LONDON — The mitigating factor is that Thomas Tuchel had one training session. The bad news is that he isn’t going to get too many more before Chelsea play again, or in fact any sort of extended period to work on things for some time.
Tuchel was initially reluctant to take the reins at Stamford Bridge midseason, preferring to wait until a summer break afforded sufficient time to implement a fresh ideology. He was convinced otherwise by a Blues hierarchy desperate for change after losing patience with Frank Lampard, but a 0-0 stalemate against Wolverhampton Wanderers on Wednesday underlines the challenge he faces in moulding a team with so many new faces in his own image with games every few days between now and March.
There were, however, signs of an immediate impact. They ended the first half with 433 completed passes, the most by a Chelsea team in the opening 45 minutes of a Premier League game since Opta began collating those numbers in 2003.
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This wasn’t 4-3-3 all over, though. Tuchel opted to abandon Lampard’s preferred shape and play 3-4-2-1 with a high defensive line and wing-backs pushed as high up the pitch as possible. Callum Hudson-Odoi responded superbly to the demands asked of him in such a role, comfortably proving to be Chelsea’s best player.
But for all the hosts’ dominance of the ball, ending the evening with 79% possession, Wolves were untroubled for the vast majority of the game. Chelsea started with the renewed focus and intensity you would expect from a new manager taking charge, and they ended strongly as substitutes Christian Pulisic and Mason Mount made a notable impression, but for the majority of the game the home side did not use the ball with enough invention or creativity.
For all the passes, the most popular to combinations were between Chelsea’s two central midfielders: Jorginho to Mateo Kovacic (40) and Kovacic to Jorginho (also 40). It is as neat an encapsulation of the sideways thinking as you could ask for. With Hakim Ziyech and Kai Havertz drifting infield to effectively operate as twin No. 10s behind striker Olivier Giroud, space opened up for Hudson-Odoi and Ben Chilwell to provide a threat from wide.
The end result was a Chelsea performance resembling one part Lampard, one part Antonio Conte and one part Maurizio Sarri — a combination of the Blues’ past three managers, something that was perhaps inevitable to some extent but nevertheless a reminder of the task Tuchel has taken on.
“I enjoyed it a lot because I was very happy with the intensity, the attitude, energy and quality of my team,” Tuchel told the media after the match. “We were well organised, had a lot of ball recoveries in the last third, never lacked intensity. We stepped up minute after minute in the second half. I was very happy performance wise, unfortunately we couldn’t score. If we take care of our performance like this, the results will come.”
Tuchel stood on the touchline smothered in blue — a Chelsea winter jacket and tracksuit trousers — stalking the technical area for the entirety of a first half in which the Blues dominated possession but only registered two shots on target, one from Ziyech and the other from Antonio Rudiger, both of which were comfortably saved by Wolves goalkeeper Rui Patricio.
It felt significant that Tuchel opted to leave out the success stories of Lampard’s era: Academy graduates Mount, Tammy Abraham and Reece James were all on the bench, with Tuchel admitting he opted for experience given a lack of time to assess the squad. Mount may feel particularly harshly treated given he had started 17 of 19 Premier League games before this but he responded with typical endeavour, making the most of an eight-minute cameo to help rally Chelsea late on.
“It was today totally unfair because I had no explanation for anybody on the side why they didn’t play,” Tuchel said.
Wolves had sporadically threatened — Pedro Neto hit the crossbar with a lofted effort after a one-two with Daniel Podence as the game entered the final 20 minutes — but the pattern of the game was set from the outset with Chelsea monopolising the possession yet struggling to work Patricio with sufficient regularity.
Havertz was perhaps a little lucky to stay on after remaining on the periphery for long periods but Timo Werner, the other expensively acquired Germany international whose fortunes Tuchel is expected to improve, remained an unused substitute.
Tuchel needs time to stamp his authority on this team, but the schedule is unrelenting. Burnley visit west London on Sunday and continued their good form with a 3-2 win over Aston Villa on Wednesday, before Chelsea travel to Tottenham Hotspur next Thursday.
“It reminded me a bit of our games in Dortmund,” the manager said. “We had a very good training session [on Tuesday], 21 guys who were totally awake, to try to do what we are doing: tactically, structure, where to accelerate the game, how to defend. I didn’t expect it to be on this level from one training and two meetings. It gives me a good feeling for the future.”
Tuchel is only just starting out but already there is no time to lose.