At the moment when Roman Abramovich might have believed Chelsea were cruising, the Premier League giants have self-destructed. Facing a crunch week in the Champions League, the worry is that a fine run has concealed old issues.
Back in September, Chelsea’s third league match of the season ended in a 3-3 draw at relegation candidates West Brom that was more traumatic than a spirited comeback for an away point might have seemed on the surface.
3-0 down after 27 minutes, the visitors were hamstrung by mistakes from Marcos Alonso and Thiago Silva, the latter of whom had supposedly been signed to shore up their notoriously porous defense.
To add to the descending early-season anxiety, Tammy Abraham missed an excellent chance and Timo Werner hit the crossbar. That was a neat summary of the inaccuracies in front of goal that have continued to frequently trouble their strikers throughout the campaign.
There was something appropriate, then, about West Brom – still near-certs to go down, even after their spectacular away win – inflicting a defeat at Stamford Bridge on Saturday. In doing so, they reminded Abramovich and Chelsea of many of their squad’s old issues, providing an unwelcome jolt that has left their victims just two points ahead of Spurs and Liverpool in the final Champions League qualification place in the Premier League.
Worse was to come. A newspaper report on Sunday detailed a shoving match between at-times calamitous goalkeeper Kepa Arrizabalaga and defender Antonio Rudiger at training, apparently seeing both players banished from the session in a spat that has been acknowledged ahead of the Champions League quarter-final showdown with Porto on Wednesday.
Germany international Rudiger had been named as one of the players who had at least offered murmurings of misgivings under former boss Frank Lampard. Those rumors remain just that, but the repeat of reports of dissent from Rudiger and a poor result against West Brom form an uncanny parallel with two of the storylines that will ultimately be remembered from the drawn-out build-up to Lampard’s demise.
The shock replacement of Lampard with Tuchel in January has looked like one of Abramovich’s most inspired appointments so far. The German’s run of 14 matches unbeaten until Saturday was the longest of any new manager in the club’s history, and Chelsea had not even conceded a goal at home under his rule until additional time in the first half, when Matheus Pereira scored the first of two goals in three minutes to violently puncture the air of serenity that has prevailed since Tuchel’s arrival.
Going behind after Thiago had hindered rather than helped once more by being sent off, Chelsea emphatically demonstrated their capacity to look every bit as hapless as they did during the worst moments of their pre-Tuchel season, boding ill for a trip to Seville where there is unlikely to be any room for further generosity.
The Portuguese champions have only conceded to Manchester City and Juventus in European competition this season, and their achievement in preventing Cristiano Ronaldo from scoring in three-and-a-half hours of football does not suggest they will be excessively fearful of a Tuchel team who are yet to hit the net more than twice in a game under their new coach.
Tuchel will want to use his dramatic first defeat as a potentially useful reminder that, despite the impressive Champions League round of 16 win against Atletico Madrid and his long unbeaten run, Chelsea could have one foot out of the competition and both feet outside of the Premier League top four in six days’ time.
On the other hand, he will have undoubtedly looked back in optimistic mode to reflect that a shambolic collapse might rather have come against West Brom than in the form of a likely-decisive defeat at Porto, against whom he must hope that his team are as resilient and ruthless as they were against Atletico.
Top scorer Abraham, who has been kept out by an ankle injury and a lack of favor under Tuchel, has scored only 12 times all season, while Timo Werner, who is a goal behind Olivier Giroud on ten for the league campaign, again looked like what he is on Saturday: a signing dealing with a goal drought and the weight of expectations.
Timo Werner’s week:Wednesday—lost 2-1 to 65th ranked North Macedonia with GermanySaturday—lost 5-2 to 19th-placed West Brom with ChelseaBoth at home 😬 pic.twitter.com/R40EbxSBzS
— B/R Football (@brfootball) April 3, 2021
Eerie similarities to one of Lampard’s earliest struggles aside, there is little that can reasonably be read into Tuchel’s first setback other than the entertainment of another strange result in a season when home advantage has counted for less than ever.
It was thought that the Atletico tie and trips to Tottenham and Liverpool would be the first real tests of Tuchel’s mettle. As it turns out, he is facing his most defining week so far as the result of losing to a team that has won four league matches out of 30 this season, having spent the previous two seasons in the second tier of English football.
Abramovich said last month that he was fully entwined with the unpredictability of the sport, yet Lampard was not axed with due consideration for the misfortune that every manager is doomed to endure at some point. Tuchel will hope that luck is on his side as he discovers whether a comically bad weekend will give way to a week of redemption or deepening decline.
By Ben Miller