Even after this stellar calendar year in 2021, Thomas Tuchel still has a big New Year’s Resolution for next year: get Chelsea back on form.
What looked like an exciting three-team title race will surely become two – or possibly one – by the end of this week.
Chelsea and Liverpool have ebbed away from a rampant Manchester City who have won ten on the bounce, with both of the champions’ rivals struggling to keep up. Instead of successfully steering the Blues, Tuchel is feeling them this winter.
Thomas Tuchel’s Chelsea are suffering a winter blip in their Premier League season this month
The Blues drew 1-1 against Brighton to drop eight points behind leaders Manchester City
After a dismal 1-1 draw at home to Brighton on Wednesday night, Chelsea are now eight points behind leaders City, with Liverpool one point behind with a game in hand.
That result prompted Tuchel to say that Chelsea are out of the title race as they cannot compete with City. And while this could be mind games, the gap deserves to be that wide given Chelsea’s horrid home form.
The west Londoners have won just one Premier League home game since October – a last-gasp win over struggling Leeds – a run which has included Stamford Bridge stalemates to Everton, Manchester United, Burnley and now Brighton.
Chelsea added Reece James (left) and Andreas Christensen (right) to their growing injury list
To make matters worse, the Blues are in the midst of an injury crisis. With Ben Chilwell out for the season, veteran Thiago Silva a liability fitness-wise and Timo Werner struggling to shake off Covid, Chelsea were dealt further blows when defenders Reece James and Andreas Christensen limped off against Brighton.
The rest of the squad are still recovering from the club’s Covid outbreak earlier and the fixture list is not getting any kinder to Chelsea. Jurgen Klopp’s Liverpool come to west London on Sunday afternoon and victory for either side would create an insurmountable gap to City for the other.
So with Chelsea stretched to the max when Mohamed Salah and Co come to down, just how does Tuchel overcome this challenge?
TRUST IN YOUTH AGAIN
The large size of Chelsea’s squad means Tuchel can still put out a strong squad against Liverpool on Sunday – even if James and Christensen’s injuries are deemed to be severe.
Callum Hudson-Odoi is likely to turn out at wing-back while Trevoh Chalobah, who has become a first-team regular at Chelsea this season, will come in for Christensen at centre-back.
Chelsea could promote youngsters like Harvey Vale (left) and Jude Soonsup-Bell (right) to their matchday squad against Liverpool on Sunday
But what will be interesting is how many Chelsea youth players make up the Blues bench for their highly-anticipated clash with the Reds, as Tuchel has turned to his inexperienced prodigies already this winter.
The German boss started young strikers Harvey Vale and Jude Soonsup-Bell in their Carabao Cup quarter-final against Brentford last week, with midfielder Xavier Simons turning out at wing-back in the west London derby.
All three looked competent in their roles as the Blues ran out 2-0 winners thanks to late two late goals, though that victory was largely indebted to Tuchel bringing on the likes of Mason Mount, Jorginho and James off from the bench.
Xavier Simons (left) is another player with first-team experience amid Chelsea’s injury crisis
A Premier League outing against Liverpool would be the definition of putting a youth player in the deep end, but there is a feeling that Chelsea’s youngsters will need to be used eventually with Carabao Cup and FA Cup clashes to come next week.
And as Leicester City’s Kiernan Dewsbury-Hall showed against Liverpool on Monday night, young players can make a difference against Klopp’s side with the right mindset and motivation.
Dewsbury-Hall ran Liverpool’s midfield and defence ragged in the Foxes’ surprise 1-0 win over the Reds earlier this week, taking up advanced positions on the left-hand side to punish Trent Alexander-Arnold’s defensive lapses while supporting Salah up top.
Leicester’s Kiernan Dewsbury-Hall (left) showed youngsters can do the trick against Liverpool
That it is from that area where the 23-year-old, who made just eight top-flight outings before Monday night and was on loan at Luton Town last season, managed to assist Ademola Lookman for Leicester’s winner against Liverpool.
Chelsea, Tuchel and his younger players should take note…
MAKE CHELSEA MORE RUTHLESS UP FRONT
While the Covid and injury issues could point towards Chelsea’s dip in form this autumn and winter, there are problems that stretch back before those fitness concerns came about.
