Football Media Watch: The desolation of Thomas Tuchel

IN normal circumstances, Chelsea’s dismissal of Thomas Tuchel wouldn’t have raised an eyebrow, the club has made a career out of sacking managers, after all. This was supposed to be a little different, however, Tuchel is an elite-level, much-coveted coach, had taken Chelsea to UEFA Champions League triumph and had strong principles. Moreover, he seemed to refuse to take part in the bullshit world of cliché and jargon that football has become. He seemed a smart operator.

In recent weeks, something had changed. Tuchel looked a little dishevelled, had become more prickly than normal and allowed himself to get caught up in a 90-minute vendetta with Antonio Conte, dashing around like a comic character. His team had also started the campaign badly, hardly surprising given the number of new signings and the constant state of flux at Stamford Bridge. Tuchel’s job description, seemingly, had changed as the new ownership stripped the club’s football management structure, disposing of the recruitment team. Todd Boehly made himself the de facto sporting director and went about signing players for inflated fees. Tuchel couldn’t have been very comfortable, especially as his acolytes, Petr Cech and Marina Granovskaia had both left.

Generally, there is sympathy for Tuchel. His record at Chelsea was good – European champions, four cup finals, FIFA Club World Cup winners, a win rate of 60% and third place in 2021-22. So he started 2022-23 off colour, but that’s half a dozen games in a Chelsea career of 100 games. Surely he deserved better?

Barney Ronay of The Guardian summed it up well: “Tuchel was hired by an entirely different group of people, and there have been whispers of tension. He is an angular, awkward kind of figure with a history of falling out with far less likely candidates than a board of American investors.”

Tuchel simply was the wrong man for the new regime. New management often comes with a caveat, “we want our own people”, a mantra that transcends many industries, notably finance where many American owners learned their trade. Tuchel was always going to be vulnerable. “Three months in, Boehly and his board have shown something familiar. React to results, jump ship midstream, buy £ 250 million of pleyers with one manager, then hire another. Welcome back, Chelsea. You haven’t changed a bit,” said Ronay. It’s also bizarre that three weeks ago, Tuchel was in talks to extend his contract, said Sky Sports. “You know how glad I am to be here and how much I like it,” claimed Tuchel. In just 21 days, the world collapsed.

Certainly, the Chelsea job should come with a health warning – it is almost vampirical. It’s a short-term role in a short-termist profession that drains the incumbent after a couple of years – some victims take years to recover. It pays well and the exit must surely be lucrative – The Sun reported that Tuchel’s pay off was £ 13 million. But Chelsea have lost a coach that gave them an edge, said The Athletic. “Chelsea’s owners discovered that when the relationship between owners and coach breaks down, there is no recovery.”

The Independent claimed that Tuchel had lost authority over the players – how often has that been heard at Chelsea? And talking of players, the assumption was that Boehly had selected some of the new signings, but apparently, Tuchel was involved in almost all of them, something that never happened with Abramovich’s structure. The New York Times’ Rory Smith noted that the club’s bid for Mexican midfielder Edson Alvarez came towards the end of the window. “The approach was so late that Ajax was able to use it as proof that Chelsea was not spending to any plan, but rather for the sake of it.” It is well known that Tuchel was against the prospect of signing Cristiano Ronaldo – understandably so.

Rumours prevailed in and around Stamford Bridge that Tuchel would be “gone by Christmas” and his appearance seemed to suggest he knew it. Certainly some of his comments hint that all was not well between the coach and his players. He accused them of lacking commitment, both physically and mentality, and then claimed they were not tough enough. Once the dressing room goes, there is usually only one result at Stamford Bridge and it is not the players who suffer. Some people believe his relationship with his squad changed after his marriage broke down, but that could just be tabloid gossip.

Rory Smith suggested the new ownership may not know the first thing about English football but their behaviour will help them to acclimatise: “If they carry on like this, Chelsea’s new owners will fit into the Premier League’s hyberbolic soap opera just fine.”

Chelsea may come to regret the decision to dispense with a coach that had led them to the Champions League title. They’ve almost come to the end of the list of elite coaches and it is logical that they look beyond the usual suspects. If that means Graham Potter will leave Brighton, he will arrive with all the usual platitudes and throwaway comments about dynasties, alignment and vision. But if what unfolds is not to the owners’ liking, he too will realise that Chelsea are every bit as ruthless as they have been over the past 19 years. Ask Mr Tuchel.

Sources: The Guardian, The Indepdendent, The Mirror, The Sun, Daily Mirror, Sky Sports, New York Times.

FA Cup final: Kostas stings the Blues

Ultimately, the media got its wish and the narrative was fed just a little more. The double/treble/quadruple (delete as appropriate) is still on, the brilliant white teeth of Jürgen Klopp continue to gleam and the badge keeps getting punched by the tall German.

