Seven games – four wins, two draws and a critical loss to start the calendar year. January 2022 has again been a mixed month for Tuchel’s Chelsea as they reached another domestic cup final, progressed in another, yet all but relinquished any faint hopes of their already very slim Premier League title pursuit.
Adding to this backdrop was the consistent inconsistency with respect to match cancellations being permitted for some, but not for others (cough cough Chelsea) as well continuing to combat the relentless fixture schedule with diminished resources. Off the pitch, the Blues adopted a largely inactive transfer policy stance during the January transfer window which came as a bit of a surprise/frustration for fans given the key injuries and contract positions of certain players the club has had to manage.
Before examining the key themes for January 2022, let’s quickly recap on our results during the month:
- Chelsea 2-2 Liverpool (2 Jan)
- Chelsea 2-0 Tottenham (6 Jan) – EFL Cup Semi-Final 1st Leg
- Chelsea 5-1 Chesterfield (9 Jan) – FA Cup 3rd Round
- Tottenham 0-1 Chelsea (13 Jan) – EFL Cup Semi-Final 2nd Leg
- Manchester City 1-0 Chelsea (15 Jan)
- Brighton 1-1 Chelsea (19 Jan)
- Chelsea 2-0 Tottenham (24 Jan)
As is outlined above, the Blues endured a difficult month both in terms of opponents faced, as well as the results that ensued. On one hand, Chelsea performed strongly in the domestic cup competitions to give themselves an opportunity to add more silverware, however, they also disappointingly managed to draw twice and only win once in the Premier League against Tottenham (which appears to be a given in recent times).
Importantly, Tuchel’s men lost a six-pointer against front-runners City to basically rule out their short-lived hopes of reclaiming the Premier League crown this season. While anything can happen in football, Chelsea are currently 10 points behind the Citizens who have a game in hand and therefore a comeback would truly be, in the words of Phil Collins, against all odds!
So without further ado, let’s examine the key themes in January 2022 and the road ahead in February 2022.
Tuchel tinkers system with mixed success
Given the long-term injury to Ben Chilwell, which was then compounded by the injury to Reece James in late December, a key component of Tuchel’s system (in both attack and defence) was heavily disrupted. Consequently, the key question was: how would Tuchel offset the loss / minimise the impact of these two star performers?
As it turned out, one of the levers Tuchel has decided to utilise was switching to a ‘hybrid’ back four in attack, but try to keep the defensive solidity via a back five off the ball. During January, this appeared to be relatively successful. This hybrid back four was deployed against Tottenham three times (and successful in all of them) and against Brighton in which the Blues drew 1-1 via a cheap goal from a set piece i.e. no correlation to the system used.
Interestingly, and while not binary by any means, the three occasions where the tried & tested back three was used, the Blues lost against City, drew against Liverpool and strolled past National League opponents Chesterfield FC.
In terms of the way forward, it’s only been a small sample size to draw too many concrete conclusions about the success or otherwise of the hybrid back four. Further, Tuchel did acknowledge his decision to change up his preferred 3-4-2-1 / 3-4-3 was influenced by not having enough fit & healthy defenders at the time. That said, the performances under the new hybrid structure should give confidence to Tuchel that this is a genuine option in certain fixtures.
Blues makeshift defence has stood firm
5 goals conceded in seven matches. For perspective, three were against the top two teams in the country, one a consolation in the FA Cup and last being a header from a corner.
Another common theme for the Blues during the season, which again would be prevalent during January, has been the amount of rotation that’s taken place. Some of this has been strategic in nature as part of regular game-to-game tactics, whereas a significant portion of it has been forced either due to injury, illness or fatigue management.
Throughout the month, Chelsea have had the likes of Andreas Christensen, Trevoh Chalobah and Reece James (late December) nursing injuries. Consequently, more reliance has had to be placed upon the team’s seasoned campaigners in Captain Cesar Azpilicueta and Antonio Rudiger who have been superb in terms of helping hold down the fort. Thiago Silva aka ‘The Benjamin Button of Football’ as designated by Tuchel has also been a pivotal member in helping keep the ship steady at the back.
