Thomas Tuchel and Chelsea’s positional play

How the German was influenced by Pep Guardiola and implemented the principles of positional play at Chelsea

There was an unusual scenery at a Munich restaurant in the summer of 2015. Two smart man talking intensely while moving salt and pepper over the table creating an imaginary playing field. The two couldn’t have been more different. One was Pep Guardiola, coach of Bayern Munich who basically won everything in his short career. His Barca is justifiably considered the greatest team of all time. The other was Thomas Tuchel. A young, talented coach coming out of his first coaching spell in the Bundesliga with Mainz 05. Soon he will take over the role at Borussia Dortmund challenging Guardiola in his first campaign with a record-breaking season in the Bundesliga. 

Even though those two couldn’t be more different, they align in one point – there view on how football should be played. Heavily influenced by Pep’s Barca, Tuchel became an advocate of positional play. Rather untypical for Germany, a football nation relying on high pressing and quick counterattacks, Thomas Tuchel wants his team to play attractive football with a lot of possession and spectacular combinations while always staying in control of the game. 

Who better to learn from that from the master of positional play himself? But it was not only Tuchel who was impressed by Guardiola. The Spaniard was captivated by how Tuchel coached his Mainz side. By using clever adjustments week-by-week, Tuchel’s Mainz became an uncomfortable team to play against. So, they met and talked about their philosophy. At one point sheer words were not enough, so salt and pepper had to be used to show various tactical moves. 

It’s been 6 years since this legendary salt and pepper dinner. Naturally, both Tuchel and Guardiola developed their own interpretation of positional play. While Pep plays more vertically and dynamic focused on producing the maximum of pressure for the opponent’s defence, Tuchel’s style is distinctively different. It is less focused on attacks through the wingzone, the trademark of Bayern under Guardiola and more on small combinations in the centre and the halfspace. 

Strong start at Chelsea

At Chelsea, this difference quickly became visible. Tuchel decided to go for a back-three, something he implemented in his second season at Borussia Dortmund as well. With the likes of Pulisic, Havertz, Mount and Ziyech, the German coach has quality between the lines - the 3-4-2-1 then not only suit his preferred style but also the strengths of his players.

Overall, the development of Chelsea since Tuchel took over is spectacular. They quickly developed into one of the more entertaining sides in the Premier League. However, the Blues are not only fun to watch but brutally effective in breaking down an opponent’s defence. By implementing the principles of positional play, Thomas Tuchel managed to unleash the whole potential of his players.

In particular the instalment of a back-three with a double pivot in front of them made things easy for the team. A back-three facilitates the ball circulation while a double pivot ensures enough passing options behind the first line of pressure as well as a good connection between the different parts of the team, an issue we can often observe with teams who do not follow the principles of positional play. 

The double pivot further incorporates two complementary skillsets. While the Italian Jorginho is the pass metronome connecting every player, Mateo Kovacic possesses fine dribbling skills under pressure. In contrast to Jorginho, the Croatian likes to drift around, occasionally dropping towards the sideline or moves further up the pitch. Along with the press resistance and the ability to play long diagonal balls behind the last line which they have both in common, the complementary skillsets give Chelsea the ideal mixture between verticality and stability. 

This division of tasks has interesting effects on the behaviour of the halfbacks. For instance, by moving towards the side Kovacic opens the centre which is then occupied by Jorginho. As a consequence, Cesar Aziplicueta can occupy the right halfspace. Once receiving the ball, he can immediately start attacking. Especially, in their devastating loss against West Brom this move could be observed regularly. Against Palace however, Tuchel seemed to go for more symmetry which has to do with Antonio Rüdiger filling in for Kurt Zouma on the left side. Even though the Frenchman made progress in his abilities to play flat passes between the lines, the German can be considered the far more superior ball playing centre-back. Thus, Kovacic held his position in the centre more often and led Rüdiger organise the build-up through the left halfspace.  

