Chelsea: Thomas Tuchel has plenty to sort out ahead of crunch week

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It has been one of the more eclectic fixture lists – Chelsea have faced Chesterfield, Plymouth Argyle, Al-Hilal and Palmeiras since the turn of the year alongside more familiar foes like Tottenham and Manchester City.

After conquering the world last weekend in Abu Dhabi, it’s back to the more mundane business of picking up Premier League points for Thomas Tuchel and his players.

Saturday’s visit to Crystal Palace will be their first league action in nearly a month – since a 2-0 home win over Tottenham on January 23. 

Chelsea won the FIFA Club World Cup by beating Palmeiras in Abu Dhabi last weekend

Chelsea won the FIFA Club World Cup by beating Palmeiras in Abu Dhabi last weekend

But that marks only the beginning of an important week, with Lille awaiting them in the last-16 of the Champions League on Tuesday and then Liverpool in the Carabao Cup final next weekend.

With Chelsea on track to finish in the top four, the UEFA Super Cup and FIFA Club World Cup already in the trophy cabinet, and the chance of another addition at Wembley, plus the FA Cup and Champions League still in play, it might not seem like too much is amiss.

But Thomas Tuchel has plenty of problems to solve as Chelsea make a return to league action

But Thomas Tuchel has plenty of problems to solve as Chelsea make a return to league action

But Tuchel knows there is still a good deal to work on as Chelsea pick up their domestic programme at Selhurst Park.

Last weekend’s success cannot adequately disguise the underlying issues in a team that still rarely produces a scintillating performance or dominates an opponent.

We examine some of the problems Tuchel must sort out if Chelsea are to move forward.

The ongoing issue of Lukaku

Romelu Lukaku scored vital goals in both the semi-final and final of the Club World Cup and, who knows, it could prove the turning point of his Chelsea return. The Belgian now has 10 goals since his £97.5million comeback in the summer.

That would be a seriously underwhelming return after 27 games for any striker of his cost and calibre but the fall-out from his Sky Italia interview in December won’t go away.

Lukaku’s criticism of his status at Stamford Bridge and Tuchel’s tactics cannot simply be brushed aside even if the pair have discussed it all privately.

Romelu Lukaku still only has 10 Chelsea goals since his £97.5million return to the club

Romelu Lukaku still only has 10 Chelsea goals since his £97.5million return to the club

Chelsea will hope Lukaku's positive Club World Cup will now lead to a surge of goals

Chelsea will hope Lukaku’s positive Club World Cup will now lead to a surge of goals 

Chelsea fixtures 

Premier League unless stated

Saturday Crystal Palace (A)

Tuesday Lille (H)

Champions League last-16, first leg

February 27 Liverpool (Wembley)

Carabao Cup final

March 2 Luton Town (A)

FA Cup fifth round

March 5 Burnley (A)

March 13 Newcastle United (H)

The player was fined a week’s wages and made to issue a grovelling apology but ultimately only a hatful of goals between now and the end of the season will draw a line under the affair.

It remains hard to escape the feeling that Lukaku is ill-suited to the way Tuchel wants Chelsea to play and when he is expected to be the primary source of their goals, it’s a real headache.

Whereas Antonio Conte at Inter Milan built his whole team around Lukaku, to devastating effect, Tuchel isn’t going to be so accommodating and it’s up to the player to adapt.

Chelsea urgently need him to start making decisive contributions in the biggest games. It’s no good scoring only against Plymouth, Zenit St Petersburg and Al-Hilal.

They need Lukaku producing the goods in Wembley finals with Liverpool, crunch league games and the Champions League knockout rounds. Only then will he have Tuchel’s full trust.

But who else is going to score?

Throughout Tuchel’s year-and-a-bit in charge, you haven’t always been certain where Chelsea’s goals will come from.

They have scored 48 league goals so far this season, which is an average of two-per-game, but the two teams above them, Manchester City and Liverpool, have both scored 61.

There are various ways to win football matches but Chelsea don’t seem to have the capability to blow opponents away in the manner of their two title rivals.

Timo Werner (left) is among a number of Chelsea attackers who can't guarantee them goals

Timo Werner (left) is among a number of Chelsea attackers who can’t guarantee them goals

Beyond Lukaku, their next two highest goalscorers this season are midfielders in Jorginho and Mason Mount. Timo Werner and Kai Havertz both have six goals, Hakim Ziyech five, Callum Hudson-Odoi and Christian Pulisic three each.

This apparent embarrassment of attacking riches simply isn’t translating into heaps of goals.

