It has been a whirlwind first month for Thomas Tuchel at Chelsea.
Seven games. Five wins. Two goals conceded. Zero losses. One public dressing-down of a player.
Oh, and thousands upon thousands of passes.
The net result is a widespread acceptance that Chelsea achieved an upgrade by firing club great Frank Lampard and replacing him with more of an experienced tactician in Tuchel, who has already put his own stamp on the team as he transitions to life in English soccer.
The schedule has been kind to the German coach so far, though, with Premier League matches against out-of-form teams (Wolves, Tottenham and Southampton) or relegation contenders (Newcastle, Burnley and Sheffield United) flanking an FA Cup game at second-division club Barnsley.
Now it’s time for the toughest test by far of Tuchel’s Chelsea tenure — a last-16 matchup in the Champions League against Atletico Madrid, the Spanish league leader, and its coach of nearly 10 years, Diego Simeone.
“This is exactly what we want, the biggest test,” Tuchel said Monday. “Because hopefully it brings out the best in us. It’s clear when play against Atletico what you get — you get hard fighting, an experienced team, a lot of mentality.
“We will do it in our way, and they will do it in their way.”
So what has been Chelsea’s “way” since the arrival of Tuchel on Jan. 26, a day after Lampard’s firing and a day before Tuchel took charge of his first match?
In a clear change of game plan, Tuchel immediately switched formation from Lampard’s 4-2-3-1 to a three-man defense with high wing backs and two sitting midfielders to protect the back line.
Further forward, Tuchel has looked to get more out of offseason signing Timo Werner by deploying him as an inside forward, positioned on the left and just off the main striker, which has alternated between Olivier Giroud and Tammy Abraham.
The slate has been wiped clean in the squad, with a number of players brought back in, including left wing back Marcos Alonso — who hadn’t played since September under Lampard — center back Antonio Rudiger and Callum Hudson-Odoi, a winger who is occasionally operating as a right wing back under Tuchel.
Cesar Azpilicueta, the dependable club captain, has been a regular in the team as a right-sided center half. His days had appeared numbered under Lampard.
Then there’s been the clear change in playing style, with Chelsea dominating the ball and having at least 70% possession in four of the seven matches. Against Wolverhampton Wanderers, Chelsea had 79% possession and completed 820 passes — more than any other team in a Premier League game this season.
Still, some old habits die hard. Chelsea continues to struggle to convert its dominance of matches and territorial pressure into goals, like in the 1-1 draw at Southampton on Saturday when Tuchel bemoaned his team’s “lack of precision.”
“I didn’t feel in the last 20 meters that we would kill the game,” he said.
Expect chances to be few and far between against Atletico’s experienced and famously rugged defense as Tuchel takes charge of a second different team in this season’s Champions League, having led 2019-20 runner-up Paris Saint-Germain in the group stage before getting fired in December.
Tuchel said Chelsea would have to “over-perform” to get past Atletico.
“This is only possible if you feel a bond between the players as a coach, and I feel these things,” he said.
Tuchel said Hudson-Odoi was in contention to start the first leg on Tuesday, having withdrawn the 20-year-old England international barely 30 minutes after bringing him on as a halftime substitute against Southampton — saying his “attitude” wasn’t right.
It was Tuchel’s first open spat with a player since arriving, underlining his reputation as a single-minded coach who is not afraid to speak his mind.
Tuchel said Monday he had spoken to Hudson-Odoi in front of the squad in training and that the matter was over.
“Sometimes you reflect, ‘Should I have done that?’” Tuchel said, “because the media, the outside, the family makes it bigger than it is meant. Still, I did it and I had the reaction I wanted.
“I said after the game this is the decision for today, this is the lesson to learn for him. For me, also.”
Indeed, Tuchel still has plenty to learn about his squad, underscoring the size of his task against Atletico as he looks to outwit a coach in Simeone who has been in his post since 2011.
“You know that you arrive at the highest level when you play Atletico in the first round of the knockouts,” Tuchel said. “We feel confident. We feel excited.”
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