Attract the opponent to create space

In one particular move, Chelsea reveals quite clearly that they follow the principles of positional play. It seems though that the Blues simply switch from left to right in the first line while occasionally involving Kovacic and Jorginho, this is only in part what really happens. Those passes into midfield are crucial to follow one of the main principles a team should perform in possession. By playing those quick one-twos, they attract the opponent to the centre opening spaces on the wing and in the halfspace which Chelsea then wants to exploit. 

One can think about the ball has a decoy which the Blues use. For the defenders hunting the ball, this pass into the centre seems to be the chance to finally bite, however, it is just a trick to get them out of position. 

Do you notice how far the Palace players move towards the centre to press the double pivot? Clearly, the picture reveals another reason for the focus on the centre, the three players between the lines. However, Rüdiger and Azpilicueta now have the space to advance and find their teammates between the lines or at the sideline. While Crystal Palace remains in a role of reacting rather than acting. 

Chelsea does not exclusively use the centre to attract the opponent. One can regularly observe how Kovacic and Jorginho both move relatively far to the ballnear side. The reason is fairly simple, the opponent is dragged out of the centre, leaving more space on the ballfar side which can be exploited through a switch. A tool Bayern used frequently under Guardiola

How to get between the lines

Once Chelsea is able to find the free man facing the opponent’s goal, their well-balanced structure gives them a multitude of different options to progress. With one offensive players in the halfspace between the lines, an extremely wide wingback and the defensive midfielder supporting diagonally, the halfback can select out of three direct short passing options. The fact that the 4-4-2 of Palace did not cover the halfspace well-enough, left the halfbacks with enough time to select one of the options.

Moreover, the central offensive player, in this game Kai Havertz, can threat the defence by positioning high and waiting for the space to open to attack it. This provides the support Pulisic and Mount need between the lines in order to not be pressed by the defence easily. Through his behaviour, the German attacker creates a state of positional superiority. If the centre-back steps up, he opens space which can be used with a chippass to Havertz. If the fullback tries his luck, he opens the way for the wingback and Chelsea found another way behind the last line. And, if neither of the two tries to press the player between the lines, he is free to go.  

Using runs to create depth

Besides the option with Havertz running in behind, the Blues also like to attack the space behind with both ballfar players, against Crystal Palace Hudson-Odoi and Mount or Pulisic and Chilwell. 

Once the ballfar players provide the necessary depth, the central offensive player can also drop diagonally, forcing the central midfielder of the opponent to close the centre while the nominal winger has to close the channel. Chelsea’s extremely wide wingbacks spread the defence, giving the halfback always a save route to progress. Alternatively, Chelsea could find a way between the lines by reswitching back to the centre and using quick layoffs by Jorginho to advance into the space between midfield and defence. 

Besides the runs behind, I will discuss the theoretical background in another post, Chelsea intelligently creates triangles on the wing. The behaviour within those triangles also follows principles which we could observe at Leicester City as well. 

The flexible triangles

Those triangles are usually formed by the wingback, the offensive midfielder and the defensive midfielder. Including the halfback, they form a diamond, however, he is rarely involved and only functions as the back-pass option to switch to the other side. 

Now, how do the triangles work? Basically, the occupation of all three positions is crucial. Even though one rarely observes any positional rotations, players temporarily occupy a different position from the original within the triangle to create the maximum amount of passing options and remain in a balanced shape. 

In general, the defensive midfielder only provides a save passing option connecting the triangle on the wing to the rest of the team. Consequently, Chelsea always has a good structure to switch which we will discuss further below. The other two positions which are occupied is the wingzone and the halfspace between the lines. 

Once the player between the lines receives the ball, he naturally looks to play it diagonally towards the centre. The wingback either provides depth, which occurred more often on the right side with Callum Hudson-Odoi, or functions as an additional passing option in a wider position. In case the attack through the halfspace fails, the ball carrier can use the wide player as a way to escape the pressure. Then, Chelsea can either decide to relocate through a switch or the wingback starts attacking diagonally.