However, a special shout-out should also be afforded to the following players:
- Malang Sarr. The recently-turned 23-year-old enjoyed a stellar month for the Blues. Malang played in multiple positions in both systems, including LB in our hybrid back four, and scarcely put a foot wrong. While he hasn’t necessarily showed the attacking prowess of some of his peers (which is fairness he wasn’t expected to do), his primary defensive contribution has been sound and his ball playing has steadily improved with each passing game.
- Kepa Arrizabalaga. Prior to the season commencing one of the concerns from sections of the fanbase was how would Chelsea fare without superstar Goalkeeper Edouard Mendy while he participated at the African Cup of Nations. To Kepa’s credit, he has shown that he’s been more than a capable deputy to Ed, including keeping clean sheets this month against Tottenham and putting in commendable performances against Manchester City, Liverpool and Brighton.
Chelsea’s attack struggled to gain proper rhythm
Despite scoring 13 times in seven games during the month, the reality is that this is an inflated figure due to the five goals Chelsea scored against National League outfit Chesterfield FC.
While the Blues delivered some promising attacking displays throughout January, for example, the opening halves against Liverpool and the first leg of the EFL Cup semi-final against Tottenham, there were also some lethargic and disjointed performances at times which caused some collective head scratching / shaking from Tuchel and the Chelsea faithful.
Against Manchester City at the Etihad, where there’s an acceptance that purposeful pragmatism is permitted, the need for clinical efficiency was at an all-time high. In that match, the front three of Lukaku, Ziyech and Pulisic were collectively unable to utilise their individual strengths for the benefit of the team, and, when the half & full moments came, they failed to deliver. This lack of ruthlessness was also evident against Brighton when Hudson-Odoi failed to double the Blues’ advantage late in the first half following a nice lay-off by by Lukaku.
That said, there were some encouraging displays from certain individuals, for example: Hakim Ziyech has started to find his goal-scoring boots (including scoring an unbelievable goal-of-the-month contender against Tottenham, along with Kovacic’s incredible volley from outside the box against Liverpool); Hudson-Odoi has shown some glimpses of his dribbling talents as his second half performance against Spurs during the Blues’ 2-0 win was brilliant; and; Pulisic scored a superb equaliser against Liverpool (although he missed a clearer chance at 0-0).
In attempting to understand some of the underlying causes behind this topsy-turvy attacking display that’s been observed over the past month, one of the key insights that stood out was the amount of variation of personnel used in these forward positions. On one hand this may have been routine tactical adjustments for specific opponents/injury management, but equally, and thinking about it more critically based on what’s been evident on the pitch, these frequent changes in personnel appear to be at least somewhat attributed to Tuchel not being able to clearly identify which of his attackers best flourish with one another and bring the best balance to the rest of the team. This is no doubt been a focal point that Tuchel continues to trouble shoot.
It must be said though that as this is a ‘team’ sport, it would be unfair to solely place blame on the team’s indifferent performances in front of goal to those occupying those more advanced positions. In other words, it is vital that there is a sufficient understanding & execution of the roles behind the forwards, and that includes having the midfield and defenders providing good service to their attackers. This also extends to Tuchel as well in ensuring his players are properly prepared for the matches and selecting the best composition that provides the most balance in attack & defence.
Bridging the gap continues to be a work in progress
The clearest and most unfortunate takeaway from the month of January 2022 was realising where Chelsea Football Club currently is in terms of its true aspirations of reclaiming the Premier League crown.
Some will point to Chelsea’s fast-start to the season where the Tuchel and his troops were riding high on confidence, winning games convincingly (or unconvincingly), and found themselves sitting pretty on top of the Premier League summit. Untouchable. Or so some thought.
