A couple of weeks ago the Netherlands coach, Louis van Gaal, got into an argument with a scornful Dutch journalist about Thomas Tuchel’s Chelsea. “The one that applauds defensive football is you,” the journalist said. “You want to play the same way as Chelsea and Liverpool.” At this provocation, Van Gaal shifted himself a fraction of an inch higher in his seat, like a praying mantis preparing to snap the head off a snake.
“Is that defensive football in your opinion?”
“Yes, Chelsea play that way.”
“It is not at all,” Van Gaal retorted. “You don’t understand. You are just a journalist. You have no vision of football. With 5-3-2 and 5-2-3, you can play great attacking football. Chelsea shows that every time, with different selections. I take my hat off to Mr Tuchel for that.”
Of course, Van Gaal sparring with the Dutch press over tactics is hardly news. But that terse exchange did manage to encapsulate the curious debate swirling around Tuchel’s Chelsea, a team that have swept all before them in Europe and are now strongly tipped to do likewise at home. After five league games their only blemish – and only conceded goal – was a penalty in a 1-1 draw at Anfield, a match Chelsea ended with 10 men. A victory over Manchester City at Stamford Bridge on Saturday will see them installed as runaway favourites for the title.
At the heart of this success has been that impregnable wall at the back, which has now amassed an improbable 24 clean sheets in 36 games in all competitions. In the course of their 3-0 win at the Tottenham Hotspur Stadium on Sunday the hosts completed only one pass into the penalty area. Aston Villa had nine of their 18 shots blocked a fortnight ago. Cameron Archer’s goal for Aston Villa in the Carabao Cup on Wednesday was only the second headed goal Chelsea have conceded since Tuchel arrived in January.
All of which raises a number of questions. What exactly are Chelsea getting so right? How on earth are you meant to score against them? And are Chelsea actually a defensive team, or simply a team that are excellent at defending? This last dichotomy is perhaps best expressed by their opponents on Saturday. Pep Guardiola’s City have shown that it is possible to defend brilliantly without ever really being characterised as a defensive team.
Central to this is the very modern dogma of possession and territory as defensive tactics in their own right: in other words, the best way to defend is to make sure you do as little defending as possible. Tuchel’s Chelsea, by contrast, do plenty. On many metrics their statistical profile more closely resembles a team battling relegation than a side chasing the title.
So far this season 32% of the action has taken place in their defensive third; only Norwich, Newcastle and Brentford have more. Chelsea have made more tackles and interceptions than any other club. To put that into perspective, on that same metric City rank 20th out of 20.
We are still dealing with relatively small sample sizes here, but in many areas these are trends we saw last season too. More than most recent title contenders, Chelsea seem content to invite pressure, to put bodies on the line, to relish the art of defending.
“Pure will, with resilience,” gushed Tuchel after his side’s rearguard action at Anfield. “Never lose the shape, try to close the half-spaces.” Occasionally in punditry, and more often in the idiot-pulpits of social media, you see “tactics” and “passion” placed at opposite ends of a spectrum, perhaps even opposing ideals in a football culture war.
In fact, as virtually all elite coaches will tell you, one is largely inseparable from the other. A defensive tactic is only as effective as the will and commitment to carry it out. Resilience and desire are only effective insofar as they are tethered to a cogent, coherent strategy.
Chelsea’s defensive excellence has been built as much on superb individuals as on a functional collective: the mobile Antonio Rüdiger, the versatile Andreas Christensen, the tenacious César Azpilicueta. Ahead of them Jorginho, Mateo Kovacic and N’Golo Kanté block passing lanes and squeeze space.
In goal, Édouard Mendy has made an outstanding start to the season. Trevoh Chalobah has returned from a loan spell at Lorient a transformed player. Above all this is a defence built in the image of the 37-year-old Thiago Silva: calm assurance on the ball, intelligent distribution, but above all a willingness to do the ugly jobs.
Is this actually sustainable? Probably not: Chelsea may have conceded only one goal but their xG against is actually 5.5. Meanwhile, Tuchel himself has admitted that Mendy has been a little too active for his liking.
“I don’t like it too much when he’s in the spotlight,” he said. “That’s not the most satisfying feeling for a coach.” This, in turn is an admission that Chelsea’s superlative defending is less an intentional approach and more a product of circumstances, not least the strength of the teams they have faced so far.
For all this, City are likely to offer more of the same on Saturday: a bold, possession-based approach that will probe the Chelsea backline for gaps, force them to make clearances, block shots and crosses. Tuchel’s long-term aim will be to get his side further up the pitch, dominating games, squeezing out attacks at source. In the short term, however, there’s plenty more conventional defending to do first.