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The second move happens particularly often when the wingback receives the ball from the halfback. By immediately providing depth with a run, the offensive midfielder pulls the opponent’s defence deeper. Consequently, the wingback can dribble inwards and use the available space to start the next wave of penetrating the space between the lines. Regarding the occupation of all positions within the triangle, the offensive midfielder would move to the side and provide the necessary depth. 

As discussed above, the striker can always join and provide another passing option. In this scene, for instance, Crystal Palace was first forced to drop because of Mount’s movement and then step up to press Hudson-Odoi. For the defence it might look like Mount’s move was over when he oriented towards the sideline, thus not posing a threat, however, with Havertz between the lines, Chelsea can use the available space Mount has by using the third-man principle.

Once again, it is important to mention that the offensive player who is not involved in the immediate ballnear combinations has to provide depth. In the end, those constant sprint and drop movements pull the defence out of position and create space either between the lines or behind the last defensive line of the opponent. Those movements are once again guided by the principles of attracting opponents and move the defensive block to open space. The ability of Jorginho and Kovacic to play long chippasses in the open space is tremendously important to exploit those holes.

In the future it is imaginable that Thomas Tuchel would install further movements within the triangles, maybe at the cost of the defensive midfielders constantly holding their position. For instance, it would be imaginable that the defensive midfielder starts runs through the halfspace once the wingback slightly dribbles towards the centre and the offensive player is already on the wing. Alternatively, the wingback could start a run through the halfspace. Those movements were observable at Leicester City last year – Ben Chilwell was an integral part of those as well. 

For those of you who speak German, I analysed Leicester City and their triangles in an article on thefalsefullback last year. Alternatively, the detailed analysis by Adam Cooper is highly recommended

How the structure in possession allows for good counterpressing

The last aspect of Chelsea under Thomas Tuchel I want to discuss is their great counterpressing. As we all know, the phases in football are not separated but influence each other. Thus, we have to first look at their structure in possession in the final third to determine the variables responsible for the outstanding counterpressing. 

As I already mentioned, Chelsea’s defensive midfielders stay in position once Chelsea reaches the final third. Furthermore, the back-three pushes relatively high. Even though it seems to be risky, the closer connection not only allows Chelsea to quickly switch without losing too much space but also to immediately counterpress and deny the opponent to turn and face the goal of Mendy. 

An important aspect Chelsea seems to take into account is the often-overlooked protection against counterattacks. It is not enough to press the ball carrier instantaneously but also to create a structure which puts the opponent immediately under pressure when he overcomes the first line of counterpressing. Personally, I call this the wave principle, because I think about the counterpressing as different waves which’s aim is to press and delay the counterattack.


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If anyone is interested to learn more about this principle, I’ve created an online course teaching you the basic tactical principles of football. At the moment it is only available in German, here, but will soon be released in English too. 

Conclusion

Chelsea under Thomas Tuchel is certainly interesting to watch, and we can learn so much about the way to structure your offensive game (and yes, most of the principles were visible in their dominant first 20 minutes). Of course, Crystal Palace was not the greatest test for Tuchel’s side, their 4-4-2 was not really well-suited to stop Chelsea. Nevertheless, many coaches or teams struggle to create chances against a deep-sitting opponent - Chelsea certainly doesn’t belong in that group of teams.

I will certainly take another look at Chelsea under Tuchel and their principles. In the meantime, you can check out the great analysis by One Nil who takes a deep dive into the playing style of Thomas Tuchel against a 4-3-3

Additionally, this analysis of Thomas Tuchel’s time at Chelsea touches on some similar points I’ve mentioned in this piece, but also provides further details, especially, the moves Chelsea uses in the build-up phase.

I hope you liked the first article of the third man newsletter. Even though, I will only publish bi-weekly, next week will be an exception. So stay tuned to learn what is wrong with Tottenham in next weeks newsletter.

Do you have any questions or want to discuss certain aspects in greater detail?

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