Why Rudiger matters in Tuchel’s scheme of things

  • From Anfield to Malmo, defensive solidity has been the reason why Chelsea haven’t got the blues.
Antonio Ruediger and Thomas Tuchel, Manager of Chelsea pose with the Champions League Trophy. (Getty) PREMIUM
Antonio Ruediger and Thomas Tuchel, Manager of Chelsea pose with the Champions League Trophy. (Getty)
Updated on Nov 05, 2021 06:36 PM IST
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By, New Delhi

Amid the victories that Chelsea have notched up on way to the top of the Premier League table, it is ironic that a doughty stalemate may be the most instructive in tracking the club’s current run. You have to cast your mind back to a late August evening when just the third round of fixtures of the new Premier League season was underway. The opponents were Liverpool, a team keen to atone for the disappointment of last season and backed by a raucous set of supporters in the Anfield cauldron. 

Chelsea had successfully managed to silence the boisterous crowd with the opening goal from Kai Havertz in the 22nd minute and seemed set to protect their lead heading into the half-time break. Until a moment of frenetic activity in the 18-yard box resulted in Reece James handling the ball and conceding a penalty to Liverpool. James was given marching orders. Liverpool duly made it 1-1; Mo Salah making no mistake with his spot-kick from 12 yards out. 

In the ordinary course of events, there would have been no way back for Chelsea. As if the threats of Salah and Sadio Mane weren’t enough, the introduction of Thiago Alcantara from the bench meant that the hosts were going to exert complete control on the tempo of the game. As expected then, Liverpool had 66% possession and 24 shots in contrast to Chelsea’s six. But the metric that matters most – goals – had nothing to separate the two teams. 

The back three of Andreas Christensen, Antonio Rudiger and Thiago Silva – brought on as a substitute after James’ sending off – were magnificent, keeping every attacking move by a red shirt at bay in the face of relentless pressure. The presence of Edouard Mendy, standing at 6 feet 4 inches, in goal helped of course.   

“I cannot praise the team enough. I do not know if there is a harder stadium than Anfield to go one man down. Our resilience was absolutely fantastic. With pure will, we took the heat out of the game. That was team effort at its very best,” said Chelsea manager Thomas Tuchel. 

Just 12 months earlier, the situation of the game against the same opponents at the same venue had been eerily identical when Christensen was sent off at the stroke of half-time. But back then, there was no heroic resistance to take heart from. Two goals were conceded in the blink of an eye as Liverpool coasted through the rest of the game. 

The Tuchel touch 

So, what changed in the intervening period for Chelsea? It might seem simplistic, but it is hard to argue against acknowledging Tuchel as the single biggest factor in the transformation. The numbers bear it out. Since his appointment in January this year after the abrupt exit of Frank Lampard, the Blues have won 30 out of 47 matches with just seven defeats. It has quite simply been built on a watertight defensive unit that prides itself on clean sheets. 

The west London club’s latest result – a 1-0 victory over Swedish club Malmo in the Champions League – saw the number of clean sheets under the German boss rise to 29, nine more than any other team in the top five European leagues in that period. Their unexpected march to the Champions League title last season was achieved on these very tenets, illustrated by them conceding just one goal across the two-legged semi-finals and final against teams with the ammunition of Real Madrid and Manchester City. 

Tuchel’s entry in January this year had evoked some mixed feelings at first, but he quickly won over his critics by implementing key changes and producing immediate results. One of them was switching to a back three from Lampard’s preferred 4-3-3 formation and bringing the then neglected Rudiger back into the fold. The German defender barely inspired confidence during fleeting appearances under Lampard but now exudes the look of an assured leader manning the defensive line with authority. Towards the end of last season, it was telling that Chelsea were conceding 1.4 goals per game when the German was absent as opposed to 0.4 goals on average when he was part of the starting XI. He has carried that form into this season, with the team allowing a sum total of three goals in his nine appearances. It’s no surprise then that Real Madrid seem keen now to acquire Rudiger’s services. 

As is true for any team which defends well, though, it is never about the defensive personnel alone. It has become imperative for teams to press their opponents as a collective and recover the ball as quickly as possible. It is here that the indefatigable lungs of N’Golo Kante play a dominant role. The diminutive Frenchman is a vital cog in the middle of the park, for few have the ability to make marauding runs forward as well as track back and shield the defence like he does. The injuries he has had in the last couple of years seem to be a result of this no-holds-barred approach, which is why Tuchel now prefers preserving him for the big games. 

Back to the future 

In the approach Tuchel has adopted, where defensive solidity takes precedence, he has chosen to take the route that has served the club so well over the last 17 years. Jose Mourinho was the pioneer responsible for much of Chelsea’s early success under owner Roman Abramovich, inculcating in his players the importance of being hard to break down. In 185 games in Mourinho’s first tenure, when the defensive ensemble of John Terry, Ricardo Carvalho and Petr Cech were ever-present, Chelsea let in just 119 goals.    

As much as Abramovich has yearned for the Chelsea faithful to be entertained by an attacking brand of football, their greater days – notably the 2011-12 Champions League triumph – have come when they have made defensive stubbornness a virtue. The likes of Carlo Ancelotti and Antonio Conte, although a bit more expansive, did not compromise on a strong backline and tasted great success too. When Ancelotti and Conte won the 2009-10 and 2016-17 Premier League seasons respectively, they conceded just 32 and 33 goals. Reigning champions Manchester City conceded 32 goals and Liverpool, winners in 2019-20, 33. 

One of the grievances from them though, was that they weren’t able to sustain it for long enough to build a lasting legacy. In the case of Mourinho and Conte in particular, their stints were cut short not only due to their confrontational personalities and differences with the board but also because they ultimately found it hard to keep extracting the same work ethic from their players.   

That then is Tuchel’s biggest challenge: to ensure that this run of results is accompanied by the lure of longevity.

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    Vivek Krishnan is a sports journalist who enjoys covering cricket and football among other disciplines. He wanted to be a cricketer himself but has gladly settled for watching and writing on different sports.

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