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From isolated Lukaku to Kante's frequent absences: The Chelsea problems Tuchel must solve

09:00 BST 29/09/2021
Romelu Lukaku Chelsea Thomas Tuchel GFX
The Blues remain in a strong position to top their Champions League group and compete for the Premier League, but some worrying trends have emerged

Chelsea possess all the tools to win the Premier League title - as well as regain their Champions League crown this season -  but some worrying trends have emerged in the past month.

For all their positive results and undoubted star power, the Blues have had to defend doggedly in order to avoid defeats since the September international break.

Manchester City ultimately showed that Thomas Tuchel's side can be beaten, exposing their flaws in a 1-0 win at Stamford Bridge. 

It was a reminder that, for all the quality at his disposal, Tuchel now has to resolve a variety of issues to keep the Blues on track...

Getting the balance right with Lukaku

Romelu Lukaku has looked isolated at times, despite scoring four goals since his £97.5 million ($136m) transfer.

Aside from his dominant debut away at Arsenal, Lukaku's goals have come from a minimal number of chances that are being presented to him.

Ever since the international break, Lukaku has been averaging fewer than two shots per game, with none in his last two appearances.

Although the Belgium international is likely having some teething problems adapting to life with the European champions, much of his trouble is down to a lack of creative forces around him.

With Mason Mount, Kai Havertz and Hakim Ziyech all out of form, Tuchel has been struggling for a consistent No.10 to play alongside his talisman.

Lukaku's influence is being felt in the defensive set-up, too, with Chelsea moving away from an aggressive pressing system to one where they look to play more on the counterattack. 

"It's a normal thing, because you always adapt to the players you have with their strengths and weaknesses," Tuchel told Goal ahead of the Champions League group-stage game against Juventus on Wednesday. 

"Of course, we analysed also and I know why you're asking because we were too passive against Manchester City. The defensive choices and the defensive plan, in my responsibility, maybe also led to this passive behaviour.

"That was not the plan, but it obviously led to it. When we had the ball it was too deep, we defended the box over a long, long period very well, so we did not allow anything in and around the box. But it does not feel good when you become so passive and so deep.

"The choice of the system maybe led to this behaviour, so we are all in this. We've already shown we can play a high-pressing game and have high ball-recoveries with Romelu.

"It's a very complex game where we have to be in all the spaces, but the best way to defend is having the ball and then to counter-press without the ball. City did this excellently in this match, they clearly had a very, very strong performance.

"We underperformed, they made us underperform, but there's enough room to bounce back and this is necessary to show that we are adapting to our players, and that includes Romelu."

Rivals predicting the gameplan 

Opponents are arriving into matches with Chelsea knowing exactly what to expect.

Each team has approached their matches differently, with Aston Villa shocking Tuchel by mirroring the Blues’ formation in both of their recent meetings. The west Londoners werea- arguably - fortunate to come away from those two matches against Dean Smith's side with two wins.

Zenit, meanwhile, masterfully applied a low-block at Stamford Bridge in the Champions League, only to be undone by resolute defending and a Lukaku moment of magic.

Man City's pressing, though, found a weakness in Chelsea's ability to play out from the back, suffocating Tuchel's side and forcing them to be shut inside their own half. 

In the past, Tuchel has shifted between systems and could do so again after scathing comments on his team's last match.

"We always look at the performance, we never look at the result as the consequence of our performances," Tuchel said. "You need to be at the very best level in all parts of the game and we were clearly not.

"We are together in this so we need the best level from the coach and the best level from the players, and we will look into it now with all the self-reflection that is needed.

"In the end we also have to accept that in high level sports, they were better than us. They were in a better shape, sharper. Our decision making, our passing, our dribbling was not good enough to win."

These comments were echoed by Jorginho ahead of the upcoming trip to Turin. 

"Maybe we didn't have the best choice to escape the pressure,” he admitted. “The pressure was very high. They were pressing very well.

"We couldn't find the space between the lines to get out of the press and we were running a lot behind the ball. We couldn't think too much to get out of the pressure. Maybe we didn't get the best choice."

Wing-back depth in the absence of injured James

Reece James is facing a short spell out after suffering an ankle injury against Man City.

With Callum Hudson-Odoi unhappy as a back-up wing-back, it leaves the Blues with just the defensively-minded Cesar Azpilicueta to play that wide role. 

When asked about the loss of academy graduate James, Tuchel gave all the information he could about his recovery.

“It's still very painful, and it will come down to pain management in the end, how much he can accept but right now we are looking at a minimum of one more week," he said.

Kante's absences

N'Golo Kante has been Chelsea's star player ever since signing for the club in 2016 from Leicester City.

Having barely missed a minute of football in his first few seasons, the world-class midfielder now finds himself in and out of the team since playing through the pain barrier in the 2019 Europa League final.

Chelsea have great depth in midfield, with Jorginho, Mateo Kovacic, Ruben Loftus-Cheek and Saul Niguez to choose from, but Kante is missed when he is unavailable.

His recent Covid-19 diagnosis is unrelated to these problems, but is the latest in a series of setbacks that Tuchel could certainly do without.

Keeping the squad happy

That depth in midfield is matched in almost every other position, with Tuchel having registered a 27-man squad for the Premier League and Champions League.

The German coach has proven to be a master of managing his fringe players behind the scenes, with the good atmosphere at Cobham a factor in the team's willingness to fight so hard defensively, which has been a foundation for the club's recent success.

It remains, though, an ongoing challenge to ensure that those struggling for minutes do not upset squad harmony.