As Chelsea's unbeaten run under Thomas Tuchel stretches to 13 games in all competitions, the thought begins to build that Chelsea could do what it did in 2012, when it won the Champions League title having changed its manager midseason. A 2-0 victory against Atlético Madrid on Wednesday didn’t just secure a 3-0 aggregate win and progression to the quarterfinals, but it also offered glimpses of just how good this Chelsea side could be.
Since Tuchel replaced Frank Lampard at the end of January, Chelsea’s shape has been notably improved. There has been a better defensive structure, and that has underpinned the upturn in form, as it has conceded just twice in those 13 matches. The criticism has been centered on a lack of imagination or creativity, but every now and again there is just the glimmer of something beginning to build.
But more than that, a number of players who didn’t really perform under Lampard have begun to impress, most notably Timo Werner and Kai Havertz. Harry Redknapp, Lampard’s uncle, notoriously observed on radio the day after Lampard’s dismissal that he “didn’t sign the Germans.” The pair arrived in the summer for the combined $160 million, and a desire to get the best out of them was at least in part behind the decision to appoint Tuchel, a German coach steeped in the modern German style who could communicate with them in German.
Havertz is still only 21 and suffered COVID-19 soon after arriving, which perhaps explains his slow start. Werner’s struggle for form was less readily explicable. He is 25 and more experienced, but the sense was that Lampard had no real idea of how to use him. His confidence collapsed, and that was a clear flaw of Lampard’s management: numerous players, having gotten on a sticky run, found their form deteriorating, with Lampard seemingly unable to pick them up again.
Werner is still not scoring goals at the rate he did in Germany, but his deployment in a false-ish nine role here allowed him to make those runs through an inside-left position that characterized his play for RB Leipzig. But more than that, he is playing with an energy and a commitment that had all but deserted him by Christmas.
Three players from the $300 million cadre of summer signings combined for the counterattack that put Chelsea ahead on Wednesday and doubled the aggregate lead. Werner half-blocked Kieran Trippier’s cross, allowing N’Golo Kanté to intercept. Havertz then fed Werner as he surged forward and measured a low cross for Hakim Ziyech to convert with a low side-footed finish.
What was striking was how fast it all was. That is down not just to the pace of Werner, but also the speed of thought, the anticipation of everybody in the move. That is what a well-structured side looks like. That degree of slickness can only come from repeated drilling in training.
The two German signings are not the only ones to have picked up since Tuchel arrived. Marcos Alonso, apparently on the scrapheap, now appears to have displaced Ben Chilwell as the first choice on the left. Antonio Rüdiger was again excellent. But the more significant figure on Wednesday was Kanté.
The France international was a major figure in Leicester’s league triumph and Chelsea’s title under Antonio Conte, but he waned under Maurizio Sarri as he was played out of position and never got his form back under Lampard, perhaps in part due to being consumed by a complex court case in France over his image rights. But the last few weeks he has been back to his best. Wednesday he was magnificent, always in the right place, blocking holes, thwarting Atlético.
La Liga's wobbling leader was again poor, although it will wonder about a possible penalty it was denied just before the half-hour mark, as César Azpilicueta, panicking after slightly under-hitting a backpass, grabbed at Yannick Carrasco. The Belgian collapsed ridiculously after slight contact, but that doesn’t alter the fact that Azpilicueta did briefly have hold of his shirt.
There was one João Félix shot late on that deflected just wide off Azpilicueta, and an injury save by Edouard Mendy denying the Portuguese talent, but other than that, its threat was extremely limited. Chelsea’s win was effectively confirmed as Stefan Savic was sent off for an elbow on Rüdiger, a sign both of Atlético’s impotence and frustration. Emerson Palmeri then rounded off the win with another Kanté-initiated counter, with Christian Pulisic making the most of his time off the bench by providing the assist.
There aren't many direct parallels to draw from the shift from Andre Villas-Boas to Roberto Di Matteo in March 2012 (when Lampard was a Chelsea midfield linchpin) and the trade-up from Lampard to Tuchel in January 2021, but there's one glaring one: Chelsea is suddenly looking like a very dangerous and capable side.