Thomas Tuchel knows the narrative even as he disputes it. He is aware of the idea he was appointed to get the best out of two of Chelsea’s expensive attacking additions. The broader truth it is that it is only part of the job.
But also that Chelsea’s big-money recruits stretch beyond Tuchel’s costly compatriots. There was no Kai Havertz at Oakwell; he is still injured. There was no Timo Werner, either, whose pace has provided a threat under Tuchel but whose profligacy remains a problem.
So instead his inside-forwards – a left 10 and a right 10, to use Werner’s vernacular – came for a combined cost of almost under £100 million. It may not be as simple to sum up Hakim Ziyech and Christian Pulisic as it is to discuss Werner and Havertz, two who underachieved under Lampard, who figured prominently in his managerial obituaries, who will represent a barometer of Tuchel’s fortunes. Pulisic was Chelsea’s star of the summer, the man whose injury turned last season’s FA Cup final Arsenal’s way; Ziyech’s Blues career was delayed by injury but at least it began brightly.
But as Chelsea progressed at Oakwell, it was hard to escape the sense each has regressed. Pecking orders can be reshaped by regime change, but they could be relegated. Systemic change has crammed flair players into competition for fewer places.
Tuchel’s preference for 3-4-2-1 leaves five talents, plus the versatile Callum Hudson-Odoi, who has also been reinvented as a wing-back, in a battle for two spots. His second-half 4-2-3-1, a key to beating Barnsley, at least accommodates another attacking midfielder, but Hudson-Odoi was the third man who proved brighter than the initial duo. On form, Ziyech and Pulisic are competing for fourth place out of those six.
Each was tried in two positions: Ziyech as the inside-right and then the No. 10 on his first start since the new manager’s opening stalemate with Wolves, Pulisic as the inside-left and then the right winger as he began a game under Tuchel for the first time since their Borussia Dortmund days.
Each was substituted. Neither impressed.
Ziyech took one menacing free kick. Pulisic combined well once with Hudson-Odoi. Otherwise, these were quiet auditions to displace the irrepressible Mason Mount, the fast-improving Hudson-Odoi or the roadrunner Werner.
“We can clearly play better, it was not our best performance,” Tuchel said. “I expected more.” He was talking about the team, but the same could be said for his supposed playmakers.
He cited a lack of rhythm and self-confidence, and they felt cases in point. “I don’t want to be too harsh on the guys in the circumstances,” Tuchel added but bigger games – Atletico Madrid, Manchester United, Everton – beckon and they did little to press a case for inclusion on such stages.
Tuchel has insisted Ziyech has excelled in training but, though he registered an assist against Morecambe, it is his only direct contribution to a goal in three months. Pulisic at least set up Marcos Alonso’s spectacular goal against Burnley and under Tuchel, but his season has yielded just two goals and that one assist. Werner’s 14-league game goal drought and Havertz’s struggles with injuries, coronavirus and form have overshadowed the diminishing returns of two of the rest of the creative contingent.
It is a theme that has spanned the end of one era and the start of another. Tuchel’s Chelsea have only six goals in five games, two of them penalties, two more by defenders. At least Tammy Abraham’s winner at Oakwell was a striking first.
And even minus the rested Mount, this was another victory forged at Cobham, the big spenders benefiting from the men who cost nothing.
The goal came courtesy of Tuchel’s half-time substitution and the combination of Billy Gilmour, Reece James and Abraham; the full-back James, not one of the forwards, provided the game’s best cross. The forward Abraham delivered a goal-line clearance to deny Michael Sollbauer an equaliser. “It was an instinctive reaction but I knew I had to try something,” he said; that can-do mentality should endear him to the new manager. Abraham was another who had been starved of opportunities of late; he took his.
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