosphere where you are better than individuals and you start getting better.
“It’s the key reason. We are still in third place, we are still in the FA Cup, we are still in the Champions League, so there’s no need to be fully disappointed, absolutely not. We still have a lot to fight for. The race continues.”
Looking ahead to Norwich and with Marcos Alonso out with Covid, James is in line to start yet another game on his return from injury but Tuchel is more than wary of not wanting to ‘overuse’ his star player.
The Chelsea manager contemplated: “Marcus is still ill, not very ill, but he still has some [Covid] symptoms and is absolutely not able to do training.
“The good thing is I think it makes a huge difference for Reece if he plays 65 or 70 minutes or 90 minutes which is now ideal because we have four days in between which should give us the possibility to play in Norwich.
“Of course we have to take care and we cannot overuse him.”