Columnist

Pat Nevin: Strengthening our squad has been Tuchel's biggest win

With Chelsea continuing an impressive start to life under Thomas Tuchel, Blues legend and columnist Pat Nevin assesses how things have improved so dramatically and pinpoints our growing options as key...

I might have mentioned once or twice that I am very fortunate at the moment to be going to see a lot of games of football. I have never taken this ‘job’ for granted and that is doubly the case now, with every true fan itching to get back into the stadiums.

Well that isn’t strictly true, there are maybe a few Liverpool fans who might not be quite as desperate to get back into Anfield right now considering their terrible run at home. Generally fans are desperate to get back in, to support their side through good and bad times, to encourage and sometimes to berate and just feel alive again.

It would be fabulous just to have the option of going to a game and right now it is particularly grating on the fans who would normally be turning up at Stamford Bridge. There have been a few false starts and false dawns, but right now this seems like the start of something very special.

This recent crunch period when we had to face Manchester United, Liverpool, Everton and Atletico Madrid has been successfully negotiated without us losing as much as a single goal. If ever there was a test to prove the team’s level of improvement, this was it and they passed with flying colours.

Trying to put your finger on why it has improved so dramatically and so quickly isn’t easy. The temptation is to point to Thomas Tuchel and suggest that anyone who outsmarts Diego Simeone, Carlo Ancelotti, Jurgen Klopp and Jose Mourinho in short order - and doing it with a brand new team - is probably quite good.

There is that fact, but there is no doubt that he has also managed to get more out of some players such as Andreas Christensen, Marcus Alonso and now Kai Havertz than we had done before. It may be that the most important point is hidden in here - he has increased the size and strength of the squad without actually acquiring any new players.

By doing that, he has added to our flexibility and his ability to rest players when needed, even the constant motion machine that is Mason Mount had a seat on the bench at the start against Everton!

What it has given him is choice, a number of options that is the envy of every other team in the league. Last week, I was at Crystal Palace vs Manchester United, followed by Liverpool vs Chelsea and then Liverpool vs Fulham, before doing the Everton vs Chelsea game for the 5th Stand app. What was very apparent in every game was that Liverpool, United, Everton and indeed Palace had squads stretched to the absolute limit, and sometimes beyond.

Marcus Rashford and Bruno Fernandes were exhausted long before half-time at Palace, but Ole Gunnar Solskjaer had to stick with them. They rallied against Man City, but some of them are running on empty in some of their games.

The trick is to put yourself in the opposition managers' shoes, which isn’t always that easy when you are busy supporting your own team. It was a slightly easier experiment for me during the Everton game as I openly like Everton and Carlo Ancelotti for the obvious reasons. 

Ten minutes before half-time in our game against the Toffees, I felt their midfield had blown the proverbial gasket and I knew that Carlo had to change it. The problem was the quality on the bench, with all due respect, was light-years away from what he had on the pitch and, crucially, what he could see on the opposition bench.

Liverpool were in an even darker place if anything. Jurgen Klopp’s options for his back-line to start in the Fulham game included three youngsters who had a total of 20 Premier League appearances between them, and not all of them were starts! Compare this with the defensive options TT had on the bench against Everton; Thiago Silva, Toni Rudiger and Ben Chilwell. So yes, we all know that Chelsea have a strong squad, but unlike everyone else in the league, ours is getting stronger as the season progresses.

It is impossible at this point to ignore the effect Kai Havertz had on the game against Everton. He looked like a different player, probably because to some degree, he is a different player.

The confidence was there, the power that you need at the top level in England was there, though I reckon there is still plenty more to come in that department. It didn’t look like one of those one-off performances that any player can have. Against Barnsley, when he scored his hat-trick, it still looked like an indication of, as much as an arrival at, his destination. This time it looks more like the real deal.

His numbers aren’t bad (15 starts and five goals) but he knows himself that he can and will now do much better. It wasn’t just his intelligent play and dangerous movement, though he was unlucky not to be credited with a goal, won a penalty and some would say was unfairly adjudged to have handled the ball before ‘scoring’ in the second half. It was all the other stuff - the pace with the ball at his feet, the ability and willingness to win it back high up the field. The thought of him and Mason Mount together harrying opponents in that area is frightening.

He gives TT another huge raft of options and it almost feels like the manager is going through the squad one by one and working on them as ‘projects.’ So he has already ticked off Alonso, Christensen, Callum Hudson-Odoi and possibly now Havertz, while Timo Werner has clearly improved too, so who is next on the list? I suspect it will be Hakim Ziyech, who has struggled with injuries and hence has had limited game time, which has in turn affected his match fitness.

Watching Tuchel so far, I suspect he will not be satisfied until Hakim is also back to his best. That will mean another option and another thing to worry about for every other opponent Chelsea have between now and the end of the season, and beyond.

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