Rudiger proves a point
It was at the weekend that news emerged that Antonio Rudiger had opted to leave Chelsea when his contract comes to an end in the summer. Yet with the centre-back ruled out of Sunday’s game against West Ham United due to injury, Thomas Tuchel had to wait until the trip to Old Trafford to discover that decision would impact the 29-year-old’s performance.
“I’m maybe as curious as you are but I have no reason to doubt,” the Blues head coach said ahead of the game. “He has cleared up his personal situation and we know what’s going on so this should normally give him a peaceful mindset to perform on the level that he demands from himself and that we demand.”
Rudiger, who was well-supported by the travelling Chelsea fans throughout the 1-1 draw, took his customary spot on the left of the Chelsea back three and was his usual reliable presence in the opening period. There was one exquisite pass played over the Manchester United defence for Timo Werner, a shot on goal from distance that comfortably cleared the crossbar, and a tough challenge on Cristiano Ronaldo that led to a verbal exchange between the pair.
It was more of the same from Tuchel’s “aggressive leader” in the second half and he made sure to get involved, albeit belatedly, in the confrontation between Reece James and Nemanja Matic. Rudiger was also booked lack on for a cynical but very important foul on Juan Mata and then caught Anthony Elanga high after challenging for the ball. He thankfully escaped a second yellow.
The clock is now very much ticking on Rudiger’s Chelsea career. He will play a maximum of six more matches for the Blues before departing the club and, almost certainly, joining Real Madrid on a free transfer. So Tuchel and the club’s supporters should appreciate what they’ve got before it’s gone, because one thing is for certain, Chelsea will not get another player quite like Rudiger.
Tuchel returns to Champions League formula
Throughout this season, due to form, injuries and a handful of Covid cases, Tuchel has had to rotate his side on a game-by-game basis. And there were two changes made to the Chelsea starting XI against United with Rudiger and Reece James back in the team after both missed the 1-0 win over West Ham.
Their respective returns, however, meant that of the eleven players that started the contest at Old Trafford, ten were also included in the side that began and won the Champions League final last term. Across the pitch, there were strong relationships: Cesar Azpilcueta, Thiago Silva and Rudiger in the backline; Jorginho and N’Golo Kante in midfield; Werner, Kai Havertz and Mason Mount in the attack.
James was also deployed at right wing-back rather than at centre-back – a call that more than paid off as the England international dominated the right flank and ensured that Manchester United full-back Alex Telles, who was linked with a move to Stamford Bridge prior to Ben Chilwell’s signing, endured a torrid evening.
Kante was back to something resembling his best too. The 31-year-old has struggled for form since the turn of the year, but there was an energy to his game that has often been absent. Twice in the first half, he drove forward and fashioned a chance for a teammate; one of those was a clear opportunity for Havertz that the German should have scored.
Had Tuchel been able to call upon something close to this side throughout the campaign, perhaps Chelsea would be closer to Manchester City and Liverpool in the Premier League title race. It’s something the German conceded after the contest given the display of James in particular.
“When I see today Reece James play [at this level and think] and we missed him for 12 weeks, I am very impressed we are still in the top three, were so close to reaching another semi-final in the Champions League, and reached finals in both cups because you see the amount of quality that was missing.
“Today, other key players are missing. Mateo Kovacic, who was so decisive at the beginning of the season, the same with N’Golo Kante, same with Ben Chilwell. This was the story of the season.
“The big difference is Man City and Liverpool, in these moments, a full squad is available and we struggled with Covid periods and long-term injuries. This is more decisive than the other thing. We had weeks where we were composed and strong and efficient in front of goal.”
Changes don’t pay off
Having watched his side create – and largely waste – chance after chance across 70 minutes of last night’s contest, it was little surprise that Tuchel turned to his substitutes’ bench as Chelsea pushed to score the winner that their performance very much deserved.
A double change was made by the Blues’ head coach. Off went Havertz and Wener. On came Christian Pulisic on Romelu Lukaku, a duo who cost a combined £157million. Both players possess the quality to win matches, to turn one point into three. Tuchel’s decision was understandable. Unfortunately, it didn’t pay off.
Tuchel tried to do his bit. During a stoppage in play in which Jorginho received treatment for an injury, the German spent a good minute in conversation with Lukaku on the side of the Old Trafford pitch and dished out instructions to the Belgian. He also attempted to cajole Pulisic minutes later, but the American star didn’t appear to be overly appreciative and raised his arms in exasperation.
During the final 20 minutes of the game, Chelsea’s attack went from constantly menacing to disappointingly meek. Only three shots on goal were registered, none of which came from Pulisic or Lukaku, the latter of whom touched the ball on just four occasions as the game drifted to a close.
Tuchel spoke after the game about his disappointment that Chelsea couldn’t turn their dominance into goals. He said: “I thought we were very strong on and off the ball, very dominant on the ball, very aggressive off the ball, had a lot of ball wins, had a lot of deliveries [into the box], and found a lot of spaces around the box. Unfortunately, we lacked precision around the box and a bit of determination to finish it off early in the match, but also throughout the whole match.
“Unfortunately, when we had it, we gave it away in one minute. So it started all over again. The reaction was good again so I am very happy with the performance because it was a huge team effort and I think we showed what we need to win on a big stage, a big stadium. On a focus level, a physical impact level, we played with a huge team effort, a lot of quality. Unfortunately, we don’t have what we deserve so we have to live with a point.”