Chelsea held to a goalless draw by Wolves in Thomas Tuchel’s first game in charge; Blues dominate possession but lack cutting edge; Callum Hudson-Odoi excels in a new position; Kai Havertz gets central role but academy trio dropped
Chelsea’s academy graduates featured prominently throughout Frank Lampard’s tenure but the only representative in Tuchel’s first line-up was Callum Hudson-Odoi. Tammy Abraham, Reece James and, perhaps most surprisingly, Mason Mount were all benched.
Instead, Tuchel went in the other direction. “The expectations are high, the pressure and tension are high, so we went for a bit of experience,” he explained ahead of kick-off at Stamford Bridge.
Thiago Silva was joined at the back by Cesar Azpilicueta and Antonio Rudiger, a defensive trio with a combined age of 94, while the 29-year-old Jorginho partnered Mateo Kovacic at the base of midfield and Olivier Giroud, 34, led the line up front.
Hudson-Odoi, Kai Havertz and Ben Chilwell ensured there was at least some youthful verve in the side but the other eight starters had an average age of close to 30 as Tuchel erred on the side of caution.
He called it the “most unfair line-up” he had ever selected having only had one training session with the players since his appointment on Tuesday but the approach was perhaps understandable given Chelsea’s poor form and his limited preparation time.
Abraham and Mount did at least make it off the bench in the closing stages with the latter in particular catching eye. He and the rest of Chelsea’s young academy graduates will hope for greater involvement when Tuchel’s side face Burnley on Sunday.
Switch to a back three
Tuchel changed system as well as personnel.
Chelsea typically played in a 4-3-3 formation under Lampard but there was an immediate overhaul from his successor, with Silva, Azpilicueta and Rudiger deployed in a back three.
Whether it is a blueprint he will stick to or merely a temporary measure to match Wolves’ shape remains to be seen but it was only the second time this season that Chelsea have used a back three in the Premier League following the goalless draw with Manchester United in October.
The outcome was the same on Wednesday night as they struggled to convert their possession into chances but Tuchel will at least be encouraged by elements of their defensive display. Chelsea had conceded nine goals in their last five Premier League games so the clean sheet was a welcome one.
Wolves did create openings, the best of which saw Pedro Neto send a looping effort onto the top of the crossbar in the second half, but Chelsea restricted their opponents to only four shots – their joint-lowest total of the season – and none of them found the target.
The question for Tuchel to ponder now is whether the extra defensive solidity came at the cost of attacking threat.
Possession without penetration
“I hope we will attack and play brave football,” said Tuchel when asked about the playing style he intends to bring to Chelsea ahead of kick-off on Wednesday night. On the evidence of his first game in charge, however, it might take some time for it to come to fruition.
Chelsea completely dominated the ball, recording a 78.9 per cent share of possession – the highest by any Premier League team in any game this season – and completing 887 passes – second only to Manchester City’s total in their 5-0 thrashing of West Brom on Tuesday.
But unlike City at the Hawthorns, Chelsea offered little in the way of penetration. In fact the largely sterile performance was reminiscent of Maurizio Sarri’s time in charge at Stamford Bridge – a period few fans remember fondly.
Chelsea’s only meaningful chance of the first half came in the first few minutes, when Giroud failed to connect with Hudson-Odoi’s low ball across the six-yard box, and there was only modest improvement after the break.
Chilwell spurned their best opportunity, blazing wildly over from a Havertz cut-back, while Kovacic sent a long-range effort inches wide of the post and Hudson-Odoi forced a rare save from Rui Patricio. Ultimately, though, Chelsea didn’t do enough to win the game.
Hudson-Odoi the wing-back
Hudson-Odoi only played 414 Premier League minutes under Lampard in the first half of the season but here he was in Tuchel’s first starting line-up – and in a new position too. The 20-year-old was deployed at right wing-back and took to the role like a natural.
It was clear from as early as the opening few minutes, when he accelerated away from Rayan Ait-Nouri and flashed a wicked cross into the Wolves box, that he had been instructed to bomb forward at every opportunity and he continued to do so throughout the game.
There were plenty of eye-catching moments from the youngster, his runs in behind the Wolves defence making him Chelsea’s most dangerous player. He was even entrusted with taking set pieces too.
By the end of the game he had made 11 crosses and while not all of them found their intended target, he was most commonly let down by the movement of his team-mates, who failed to capitalise on his service, rather than his own delivery.
Hudson-Odoi was caught out of position on a couple of occasions, a reminder that the role will take some getting used to for someone who normally operates as a winger, but no Chelsea player made more tackles and there was also a vital piece of last-ditch defending to deny Leander Dendoncker in the closing stages.
By that point, Hudson-Odoi had switched from the right flank to the left in order to accommodate substitute Christian Pulisic and it was from there that he tested Rui Patricio after cutting inside onto his stronger foot. The 20-year-old clearly has plenty to offer his new manager.
Havertz gets central role
While Timo Werner didn’t make it off the bench – recognition from Tuchel, perhaps, that the striker needs time out of the spotlight to recover his confidence after a run of 11 Premier League games without a goal – his countryman Havertz was placed in the thick of the action.
Like Werner, Havertz has endured a difficult start to life at Chelsea but Tuchel’s first game in charge suggests he intends to build his side around him. This was the first time the 21-year-old has completed 90 minutes in the Premier League since October.
With the width coming from the wing-backs in Tuchel’s system, Havertz was deployed as one of two roaming number 10s along with Ziyech, playing in close support of Giroud but with licence to drift from side to side.
He had some good moments, popping up in the right and left-hand channels, teeing up Chilwell for the best chance of the game and, at one point in the first half, charging through the midfield with the kind of power and directness that marked him out as such a special talent at Bayer Leverkusen.
Havertz worked tirelessly off the ball, covering more ground (11.3km) than any other Chelsea player, and while there were reminders that he is still adapting to English football – he didn’t complete a single take-on and none of his three shots on goal hit the target – he evidently has a big role to play under Tuchel.
No quick fix but Tuchel sees positives
This was not the immediate uplift Chelsea might have hoped for when they opted to change manager but it would be unfair to judge Tuchel on this result after only one training session with his players.
Sunday’s meeting with Burnley will provide a clearer indication of Tuchel’s plans for the side but the former Paris Saint-Germain and Borussia Dortmund boss saw positives in Wednesday’s performance at Stamford Bridge.
“I spoke in the dressing room and told everybody there was no room for disappointment or doubts,” he said in his post-match press conference. “I was very happy with the performance energy-wise. We were structured and didn’t allow any dangerous counter-attacks against one of the most dangerous teams.
“We were very well-organised, brave, and played with courage as a team both offensively and defensively, with a good impact from the bench and a very good attitude from the players who didn’t come on.
“It was hard work, but we never lost intensity and for that I am happy. If this is our starting point I’m looking forward to where we will end up.
“Not much needs to improve,” he added. “I see an exciting mix between experienced players, personalities and talented guys. I see a very demanding league that brings everything out physically in every player.
“I found a group yesterday that was totally open to our ideas, beliefs and tactical approach. This made me feel very good because this is what you wish for. This is the level.
“Now we can work on the details ahead of Burnley.”