Tuchel continues his cup tradition
It’s somewhat easy to forget that Thomas Tuchel has been in charge of Chelsea for just 15 months. Plenty has happened in that time period – more than many head coaches experience in an entire career – but through it all, the 48-year-old has been a reassuring, confident and influential presence both on the pitch and off it.
Against Crystal Palace, Tuchel could focus on doing what he does best: coaching. He watched his side struggle to break down the Eagles in the first half and spent plenty of the opening 45 minutes scribbling down notes. And the tactical switch he did make at the break, which saw Chelsea switch to a 3-5-2 with Mason Mount and Ruben Loftus-Cheek play as eights alongside Jorginho, paid off with the two academy graduates getting on the scoresheet.
The 2-0 win meant Tuchel has continued his freakish record of having never lost a semi-final; the German has progressed from eleven of them now, be it over two legs or in a single knockout game. He has also reached his sixth final with Chelsea in less than 18 months, another rather incredible achievement.
“To play a final is so special,” Tuchel told Chelsea’s in-house media after the game. “The days before, the day itself. Sometimes it doesn’t feel nice when you have the pressure and tension, but in general, it’s really, really good. I don’t want to get used to it. I still feel that it is special and a second FA Cup final, I am very grateful.”
Last season, Tuchel couldn’t mastermind victory for the Blues in the FA Cup final as Leicester City recorded a 1-0 victory. This time it will be Liverpool standing between Chelsea and their third trophy of the campaign and that is certainly not an easy proposition. However, in three meetings this term, the Blues haven’t been beaten by Jurgen Klopp’s side outside of penalty shootouts, so there is reason to be confident ahead of next month’s showpiece game.
Werner revitalisation continues
Tuchel had a couple of tricky calls to make when selecting his side for yesterday’s semi-final. Yet his attack picked itself after the demolition of Southampton last weekend and the excellent performance in vain against Real Madrid at the Bernabeu on Tuesday night.
So that meant Kai Havertz started once more. Mount too. And completing the trio again was Timo Werner, who has enjoyed the most unlikely of Chelsea career revivals this month. The German’s time at Stamford Bridge appeared all but over. His performances were poor and his confidence was shot. A summer departure, perhaps to a club in the Bundesliga, felt inevitable.
But thrown into the team to face Southampton, Werner thrived. He scored twice and grabbed an assist. Suddenly, he was back in the picture and kept his place against Real Madrid. That he scored Chelsea’s third goal on the night – and for fleeting moments appeared to be the Blues’ hero – was as unexpected as it was exhilarating.
What Southampton, and to a lesser extent Real Madrid, gave Werner though was space to exploit. There was very little of that against Crystal Palace at Wembley. Patrick Vieira switched his side’s system to 3-5-2 and attempted to shut down Chelsea at every avenue. The challenge was whether Wermer could still make his presence felt.
In the opening period, he struggled. Yet so did many of Werner’s Chelsea teammates. There was an energy to his game, though – a spriteliness that many of the Blues’ stars simply don’t possess near the end of a gruelling campaign. In that sense, Werner’s lack of football across the campaign is perhaps paying off in a rather surprising fashion.
After the interval, Werner continued to burst into gaps that opened up, often without reward. He did, however, have an impact on the contest as it was his intelligent pass to Mount that allowed the academy graduate to break into the Palace penalty area and score. The 26-year-old later fashioned a golden opportunity for Romelu Lukaku but the Belgian contrived to hit the post from six yards out.
“The players take care of their place in the team,” Tuchel said when asked about Werner’s display at Wembley. “It was very hard to find spaces today and be decisive but he assisted the second goal. Timo at the moment is a huge part [of the team] is taking care that he stays in the team.”
Werner will certainly hope that is the case in the weeks ahead. Chelsea still have big games to play in the Premier League, starting with Arsenal’s visit to Stamford Bridge on Wednesday night. It’s taken far, far longer than anticipated but perhaps the German has finally found his feet and will be pivotal for the Blues in the season run-in.
Rolls Reece does it again
As he left the Bernabeu pitch on Tuesday night having kept Vinicius Junior quiet – bar one painfully important cross – James was asked for his shirt by Karim Benzema, the Real Madrid star who had tormented Chelsea and scored four goals across the two legs of their quarter-final tie.
It was a mark of respect and another followed later on social media as Vinicius praised James’ display on the right of Chelsea’s back three, a position he played regularly at youth level but not one he has often been deployed in since making his breakthrough at Stamford Bridge under Frank Lampard.
Such is James’ natural talent and composure, he is able to adapt to what is needed by a head coach. That was highlighted once more at Wembley as the 22-year-old was again used as a centre-back rather than a wing-back, almost certainly to curtail the threat of Palace talisman Wilfried Zaha.
James locked down the righthand side of the pitch in the opening 45 minutes and both Zaha and Jean-Philippe Mateta discovered there is little point in an attacker trying to physically overpower the England international in one-on-one duels.
Positionally, the Cobham graduate was also flawless and there was one second-half interception that bailed Andreas Christensen out after he was caught in possession inside the Chelsea penalty area.
Such is the self-confidence with which James is playing, there was even a point midway through the second period that he decided to play in midfield for a couple of minutes. That meant Jorginho covered for the defender out on the right of the back three, but it was clear the Italian wasn’t overly comfortable with that prospect and shouted hurridly at James to swap positions back so that he returned in more familiar territory.
Loftus-Cheek lays down a marker
As Mateo Kovacic hobbled off the Wembley pitch, it felt telling that Tuchel chose Ruben Loftus-Cheek as the Croatian’s replacement over N’Golo Kante. Ahead of the semi-final, the Chelsea head coach spoke passionately about Loftus-Cheek’s potential, mindset, and confidence. This was a moment for the midfielder to deliver.
Loftus-Cheek needed the remainder of the opening period to get up to speed having been thrown on cold. But after the break, and with Tuchel having tweaked his midfield structure, the academy graduate began to show exactly what he is capable of and his goal was a wonderful strike, one that highlighted his technical quality but also his physical gifts. It was a thunderous shot from just inside the penalty area.
There is a hugely influential player within Loftus-Cheek. Tuchel knows that full well and has challenged the 26-year-old to finally realise his vast potential. “It was a big moment,” the German coach said. “You see in his celebration, it was nice because he is usually a very clam and quiet guy. But to see him like this, jumping and celebrating a goal was good.
“As I said ahead of the game, he has the opposite of over-confidence. We need to install this confidence into his body, into his game, and these are the next steps for him that he can absolutely feel how much influence he can have. We want him to show everybody in the stadium his potential and not only us on the training ground. These are the next steps for him and we will encourage him to do so.”
Loftus-Cheek’s display at Wembley wasn’t his best in a Chelsea shirt – that almost certainly came during the 2018/19 campaign, pre his nasty achilles injury – but it was a marker as to the impact he can make. And with Kovacic’s ankle injury almost certain to keep him out of Wednesday’s clash against Arsenal, the England international will be desperate to be handed another appearance in midfield.
That is a big decision for Tuchel to make. Jorginho has the big-match experience and Kante will be fresh having only played the final 13 minutes of the contest at Wembley. But Loftus-Cheek will head into the game in a confident mood, and that is something the Chelsea head coach may feel is worth capitalising on given his pre-match comments.