It’s been a season of Covid and injury disruption which has led to several players failing to get into a rhythm, and Tuchel has needed to juggle resources as a result, but nobody has really got going.

Christian Pulisic has scored just three goals this season with all the forward line struggling

Christian Pulisic has scored just three goals this season with all the forward line struggling

One of their recent league outings, the 1-1 draw at Brighton, was a case in point. Chelsea led through Ziyech’s first-half goal but they lacked the authority going forward to put the game to bed.

They mustered just three shots on target and there was an inevitability about Adam Webster’s equaliser. After that, Chelsea were just unable to force a winner.

Too many of their attackers lack consistency and when you look at Chelsea line-ups in certain games, it just isn’t obvious where the goals will come from. You take a look at City or Liverpool and they bristle with attacking menace.

Ultimately, this leads to dropped points and explains the 16-point gulf between them and City.

Hakim Ziyech opened the scoring for Chelsea at Brighton last month - but they couldn't win it

Hakim Ziyech opened the scoring for Chelsea at Brighton last month – but they couldn’t win it

The Havertz conundrum

Havertz was Chelsea’s match-winner in the Club World Cup last weekend just as he was in the Champions League final last season.

At least he is someone who holds his nerve in the biggest games but most of the time the German, who cost Chelsea £72m in 2020, remains something of an enigma.

We’re still none the wiser what his best position is and Tuchel switches him between a centre forward, second striker or attacking midfielder role depending on the circumstances.

Kai Havertz continually switches positions but it's unclear which suits his strengths the best

Kai Havertz continually switches positions but it’s unclear which suits his strengths the best

It wasn’t exactly clear cut last season either but Lukaku’s arrival and use as a proper centre forward should have clarified Havertz’s role.

But that hasn’t happened and the knock-on effect is inconsistency and confusion for the whole front line.

Havertz’s talents are clear but surely even he would just like to know where he’s going to play from one week to the next.

Perhaps the success in the Club World Cup, in which Havertz held his nerve to convert a penalty deep into extra time, will inspire him to rediscover his best.

Havertz kept his nerve with the penalty that won Chelsea the Club World Cup last weekend

Havertz kept his nerve with the penalty that won Chelsea the Club World Cup last weekend

Mount injury blow

It’s going to be touch and go for Mason Mount to make the Carabao Cup final next Sunday after he was forced off during the Club World Cup final with an ankle injury.

The England international is certain to miss the matches against Crystal Palace and Lille, and Tuchel may not want to risk him against Liverpool.

With seven goals and eight assists this season, Mount is one of Chelsea’s more consistent performers and he will be missed.

Mason Mount picked up an ankle injury in the final and is a doubt for the Carabao Cup final

Mason Mount picked up an ankle injury in the final and is a doubt for the Carabao Cup final

It’s already bad enough for Tuchel being without his first-choice wing-backs in Reece James and Ben Chilwell but losing Mount further reduces the intensity of the team.

We all know that Jurgen Klopp’s Liverpool won’t give Chelsea a moment’s peace with their intense pressing and the absence of Mount certainly means the Blues will struggle to match this.

Christian Pulisic, who replaced Mount in the final last Saturday, is one option to come in.

Chelsea fought back well to draw with Liverpool last month after falling two goals behind

Chelsea fought back well to draw with Liverpool last month after falling two goals behind 

Last month, Chelsea fought back from two goals down to draw with Liverpool at Stamford Bridge. Having fallen two behind inside 26 minutes, Chelsea certainly impressed with their determination and work rate to fight back.

They’ll need all of that again if they’re to get the better of Liverpool and win the League Cup for the first time since 2015.

Leaky defence too easily breached

Tuchel’s team had one of the best defensive records in the first months of the season, with 14 clean sheets in 21 games across all competitions before the end of November.

But since then, their back line has been leaking goals at an alarming rate and it’s cost them important league points.

A Chelsea back line that was excellent earlier in the season now struggles to keep clean sheets

A Chelsea back line that was excellent earlier in the season now struggles to keep clean sheets

Covid absences and injuries don’t help, of course, but the defensive solidity for which Chelsea were renowned has gone and Tuchel reacted by moving from three to four at the back in recent games.

With Antonio Rudiger, Andreas Christensen and Cesar Azpilicueta all out of contract at the end of the season, defensive changes are inevitable anyway and Tuchel will be eyeing up targets.

The hope is their creaking defence doesn’t let them down in too many important games in the meantime because there have been too many lapses of late.

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