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Thursday, March 4, 2021

Chelsea’s old guard helping Tuchel rebuild in the post-Lampard era

3:09 PM GMT

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    Tom HamiltonSenior Writer

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      • Joined ESPN in 2011


      • Covered two Olympics, a pair of Rugby World Cups and two British & Irish Lions tours


      • Previously rugby editor, and became senior writer in 2018

LONDON — If in doubt, trust the old dependables. They were on the periphery of the last throes of the Frank Lampard era, but goals from the unlikely double act of Cesar Azpilicueta and Marcos Alonso secured Thomas Tuchel’s first win as Chelsea boss against Burnley on Sunday.

Chelsea dominated possession and territory against the well-organised visitor, but the relentless pressing from the Blues nullified any Burnley threat — restricting them to just one shot on goal — and instead saw Tuchel’s side dominate the middle of the pitch and craft half-chance after half-chance only for the two veteran Spaniards to guide the side home to a 2-0 victory.

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For all the talk of their expensive summer signings and how Tuchel needs to find the right cocktail to unlock their potential, it was the old dependables who delivered. This was Alonso’s first match action since September; Azpilicueta was sidelined towards the end of Lampard’s tenure with Reece James often preferred, as was Antonio Rudiger. Another player on the periphery was Callum Hudson-Odoi, forever linked with a move to Bayern Munich, but he has become Tuchel’s go-to right-wing-back and again, like his performance midweek against Wolverhampton Wanderers, was a constant threat down the flank and kept Burnley’s defenders spinning.

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While they’re looking for the real Timo Werner and Kai Havertz to step up, there is a quiet renaissance going on among the old guard who, in a different world, may have been looking at the last 24 hours of this transfer window as a chance for respite elsewhere. This is certainly the case for Alonso.

When Alonso last featured in September, Lampard’s side were just three games into the new Premier League season. The then-manager’s trust in Alonso evaporated in the 3-3 draw at West Bromwich Albion, compounded by an alleged bust-up between the pair in the immediate aftermath of that match, and the Spaniard would never again feature under Lampard. Alonso saw new signing Ben Chilwell take his spot at left-back.

Alonso emerged from the wilderness to put in a typical performance of old: constantly chasing, hustling and then darting forward. He grabbed Chelsea’s second goal in the 84th minute as he found himself beautifully poised for a classy finish, teeing up his own volley off his chest and thigh to smash past Nick Pope at the near post.

“We opted for a bit more size, this was not a reflection on [Chilwell],” Tuchel said after the match. “Marcos is used to play in this role, and has good timing for arriving in the box. We are very happy that he could score the second goal that finished the game.”

Again Chelsea played a flexible 3-4-3 with Alonso’s and Hudson-Odoi’s work rate key to their transitional play, but also their defensive stability. Thiago Silva was a rock at the centre of Chelsea’s defence while Rudiger and Azpilicueta had license to carry the ball out of defence when space was offered. That movement led to Chelsea’s opener, where they moved the ball quickly from near their own box through the midfield to Hudson-Odoi, whose inside ball allowed Azpilicueta to finish.

The early signs of Tuchel’s reign are a preference for defensive stability, and attacking around the fringes of the opposition. It’s reminiscent of Pep Guardiola’s use of wing-backs, but this is a Chelsea now anchored in pressing and counter-pressing; they effectively go out to suffocate the opposition, starving them of opportunities and then hit with their own punches.

“Very complete performance, again defensively and offensively,” Tuchel said. “It was very strong physically with the long balls and duels in the air, fighting for the second ball. We had plenty of active defending, never passive.”

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Chelsea did have opportunities to stretch the lead, but a combination of Burnley’s doggedness in defence — spearheaded by the outstanding James Tarkowski — and Chelsea’s lack of clinical finishing in front of goal kept it at two. Tuchel was pleased with the two goals, but said post-match: “It should be a signal to the guys up front it was down to the defenders to score. We lack the final touch and delivery.”

Werner’s woes continued in front of goal, and it looks increasingly like it will be a long-term project to bring the best out of him. He operated primarily in his preferred position — just on the left, in the half-space, looking to time his runs to perfection — but it’s still to click with him. He had a handful of half-chances, and even kicked the ball against his leg in the first half in what could’ve been his best opportunity, but you sense he will continue to rediscover his confidence under Tuchel. The new manager said earlier in the week the pressure is getting to Werner, and it’s because Chelsea’s No. 11 cares.

Those who have played for Tuchel say he bases his player-facing motivational approach on whether they need a hug or a rocket. With Werner you sense it’s the former, but this will take time. He needs one of those fortunate, ugly goals to lift the weight off his shoulders.

Mateo Kovacic was outstanding in the middle, while Jorginho is the key cog in their transitional game. Mason Mount brought plenty of energy and drive, but Tuchel needs to figure out exactly how he will fit into this 3-4-3 setup. Havertz is the most likely long-term answer to that inside-right spot, but his game time was restricted to 10 minutes from the bench while Hakim Ziyech was left out due to fatigue. Christian Pulisic added plenty of vigour as a half-time replacement for Tammy Abraham, but they need to fine-tune their attacking precision to see their embarrassment of riches finally click in front of goal. When it does come together, they are going to be ruthless.

This was comfortable for Chelsea and looked like one of those run-of-the-mill victories for a team playing with confidence and knowing the importance of grinding out wins against spirited, tricky opponents like Burnley. But we are just six days into the Tuchel era, and so he has gone to the tried and tested to build confidence back into the side. They may not be the long-term key protagonists in Tuchel’s Chelsea plan, but for now they are the glue slowly papering up the cracks left by the turbulence of the past week.

(Except for the headline, this story has not been edited by WCT staff and is published from a syndicated feed.)

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