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Pat Nevin: Why the Blues are blossoming and which partnership is most pivotal

With two more victories under our belt since his last column, Chelsea legend Pat Nevin looks in detail at Thomas Tuchel's tactical nuances, pairs of players forming understandings, and why the narrative can change quickly...


Watching Chelsea make light of Newcastle United at the Bridge once again led to conflicted feelings for me.
Obviously, like everyone else, I was delighted at the win and the rise back up into the top four where we belong. I was also dismayed, however, that the article I wrote last week should have been written this week instead. It would have been even more fitting.

It was all about Timo Werner, his ever-increasing impact on the team, the effect of his runs beyond defences, the fact he has more assists at the club this season than anyone else, and that the goal drought he was suffering was very likely to finish soon.

Happily, he just never stops. He keeps on getting into the danger areas. Even though there were a few missed chances against the Toon, he was absolutely not stopping those perfectly-timed runs into scoring positions. I reckon Thomas Tuchel is delighted with what he has seen so far from his compatriot and is utterly confident the goal rush will come.

I reckon it can now officially be described as a very good run by the team in general and still no opponent has managed to score against a Tuchel Chelsea side as yet.

A number of things have become apparent already in these first three weeks, and top among them is the manager’s willingness to change things quickly when they aren’t working as well as he would like.

I thought the tactical move at half-time in the FA Cup game against Barnsley told us a lot. He had hoped one system would work, it didn’t, okay change that right away. Even if it meant the possibility of upsetting a few important players, that was clearly secondary. Winning is the most important thing and if you have to be ruthless in the moment, then so be it.

I have mentioned over the past few weeks how impressed I have been with the understanding between Mason Mount and Callum Hudson-Odoi that he has allowed to flourish, but there is also the hope that other on-field understandings will blossom. At the back it is imperative the two/three work well together and of course the left-hand side of the field is just as crucial. I do not know if it will be Chilwell, Emerson or Alonso who eventually creates the perfect link with Pulisic, Callum, Mason, Hakim Ziyech or Timo Werner over on that side, but I am convinced the perfect partnership is in there somewhere. The trick is teasing it out.

One partnership that is not new but could be argued to be as important as any other at the club is that between Kovacic and Jorginho. In the league games since the manager arrived, those two have been first choices in the engine room from the start. Not only have they started every one of those games, they have generally finished them too. With 16 minutes to go against Spurs, Kovacic was replaced by N’Golo Kante, but apart from that they have been ever-present and inseparable in the well-oiled engine room.

Considering Kante is one of the best on the planet at the deeper (starting) midfield role, that is a huge vote of confidence in those two. They have basically been bossing the midfield in each game, but what does ‘bossing’ mean in this context?

It means holding the ball, keeping possession, working together and dovetailing with a match intelligence that is very rare to see. Yes, if one goes the other might stay deeper, but it is much more than that. It is knowing the capabilities of each other and trusting those abilities to receive the ball in tight areas and still emerge with it under control. Not to put too fine a point on it, but they often make it look like they are ‘grown-up’ footballers playing against keen youngsters trying to learn the game.

That midfield maturity is something I have always been a fan of with these two since they first came to the club. Even with the teething problems at the start, I have always felt they perfectly complimented each other in there. Tuchel would appear to agree, at the moment.

I say at the moment because this could change quickly. All it takes is a little dip in form or tiredness creeping in and the likes of Billy Gilmour as well as N’Golo are capable of waltzing into that midfield and being hard to move out, especially if we go on another decent run of results.

It was noticeable against Newcastle that when N’Golo did come on for Mason Mount, he was positioned in a slightly more forward area. Many reading this will still be less than enamoured by him playing that far forward, but I still like him there, as well as in the deeper role. Think about how many managers of top teams want to win the ball back high up the field. They know the importance of high pressing and few will be better than our French pocket dynamo in doing precisely that.

Right now it looks as though the manager is blocking off little areas of the team that he can be confident about. Because of that it is looking more and more coherent by the game, with the caveat that the next few fixtures against Southampton away, then Atletico Madrid, and of course Man United, might pose a significantly more difficult set of questions.

One position that is more difficult than any other to form partnerships is obviously goalkeeper. It would be unfair not to mention Kepa’s display with one particularly fine save and another clean sheet against Newcastle to add to his shutout at Barnsley.

There has been a narrative about Kepa and also about Timo Werner over the past few months, and I have full understanding why both were under such scrutiny. It is, however, a delight to see both doing so well right now. They say that it is what you learn from losses and during the tough times that makes you better. Both will understand that just now. All we need is Kai Havertz to blossom and suddenly the springtime for Chelsea could be very colourful indeed.

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