For all his pained expressions and dramatic gestures on the touchline, Thomas Tuchel must be pretty pleased with how it’s going at Chelsea, a month after stepping into the hot-seat.
The Blues remain unbeaten under the German, having won six and drawn two. He must take satisfaction in how quickly he has whipped his defence into shape; a rearguard that is already establishing a reputation for being watertight.
A highly impressive 1-0 win against Atletico Madrid further leads us to believe that Chelsea are on an upward trajectory and, though Roberto Di Matteo may beg to differ, success in Europe gets an awful lot of credit from the club’s hierarchy. Next up is Manchester United at the Bridge on Sunday afternoon. It is arguably Tuchel’s toughest domestic challenge to date.
It is a top six clash that begins a trend in the coming weeks, with Chelsea taking on United, Liverpool and Everton one after the other, while United follow their trips to the Bridge with Manchester City and West Ham all before mid-March.
Sunday’s game pits two coaches who are viewed very differently. Because whereas Tuchel has long been feted as the next managerial superstar of the Premier League his opposite number seemingly must reprove his credentials every calendar month.
Not that Ole Gunnar Solskjaer will be too fussed about that. Nor will he be especially dazzled by Tuchel’s bright start: on taking the reins at Old Trafford the Norwegian enjoyed eight straight wins. His present side, meanwhile, are in fine fettle, second in the table and boasting an away record that astounds.
This is a fixture with three compelling aspects that will surely determine its outcome and we will get to them. First though, let’s take a closer look at that superstar in the making.
Tuchel vs Lampard
Comparing Tuchel’s opening eight games with his predecessor’s last eight can give a false reading.
In Frank Lampard’s favour are two comfortable cup wins against lower league fare, not to mention no tough continental opposition in the form of Atletico. Putting him at a disadvantage is a run that led to his sacking. As for Tuchel, he is clearly still finding his bearings and experimenting at this point.
Even so, matching these games up offers fascinating insights.
At the back, Lampard’s Chelsea were under-estimated, as proven by a concession rate of a goal every 96 minutes across the campaign until his dismissal. Defensively speaking that is top four form.
Tuchel, however, has taken the Blues’ solidity to a whole other level.
Having previously only dabbled with a three at the back at Dortmund and PSG it is a system he has immediately turned to, with Antonio Rudiger and a revived Cesar Azpilicueta especially embracing the change. Chelsea have conceded only twice in their last eight games.
It is at the other end where the new gaffer is encountering some frustration with just 1.25 goals per game so far paling to Lampard’s 1.75. This has been explained away in some quarters by Timo Werner and co being wasteful but in fact that is not the case: more accurately Chelsea are now creating fewer chances.
In Lampard’s final eight games, his side took on 131 shots, with 43 of them on target. That has decreased under Tuchel to 102 shots and ten fewer testing the goalkeeper.
The home side are 4/6 to score under 1.5 goals
Prolific United vs a blue brick wall
Bruno Fernandes will be the focus of much attention this weekend, which is apt given that Portuguese journalist Sergio Pires once called him Sporting’s ‘centre of gravity’.
Since joining United the 26-year-old has the same number of goal involvements (54) as Lionel Messi while only Mo Salah has out-scored him in the top-flight this term.
Yet it would be unwise of the hosts to only have eyes for a sparkling talent who is currently evens to be crowned the PFA Player of the Year. United are the Premier League’s leading scorers and goals are flying in from everywhere.
In 2021, 10 different players have wheeled away in celebration and it bodes well for the Reds that Edinson Cavani is back in contention after injury. Three of the Uruguayan’s seven goals this season have come at the death and with Solskjaer’s side gaining a reputation as comeback kings this makes the likely sub a useful asset. It also makes Cavani to be the last goal-scorer a decent shout.
Elsewhere Scott McTominay has discovered an eye for goal with three in his last five appearances.
Only here, United’s free-scoring machine come up against a side that have accumulated 19 clean sheets across all comps; a unit that prevented Atletico Madrid from taking even a speculative shot on target on Tuesday.
Something has to give.
Chelsea’s misfiring attack v a porous defence
If United have varied means of finding the net they also unfortunately have found many different ways of conceding this season. They have been breached as often as Brighton down in 16th.
This should light up the eyes of Timo Werner who is desperate to get on the score-sheet after regularly misfiring since joining in the summer from RB Leipzig. The former goal machine has scored every 366 minutes in the league. In his defence, however, only eight players have created more assists across the Premier League.
And speaking of assists, aid may come from Chelsea’s rearguard who have compensated for the shortfall up front admirably this term. A startling 26.8% of the Blues’ league goals have come courtesy of defenders.
Don’t discount the possibility of a penalty or two. Only Leicester have been awarded more spot-kicks than either Chelsea or United to date.
Chelsea and Man Utd are 4/1 and 5/1 respectively to score from the spot.
Chelsea the front-runners v United the comeback kings
In recent weeks, the visitors have lapsed into a habit of conceding early but that’s barely been a problem given their propensity to turn results around. Solskjaer’s men have accrued a staggering 22 points from losing positions.
Chelsea meanwhile tend to be front-runners, taking the lead on 13 occasions. They’re good at it too, only losing once.
So here we have a team who like to get their noses in front and stay there taking on a side who typically turn deficits into victories. As with the contest between United’s front-line and Chelsea’s stoic defence, something has to give.
Perhaps then the determining factor is the Reds’ away form. Quite why more isn’t made of this remains a mystery because the last time they lost on the road Covid was an unknown quantity and Frank Lampard was just a few short months into a bright career in the Chelsea dug-out.
Chelsea/Man Utd in the half time/full time market is a very tempting 22/1.