There was something inevitable about the outcome. Liverpool ooze confidence, have a system built over more than six years, Chelsea’s squad is a bolt-on project, the result of several managers’ influence and a less thoughtful approach in the market. It may rile Chelsea and their fans that they have been down-graded in the trophy-winning stakes – their Champions League success may turn out to have been the last throes of the dice – but the fact is, Liverpool’s self-belief at Wembley seemed a marked contrast to the slightly tetchy, end of the road show of Chelsea.

The tale of two players sums it up. For Chelsea, the performance of Romelu Lukaku, their lethargic £ 97.5 million investment looked like money poorly spent, while the mid-season acquisition of Luis Duiz by Liverpool (a snip at £ 45 million), appears to be one of the season’s bargain buys. In some ways, these two transfers underline the difference between the two clubs, one buying at will, the other purchasing astutely with the system in mind.

Lukaku, like Fernando Torres and Alvaro Morata, looks poised to become another disappointing big money striker. He looked lethargic, out of touch and slightly clumsy. Christian Pulisic, a more nimble and methodical front-runner, might have won the FA Cup for Chelsea with a shade more accuracy, but the Blues were never supposed to rely on the young American. Lukaku was meant to be the talisman, but he is the proverbial square peg in a round hole. Thomas Tuchel seems to know it and the new Chelsea regime will undoubtedly change the way the club plays the role of “kid in a sweet shop”. If anyone needed a reminder of how careless Chelsea have been, there was Mo Salah, conversing with Chelsea’s Bruce Buck and Marina Granovskaia, wondering what might have been had he been given the right chance at Stamford Bridge.

Yet the game could have gone either way, it was remarkably even across the 120 minutes. Liverpool started with menace and Chelsea were fortunate to hang on to parity beyond the first 25 minutes. The pundits and commentators were convinced the day was all about Liverpool’s pursuit of glory rather than Chelsea’s bid to end the campaign with something tangible – “It’s only a matter of time,” claimed one mic man. Salah limped off after just 33 minutes, causing anxiety on the Liverpool bench, but his FA Cup in 2021-22 comprised 123 minutes, Klopp had used him sparingly.

Then Chelsea found their game plan and by the start of the second half, Marco Alonso  – arguably Chelsea’s best player on the day – had struck the woodwork. As the game looked destined for extra time, Tuchel removed Lukaku from the action – Chelsea fans must wonder if they will see him next season in the club’s colours. The half hour that followed was something of a phoney war as both teams tired and penalties loomed, never a satisfactory way to win a cup. But of course, the broadcasters loved it.

The model that served Chelsea well in the early years of Abramovich may have become passé

This week’s hero emerged as Kostas Tsimikas, the 21 year-old Greek defender signed from Olympiacos in 2020. Perhaps there was some justice as Tsimikas had played in most of Liverpool’s FA Cup games right up until the semi-final when the first choice guys took over. Somehow, those watching this vaguely compelling contest knew Liverpool’s “mentality monsters” would prevail. They simply seem in better shape than Chelsea, who really don’t know what to expect in the coming weeks.

If the final, indeed the season, represents the zenith of Liverpool under Klopp remains to be seen, but for Chelsea, they missed out on the chance to end the Abramovich age with a trophy. The resurrection of Liverpool also highlights how football has, and continues to evolve. Chelsea’s triumphs under Abramovich were often the result of bulk buying, impulse acquisition of the next big thing and continual turnover of managers. Although it was short-termism at its most conspicuous, and demonstrated a zero tolerance of failure, it also had a life span. Naturally, Chelsea fans lapped it up as their club was turned into winners after decades of under-achievement.

Somebody, somewhere, identified there was a slightly different way. It would be wrong to consider that both Chelsea and Liverpool are not beneficiaries of elitism, but whereas the London club has continued to hire and fire, Liverpool have allowed Klopp to build something that not only brings success, but also helps the club to operate smartly. Manchester City are almost a combination of Chelsea and Liverpool as they have almost limitless funds to play with, but they clearly use their money well. It is not only the age of Abramovich that has ended at Chelsea, it may be that the model that served them well for a decade or more has become passé. Since Klopp was hired by Liverpool and Pep Guardiola took over at City and, Chelsea have won four trophies to City’s eight and Liverpool’s four. The strategy is not as successful as it once was.

Chelsea’s challenge now is to remain relevant in a new business paradigm. Liverpool and City are on a roll at the moment and the gap between them and Chelsea (it is hard to agree with those that believe the Blues are streets ahead of fourth and beyond) is substantial. But they did run Liverpool very close at Wembley, not once but twice in 2021-22. Klopp’s ebullient team have not “beaten” Chelsea this season, although the records will show they won two trophies at their expense.

Look at the fundamentals and the two clubs have little between them, although it is very obvious Chelsea had to thank their owner for his generosity. They both made well over £ 400 million in revenues in 2020-21, there is just £ 18 million difference in their wage bills and over the past five years, Chelsea’s net transfer deficit is £ 43 million more than Liverpool’s net outlay. Both have very good squads and they have top-of-the-range coaches. These are facts that will puzzle Chelsea’s new owners, but the answer may simply be continuity, patience and planning.  And a bit of luck at penalty shoot-outs, perhaps?