One of them is an inability to kill off games through slack finishing, which has impacted them in three out of their last four matches.
Chelsea have been guilty of missing several chances and cannot kill of their league matches
Against a weakened Everton side due to Covid, Chelsea had the opportunity to kill the game off early on with several clear chances but failed to do so. James and Mount missed one-on-one opportunities in the first-half but fired wide and hit the ball straight at Jordan Pickford respectively.
In their goalless stalemate at Wolves later that week, Christian Pulisic was another player who missed a golden chance to claim three points, going through late on in the second half but could only fire straight at the hosts’ goalkeeper.
And after Romelu Lukaku put Chelsea 1-0 up at Stamford Bridge, Hudson-Odoi had a brilliant chance to double the lead after half-time by striding through on goal – with Mount as an available option to pass to, but the winger fluffed his lines.
Mason Mount (left) has missed chances along with Christian Pulisic and Callum Hudson-Odoi
So when Danny Welbeck headed home a 91st minute equaliser for the Seagulls, Chelsea were left to rue more missed chances this month. Had those simple chances gone in, the pressure would really be on leaders City to keep their standards high.
There are positives for Chelsea at the top end of the pitch. Goals in back-to-back league games for Lukaku mean one of the strikers tipped for this season’s Golden Boot award is finding his stride, while Havertz is improving his fitness after Covid.
But Tuchel needs a ruthless nature similar to City’s, who have goals flying in from all over the pitch after 18 goals in their last four games. That could be the key to getting back in the title race.
FIX THE DEFENSIVE PROBLEMS OUT WIDE
Tuchel does not have much to work with given his injury-stricken back line, but one obvious area to improve upon is the manner in which the Blues defend crosses.
The last five goals Chelsea have conceded from open play have come from crosses into the box from out wide, the latest being Welbeck’s looping header from Marc Cucurella’s ball in from deep.
The last five league goals Tuchel’s Blues have conceded from open play have come via crosses
Jarrad Branthwaite (right) scored an equaliser for Everton similar to Danny Welbeck’s goal for Brighton
Everton’s Jarrad Branthwaite, West Ham defender Arthur Masuaku and Joe Gelhardt of Leeds have benefited from goals against Chelsea from crosses – all of those goals came about as the Blues allowed the ball to enter their penalty box far too easily.
Meanwhile, wing-back James diverted Matt Targett’s cross into his own net on Boxing Day against Aston Villa, while Chelsea were lucky not to concede from crosses in their cup clash at Brentford – only remarkable saves from Kepa Arrizabalaga to deny Mathias Jensen and Yoane Wissa in the first-half spared them.
With Trent Alexander-Arnold, Salah and Kostas Tsimikas coming to Stamford Bridge this Sunday – all with excellent deliveries in their respective arsenals – special attention must be made to this area.
Joe Gelhardt (right) fired home an equaliser himself for Leeds at Stamford Bridge this month
REJUVENATE STRUGGLING KANTE
When the chips are down and form is not on your side, managers look for big players to step up – and they don’t get much bigger than N’Golo Kante.
The French World Cup winner, normally a reliable pair of hands, has been struggling in recent weeks after testing positive for coronavirus earlier this season.
Kante was poor in the 0-0 draw at Wolves, being run ragged by the home team’s midfield and could have seen red for a handball which denied a clear goalscoring opportunity.
The French midfielder improved at Aston Villa but was still hauled off at the hour mark, while he was not given a start against Brighton in midweek.
Thomas Tuchel (right) needs to get more out of N’Golo Kante (left) who is struggling for form
Tuchel has stretched Kante (right) to the max this winter period despite concerns over fitness
Tuchel has stretched Kante to the limit by giving him a great deal of game time over the Christmas period, even though the number of games are catching up with him.
The Chelsea boss claimed it was ‘irresponsible’ to use him in the Wolves stalemate and revealed he would not play in the Carabao Cup win over Brentford – but still used him anyway for the last part of the game.
Kante’s knowhow, talent and big-game experience will be crucial in Sunday’s match against Liverpool – and Tuchel needs his main man to start performing again – or risk the possibility of Chelsea looking over their shoulders to the top-four pack.