Whenever a manager is replaced partway through a season, personnel and tactical changes typically follow as the new coach wants to put their stamp on the squad. Chelsea are no different in this respect. After sacking Frank Lampard in January, new manager Thomas Tuchel has certainly made changes to the team by converting from two centre-backs to three and experimenting with a false nine. However, what impact has this had on how Tuchel utilises Chelsea’s squad and how does this differ from his predecessor?
Though Tuchel arrived at Stamford Bridge with the reputation of being a “tinkerer” after making numerous changes to his starting line-up during his time as both Borussia Dortmund and Paris Saint Germain manager, his approach towards rotation at Chelsea is not that dissimilar to Lampard’s. Below is a graph detailing the number of changes to Chelsea’s starting line-up in all competitions this season, with the games managed by Lampard in blue and Tuchel in orange:
While Lampard made an average of 4.64 changes to his starting XI during his 29 games in charge in 2020-21, Tuchel’s average is only slightly higher at 4.87. The fact both managers were above 4.5 changes per game suggests that they both saw rotation as necessary to compete in multiple competitions. For context, Pep Guardiola has averaged just over 5 changes per game for Manchester City this season, which is slightly higher again than either Chelsea manager but not by much. Given both teams have the best squad depth in the Premier League, it is perhaps unsurprising to see the two sides rotating their squads so consistently and reaping the success of such a approach.
However, Lampard and Tuchel do differ in their rotation variation, as shown by the three-game average on the graph. Lampard’s three-game average oscillated from its lowest point of 1.00 to its highest point of 9.00 (difference of 8.00), whereas Tuchel’s average has remained more consistent between 2.67 and 7.33 (difference of 4.66). The former points to a manager switching from periods of continuity in their starting XI to mass upheaval, meanwhile, the latter indicates a more narrowed and consistent focus on who is rotated and why.
A common criticism of Lampard was that he lacked a long-term identity or plan, which left him unable to integrate Chelsea’s summer signings – Kai Havertz, Ben Chilwell, Timo Werner, Hakim Ziyech, Edouard Mendy and Thiago Silva – into the first-team squad successfully. The higher variation in the number of changes made to his starting line-up could support this, giving the impression that Lampard was unsure what his best XI was. Though early into his tenure, Tuchel already appears more suited to the demands of dealing with a squad brimming with talent and expectation.
Though the rotation is not too dissimilar, there have been significant changes to the personnel used by both managers. Below is a graph detailing the percentage of minutes played by each Chelsea player under Lampard and Tuchel in all competitions this season:
The biggest winners from Tuchel’s arrival are Andreas Christensen, Antonio Rudiger, Cesar Azpilicueta, Marcus Alonso and Jorginho, who have all seen their percentage share of minutes increase by over 20%. On the other hand, Kurt Zouma, Thiago Silva and Tammy Abraham have been the biggest losers, seeing their percentage share of minutes decrease by over 20%. Some of these changes have been due to injuries (Silva), while others appear more to do with the manager’s preferences (Abraham and Zouma).
However, when we focus on the players who have played 50%+ of possible minutes for both Lampard and Tuchel, a core group of seven begins to emerge. As we can see from the Venn diagram below, these are: Mendy, Chilwell, Reece James, Azpilicueta, Mason Mount, Mateo Kovacic and Werner. Of the names failing to make it into either circle, forwards Ziyech and Christian Pulisic seem the most surprising given their calibre. Both missed 12 and 10 games respectively under Lampard through injury, which explains their lack of use during the first half of the season. Yet both have remained injury-free for Tuchel and are still unable to surpass the 50% cut-off.
A possible reason for this is tactical. Whereas Lampard opted for 4-3-3 or 4-2-3-1, Tuchel prefers 3-4-2-1 or 3-5-2. Therefore, playing three centre-backs instead of two takes away a position in the starting line-up from either a midfielder or a forward, which leaves them sharing less minutes overall. We can see this more clearly when comparing the average number of starts before omission for Chelsea players under Lampard and Tuchel this season, shown separately in the two graphs below:
Of the eight players starting above the average under Lampard, five of them are midfielders or forwards – Mount, Werner, Havertz, Pulisic and N’Golo Kante. When we look at the same graph for Tuchel (see below), we see a different picture. While three of the seven players starting above the average are midfielders – Mount, Kovacic and Jorginho – crucially, none of the seven are a forward. This demonstrates how the forwards are rotated more often in Tuchel’s system than they were with Lampard.
Alternatively, defenders enjoy more stability in the starting XI with Tuchel than they did with Lampard. Azpilicueta, Rudiger and Christensen have started more games consecutively than average under Tuchel, while it was only Chilwell and Zouma for Lampard. Azpilicueta, in particular, has shouldered the responsibility of a rotation option at both right-back and right centre-back, which explains why he has seen his average starts before omission jump from 1.75 under Lampard to 6.67 under Tuchel.
SETTLING ON A PREFERRED XI
Yet the more time Tuchel spends at Stamford Bridge, the more we are beginning to see his preferred starting line-up. The German has now been in charge for 23 games – 14 of which came before the international break in March and nine after. If we analyse these two periods separately, we can see a growing preference for certain players. Below is a graph detailing the percentage of minutes played by Chelsea players under Tuchel before and after the international break:
For example, before the international break Tuchel rotated between Chilwell and Alonso at left-back quite consistently, with the two players sharing 39.60% and 55.79% of the minutes respectively. That dynamic has now changed significantly, with Chilwell playing 76.67% of minutes and Alonso just 20.49%. The former has certainly cemented himself as first choice.
Other players to see their percentage share of minutes increase significantly since the international break are Thiago Silva (return from injury), Havertz (return from injury), Mount, Jorginho and Pulisic. Alternatively, Azpilicueta (rest), Kovacic (injured), Abraham, Callum Hudson-Odoi and Olivier Giroud have all seen their percentage share of minutes decrease significantly since the international break. Though it is important to note that Azpilicueta’s percentage still remains above 70% despite dropping ~18.5%.
For some of these players, it could spell the end to their time at Stamford Bridge. There is rampant speculation that Abraham will leave after this season, meanwhile, Giroud’s contact expires in the summer. Both have played a marginal percentage of minutes since the international break – just 2.10% and 4.81% respectively – and, along with Emerson, seem increasingly left out of Tuchel’s long-term vision. Whether this remains the case as Chelsea play out their remaining fixtures for 2020-21 is open for debate.
When analysing the differences between how Tuchel and Lampard have utilised Chelsea’s squad this season, it becomes clear that it is based on a few key factors. Rotation philosophy is not one of them. Both managers were happy to make a high number of changes to their starting line-up, in line with what we would expect when dealing with a squad full this amount of talent.
What it really comes down to then is formation and personnel preferences. By opting to play three centre-backs, Tuchel’s system sees the defence enjoying more stability at expense of the attack, who are rotated more frequently than they were under Lampard. It means the forwards have to perform when chosen as they will not have the insurance of playing themselves into a run of games.
In terms of personnel, Tuchel has brought back players such as Christensen and Rudiger from the sidelines, meanwhile Abraham, Emerson and Giroud look as if their long-term roles in the German’s plans are dwindling quickly. The most surprising exclusion has been Abraham, who was instrumental in Chelsea’s top four finish last season. Fans will be hoping the young forward can do enough in the remaining fixtures to demonstrate his continued worth to the club as they look to become Premier League challengers under Tuchel next year.