TO A couple of weeks ago, the Dutch coach, Louis van Gaal, had an argument with a dismissive Dutch journalist about Thomas Tuchel’s Chelsea. “The one who applauds defensive football is you,” said the journalist. “You want to play the same way as Chelsea and Liverpool.” At this provocation, Van Gaal moved a fraction of an inch higher in his seat, like a praying mantis preparing to cut off the head of a snake.
“Is that defensive football in your opinion?”
“Yes, Chelsea play that way.”
“It is not at all,” Van Gaal replied. “You do not understand it. You are just a journalist. You don’t have a vision of football. With 5-3-2 and 5-2-3, you can play great attacking football. Chelsea proves it every time, with different teams. My hat is off to Mr. Tuchel for that. “
Of course, Van Gaal training with the Dutch press on tactics is nothing new. But that terse exchange managed to sum up the curious debate revolving around Tuchel’s Chelsea, a team that has swept everyone before them in Europe and is now heavily inclined to do the same at home. After five league games, their only blemish, and the only goal conceded, was a penalty in a 1-1 draw at Anfield, a match that Chelsea ended with 10 men. A win over Manchester City at Stamford Bridge on Saturday will see them installed as runaway favorites for the title.
At the heart of this success has been that impregnable wall at the rear, which has now amassed an unlikely 24 clean sheets in 36 matches in all competitions. Over the course of their 3-0 win at Tottenham Hotspur Stadium on Sunday, the hosts completed just one pass to the penalty area. Aston Villa had nine of his 18 blocked shots a fortnight ago. Cameron Archer’s goal for Aston Villa in the Carabao Cup on Wednesday was just the second header goal Chelsea have conceded since Tuchel arrived in January.
All of which raises a number of questions. What is Chelsea doing so well? How the hell are you going to score against them? And is Chelsea really a defensive team or just a team that is excellent at defending? This last dichotomy is perhaps best expressed by his opponents on Saturday. Pep Guardiola’s City have shown that it is possible to defend brilliantly without really characterizing themselves as a defensive team.
Central to this is the very modern dogma of possession and territory as defensive tactics in their own right: in other words, the best way to defend is to make sure you make as little defense as possible. Tuchel’s Chelsea, on the other hand, long ago. On many metrics, your statistical profile looks more like a team fighting relegation than a team chasing the title.
So far this season 32% of the action has been developed in his defensive third; only Norwich, Newcastle and Brentford have more. Chelsea have made more tackles and interceptions than any other club. To put that in perspective, on that same metric, the city is ranked 20th out of 20.
We are still dealing with relatively small sample sizes here, but in many areas these are trends that we saw last season as well. More than the most recent title contenders, Chelsea seem content to invite pressure, put bodies on the line, savor the art of defense.
“Pure will, with stamina,” Tuchel said enthusiastically after his team’s rear-guard action at Anfield. “Never lose shape, try to close the half spaces.” Every now and then in the pundits, and more often in the idiotic pulpits of social media, you see “tactics” and “passion” placed at opposite ends of a spectrum, perhaps even opposing ideals in a soccer culture war.
In fact, as virtually every elite coach will tell you, one is largely inseparable from the other. A defensive tactic is only as effective as the will and commitment to carry it out. Resilience and desire are only effective to the extent that they are tied to a compelling and coherent strategy.
Chelsea’s defensive excellence has been built on both superb individuals and a functional team: the mobile Antonio Rüdiger, the versatile Andreas Christensen, the tenacious César Azpilicueta. Ahead of them, Jorginho, Mateo Kovacic and N’Golo Kanté block the overtaking lanes and reduce the space.
In goal, Édouard Mendy had an outstanding start to the season. Trevoh Chalobah has returned from a loan period in Lorient as a transformed player. Above all, it is a defense built in the image of Thiago Silva, 37: calm security on the ball, intelligent distribution, but above all a willingness to do the ugly jobs.
Is this really sustainable? Probably not: Chelsea may have conceded just one goal, but their xG against is actually 5.5. Meanwhile, Tuchel himself has admitted that Mendy has been a bit too active for his liking.
“I don’t like it too much when it’s in the limelight,” he said. “That is not the most satisfying feeling for a coach.” This, in turn, is an admission that Chelsea’s superlative defense is less an intentional approach and more a product of circumstance, not forgetting the strength of the teams they have faced thus far.
For all of this, City is likely to offer more of the same on Saturday: a bold, possession-based approach that will probe Chelsea’s bottom line for gaps, force them to make punts, block shots and crosses. Tuchel’s long-term goal will be to lead his team higher up the field, dominating games, squeezing attacks at the source. However, in the short term, there are many more conventional defenses to do first.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism