The business end of the season is the wrong time for questions to be asked regarding a team’s ability to get the job done, but that is precisely the scenario that Chelsea find themselves in after Saturday’s FA Cup Final defeat against Leicester City.
Out of nowhere, Chelsea’s almost serene renaissance under manager Thomas Tuchel, who replaced the sacked Frank Lampard in mid-January, has become a slump and the former Borussia Dortmund and Paris Saint Germain coach is faced with the task of saving the club’s season for a second time.
Just a week ago, Tuchel’s team were cruising to a top-four finish in the Premier League, were strong favourites to beat Leicester at Wembley and, having beaten Manchester City for the second time in 21 days, had positioned themselves as the side most likely to win the Champions League when the two clubs meet in the final in Porto on May 29. But what a difference a week makes. Two 1-0 defeats — at home to Arsenal in the league, and against Leicester at Wembley on Saturday — have knocked Chelsea off their stride and doubts are now creeping in from all angles.
Big wins in the league for Leicester and Liverpool over the past seven days — both against Manchester United at Old Trafford — have also chipped away at Chelsea’s morale, and their grip on a top-four spot has been loosened even further by Liverpool’s dramatic victory at West Brom on Sunday, when goalkeeper Alisson Becker headed the winning goal with seconds remaining.
All of which explains why Tuesday’s Premier League clash with Leicester at Stamford Bridge has become so crucial. If Saturday was about the glory of lifting a trophy, Tuesday is about the financial importance, and prestige, of playing in the Champions League next season, and it’s debatable as to which carries most importance. Chelsea can still, of course, secure Champions League qualification by winning it vs. Man City, but they’ve lost any margin for error.
“Does losing the Cup Final add to the pressure? Absolutely not,” Tuchel said after the FA Cup defeat. “Arsenal made the pressure for Tuesday: Saturday was an isolated game. The Arsenal defeat has a lot to do with Tuesday, but the Man City win also has a lot to do with it too, in a positive way.
“It is in our hands. We have two finals [in the league], against Leicester and Aston Villa, and then another final [against Man City]. It is about bouncing back now.”
Tuchel’s insistence that Chelsea can still control their own destiny was echoed by Ashley Cole, the club’s former defender, in his role as a match pundit during the cup final. But Cole, who won eight major trophies (including the Premier League and Champions League) during his eight seasons at Stamford Bridge, delivered a more blunt assessment of Chelsea’s situation.
“Is it the same team as Frank Lampard’s?” Cole said. “When Frank was here, they controlled and dominated games but couldn’t finish it off. The last couple of weeks, it has felt the same.
“Chelsea have three cup finals now, basically, if they want to finish in the top four and win the Champions League. They have got to pick themselves up and go again. They can’t feel sorry for themselves.”
Cole’s observation about Tuchel’s team beginning to regress back into the side that lost its way under Lampard is perhaps slightly premature. It’s been eight days since Tuchel’s players beat champions City at the Etihad to take what seemed to be a huge step towards clinching a top-four finish. But some of the issues that haunted Lampard’s team are beginning to resurface, with a lack of goals being a problem Tuchel hasn’t really been able to solve.
Lampard’s team scored just four goals in his final five league games in charge, and Tuchel’s side have only managed five in their last five league games. The cup final loss against Leicester was another example of the team lacking a cutting edge. During Tuchel’s 27 games in charge, Chelsea have scored more than two goals in a game just once — a 4-1 win at Crystal Palace in April — and their failure to score in their last two games, against Arsenal and Leicester, has led to damaging defeats each time.
Craig Burley shares his thoughts on Leicester City’s first FA Cup title after their win vs. Chelsea.
Tuchel has been able to get more consistency from expensive summer signings Timo Werner and Kai Havertz than Lampard, but neither Germany forward been anything close to prolific. Havertz, who did not start against Leicester, has only scored three goals — against mid-table Palace and relegated Fulham — in 19 games under Tuchel, while Werner has been even less productive, with three goals in 21 games. The former PSG boss has overseen an improvement in Christian Pulisic‘s form, but the American rarely starts the biggest games. As for Mason Mount, arguably Chelsea’s player of the season, Tuchel said after the Wembley defeat that the young England midfielder needed a break to revitalise himself after 61 appearances for club and country this season.
Defensively, Chelsea remain strong, with Antonio Rudiger making a big difference to the team’s solidity since being restored to the team by Tuchel after being consistently overlooked by Lampard. But Tuchel’s tinkering in goal has proved costly. Kepa Arrizabalaga played in the defeats against Leicester and Arsenal as Tuchel rested Edouard Mendy, who has been outstanding since arriving from Rennes last summer. Mendy will return against Leicester, but the damage to Chelsea’s confidence has already been done.
As both Tuchel and Cole said, Chelsea’s fate remains in their own hands. Three wins from their final three games of the season will ensure a top four finish and the club’s second Champions League title. It’s all there for Chelsea to grasp, but Tuchel cannot rely solely on narrow counter-attacking victories each time. Their luck ran out with that approach against Arsenal and Leicester and the form of Werner and Havertz suggests it would be a high-risk strategy to pursue.
Despite the shortcomings he must overcome, though, Tuchel heads into this crucial fortnight with confidence.
“I’m not sure if we can be more determined,” he said. “There is no reason to say we are not strong enough. We were strong enough to get to the cup final, but these challenges are not easy. Still, I know many teams will be jealous of where we are right now.”