Preseason games are rarely a reliable guide to a team’s prospects for the campaign ahead, but Thomas Tuchel’s concerns about Chelsea’s readiness for the new Premier League season are. The alarm bells which started ringing six months ago are only getting louder.
Chelsea’s 4-0 defeat against London rivals Arsenal in Orlando on Saturday, which prompted Tuchel to give a blunt assessment of his squad’s shortcomings, will have no bearing on whether the reigning Club World Cup champions are able to deliver silverware this season.
If Chelsea succeed or fail, it will be down to how they overcome the upheaval that has seen the club’s ownership change for the first time in 19 years, with the Roman Abramovich era coming to an end and a consortium led by Todd Boehly, the LA Dodgers co-owner, taking charge at Stamford Bridge.
Abramovich has gone, and senior executives Bruce Buck and Marina Granovskaia have followed the Russian through the exit door, but while staff at every club will always say that they do not focus on off-field matters, the full impact of Chelsea’s boardroom changes are now being felt all the way down to the dressing room. And that is why Tuchel’s frustrations came to the surface following his team’s dismal performance against Arsenal in the Camping World Stadium.
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“I am far from relaxed,” Tuchel said. “We were simply not good enough. We were simply not competitive. I look at the last season and parts of the game where we struggled, parts of the season where we struggled, and then we got sanctioned and players left us and some players are trying to leave us, and this is where it is.
“So we had an urgent appeal for quality players, a huge amount of quality players. We got two quality players [Raheem Sterling and Kalidou Koulibaly], but we are not competitive like this. Unfortunately you could see it today.”
Tuchel’s problem is that Chelsea needed stability and clear strategy this summer because his was heading for a crucial transfer squad window, even before the sanctions — imposed on Abramovich by the UK government in the wake of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine due to his alleged connections to president Vladimir Putin — led to the club being sold.
Key players were approaching the end of their contracts — Antonio Rudiger, Andreas Christensen and Cesar Azpilicueta — and the team needed to reduce the age of their squad in all areas. The failure of Romelu Lukaku (€115m) and Timo Werner (€53m), the big signings of the last two summer windows at a combined cost of €168m, to score the goals they were signed to deliver also meant Chelsea would be looking for attacking reinforcements too.
But the imposition of sanctions left Chelsea operating in crisis mode and unable to plan for the summer window, while the protracted takeover also put the club in limbo and denied Tuchel the chance to identify, and secure, transfer targets.
Chelsea have done well to sign Sterling (27) from Manchester City and Koulibaly (31) from Napoli, but they are both signings for the here and now, rather than for the future. And with Lukaku to Inter Milan on loan, returning and Rudiger (Real Madrid) and Christensen (Barcelona) leaving as free agents, Sterling and Koulibaly are arguably plugging gaps created by departures as opposed to adding to existing strength and quality. This was a summer when Chelsea needed to build and re-focus rather than plug gaps.
Winning the FIFA Club World Cup and reaching the finals of the Carabao Cup and FA Cup — both lost on penalties to Liverpool — paint a picture of a successful season for Chelsea, but Tuchel will know that his team an alarming loss of form in the final weeks of last term, winning just three of their last 10 games in all competitions.
For the former Borussia Dortmund and Paris Saint-Germain coach, the uncertainty off the pitch was mirrored by a loss of direction on it and preseason has done nothing to reassure him that things are changing in both areas.
Tuchel needs Boehly (who is also now the club’s interim sporting director) to sign more players, and quickly. Efforts to sign defender Jules Kounde from Sevilla are being held up by Barcelona’s interest in the player, but the coach at least seems to have won his battle to persuade his new boss that a move for Manchester United veteran Cristiano Ronaldo would not be a solution to the team’s problems.
Boehly appears to have the ambition and financial backing to deliver more signings before the Premier League opener against Chelsea at Goodison Park on Aug. 6, but Tuchel clearly has concerns about his existing players being able to prove their worth.
Chelsea need somebody to put the ball into the back of the net on a regular basis, but Werner, Christian Pulisic and Hakim Ziyech have all failed to do that since signing for the club.
“Listen, it’s the same players, so why should anything change?” Tuchel said. “We will see, hopefully, development but at the moment, we have the same issues because we have the same players.”
Poor results, unsatisfactory performances and the same old faces failing to measure up. Unless Tuchel gets the players he wants, and needs, Chelsea risk going backwards this season.