Unfortunately an acute set of injuries and covid-induced absences to key players swiftly and painfully revealed a bitter truth – Chelsea are not quite there yet in terms of bridging the gap between themselves and Manchester City, and to a lesser extent, Liverpool. Tuchel has done an incredible job in having his players rise up on the big, one-off occasions against the very best, but when it comes to the multiple-games-a-week grind, it is a different beast entirely (especially with an unprecedented global pandemic and inconsistent rules being applied).
Despite this painful reality, Chelsea have made great strides over the past couple of seasons and still have plenty to play for this season for in terms of Premier League progression and continued trophy accumulation. The trick will be for Tuchel and his men to maintain their hunger and be able to push through the pain barrier over the coming months as they continue to battle physical and mental exhaustion.
The Chelsea character of old would be handy right about now.
Off-field distractions appear to have impacted on-field performances
Adding to a list of injuries and illnesses was the highly unfortunate and ill-timed off-field drama involving that interview from Romelu Lukaku.
After the club spent the best part of £100m to bring back the Belgian striker to the club, and with the cosy narrative that accompanied his supposed dream return, his personal interview with Sky Sports sent shockwaves throughout the Chelsea and global footballing community. While Lukaku in his apology noted his messaging should have been clearer and wasn’t intended to be disrespectful to the club, Thomas Tuchel or the fans, his quotes ultimately caused a huge distraction within the club and compounded the issues already being faced by his manager and his team-mates.
More recently in the month there were also quotes from Chelsea’s ‘Captain America’ Christian Pulisic who expressed his frustrations about being not being utilised in his most preferred positions, although in his defence his comments were far more subdued. Notwithstanding the more mild nature of his comments, the more that players come out to the media to vent their frustrations, the more pressure this incidentally (or deliberately) places on Tuchel and the club which can eventually lead to a more terminal outcome.
The club, Tuchel and the fans will be hoping for collective unity and strong team spirit from February onwards given the several trophies at stake and desire to finish as high up the Premier League ladder as possible.
The Road Ahead (February 2022)
Chelsea finished off January 2022 with a morale-boosting 2-0 win over Tottenham, but perhaps the biggest boost involved the action off the pitch. Specifically, the rest for the squad, both physical and mental, is highly invaluable given the scarcely believable amount of games they have had to somehow manage.
Hopefully this rest has been fully maximised by the players and Thomas Tuchel as they are about to embark on a truly busy month whereby they can completely reposition the narrative from a promising side that’s been struggling, to a team that’s again on the rise and has more trophies to back it up.
Specifically, Chelsea has at least one trophy to play for (the EFL Cup) with a very real possibility of adding another (Club World Cup), and also an opportunity to progress deeper in the FA Cup.
Chelsea’s February 2022 Fixture list:
- Chelsea vs Plymouth Argyle (5 Feb) – FA Cup 4th Round
- Chelsea vs TBC (10 Feb) – Club World Cup
- Chelsea vs TBC (13 Feb) – Club World Cup Final *Potential match if Chelsea advance*
- Crystal Palace vs Chelsea (20 Feb)
- Chelsea vs Lille (23 Feb) – Champions League Round of 16 1st Leg
- Chelsea vs Liverpool (28) – EFL Cup Final
As the Blues are on the other side of fixture list bell curve, the importance of playing well and securing positive results has significantly increased. That said, with increased responsibility comes increased potential for success which can aid their long-term objectives of being both the nation’s best as well as the continent’s best.
Fortunately Tuchel will have a reasonably healthy & fit squad to call upon as they enter this next period which will be crucial as their depth will not just be needed for the different skills & qualities on offer, but also to help reduce the risk of injury and fatigue.
In the end, January 2022 was again another action-packed month, both on & off the pitch. This is most likely going to be a recurring theme for the remainder of the campaign given the Club’s pursuits across multiple competitions and the intense scrutiny the club attracts, especially when they encounter any negative results.
Let’s hope Tuchel and his squad can rise to the occasion like they have done so previously.
Come on you Blues!
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