“The big difference is that [Manchester] City and Liverpool have no injured players. We have like six or seven players out, this can happen and you need the whole squad to be competitive and if not, we struggle.”
– Thomas Tuchel, Chelsea manager
Until recently, Chelsea appeared untouchable under Thomas Tuchel, their stern-faced manager with a difficult-to-break team composed in his image.
Tuchelball, as his brand of football is sometimes described, was lauded from its inauguration at Stamford Bridge last season to a Champions League triumph over Manchester City to a flying start this campaign. These were well organised European kings even before their £98 million ($136m) summer purchase of striker Romelu Lukaku.
But a startling recent Tuchelfall, which has dipped the Blues six points below Manchester City at the top of the Premier League, has created the first panic of the German coach’s tenure.
Chelsea have drawn four times and lost once in their past eight league outings. The invincible feeling under Tuchel is gone.
Injuries and Covid-19 have ravaged the squad, while a three-at-the-back approach has been questioned and Lukaku continues to perform worse than departed striker Tammy Abraham, who is thriving at Roma.
As GOAL‘s Chelsea Correspondent Nizaar Kinsella notes, January’s matches against Manchester City and Liverpool have suddenly gone from being merely ‘must-not-lose’ encounters to almost certainly being ‘must-win’ if the European champions are to have any chance of maintaining a title challenge through the second half of the season.
If there’s a positive to be had, it’s the strong possibility that most of the players in Covid protocol are expected to be back to face those challenges against Liverpool on January 2 and Manchester City on January 15. There will be fewer available excuses then, and Tuchel’s tactical wisdom and leadership qualities under intense pressure can be fully tested.
REAL MADRID’S MASTER PLAN
There probably isn’t a richer bench in the world than the one at Real Madrid – and we mean rich in terms of pockets full of Euros, not the depth they currently offer to manager Carlo Ancelotti.
The trio of Eden Hazard, Isco and Gareth Bale, so often injured and/or ineffective these days, carry a combined transfer fee of more than €200 million (£169m/$226m).
So, Real Madrid have no idea what they’re doing, right?
Eh, not so fast, matey.
As the club spent big on win-now luxuries en route to claiming the Champions League four times, they also made sure to address their future with savvy signings of youngsters such as Vinicius Junior, Rodrygo, Eder Militao and, most recently, Eduardo Camavinga.
Now, with onetime teenage acquisition Raphael Varane sold to Manchester United for a 366 per cent profit (!) and the rest of the lot of young additions contributing in a major way alongside a couple of key veteran leaders, the team is on a roll.
At the time this newsletter hits your inbox, Real Madrid are top of La Liga with 46 points. Expected chief competitors Atletico Madrid (29 points) and Barcelona (28 points) are nowhere close.
As for Hazard, Isco and Bale? Two of the three will be off the books after this campaign, theoretically freeing up more than enough money to raid Paris Saint-Germain for 23-year-old Kylian Mbappe, a ready-made superstar with the type of global image that has the clout-chasing behemoth of an organisation just about drooling.
President Florentino Perez’sSuper League plot may have failed miserably (and, to some, hilariously), but he does know ball.
There are five players 23 or younger who have appeared in at least 10 domestic matches for Real Madrid this term.
Let’s have a look at the biggest La Liga contributions:
Camavinga (19 years old): The teenage midfielder, signed over the summer from Rennes, has made 13 La Liga appearances in his debut season and continued to offer the unique mix of ball harrying and dribbling technique that have made him one of Europe’s top prospects.
Over the past year, he ranks in the 99th percentile among continental midfielders in terms of tackles per 90 minutes and pressures per 90 minutes. He’s not yet expected to boss the midfield on his own, but it seems he’ll be ready when his responsibilities are heightened.
Vinicius Junior (21): There’s an argument to be made that young Vini is the breakout player of the year in all of Europe. As the perfect sidekick to ageless striker Karim Benzema, he has poured in 10 goals to go along with four assists in just 19 games. The Flamengo product is absolute lightning.
Valverde (23): The Uruguayan midfielder isn’t the flashiest player on the pitch, and he may not be bound for superstardom. But as a versatile midfielder adept at creating chances for team-mates, his 15 league appearances as a rotation player have still been influential, and he has room to grow.
Militao (23): Aside from Vinicius Junior, there may not be a more important ascendant piece of Real Madrid’s squad than Militao, the Porto product who has stepped into the shoes of Varane and performed exceptionally well.
In more than 1,500 minutes of action he’s made just one defensive error that’s led to a shot. He is part of a defensive unit that has allowed just one goal in the month of December in all competitions.
Rodrygo (20), meanwhile, may not have made a significant impression domestically, but he has turned into something of a European specialist, saving his best performances for continental competition.
It should be noted that Real Madrid’s master plan remains a work in progress. After all, the central midfield is starting to age outside of Camavinga and Valverde, with Casemiro about to turn 30 and Toni Kroos about to turn 32, not to mention Luka Modric, who is 36.
They mustn’t get too starry-eyed about Mbappe and Erling Haaland that they forget to reinforce that area with some serious muscle.
But their reputation as simple-minded Galacticos gatherers misses the admirable foundation they’ve quietly been building.
With Barcelona and Atletico Madrid floundering, Real Madrid can run the show.
Here we go again.
After months and months of Covid barely touching football, and cases in the general population trending downwards, the Omicron variant has upended life once more.
So far, 13 Premier League matches have been postponed because of the huge number of positive cases among squads. Brighton vs Tottenham on December 12 was the first match called off, and chances are we’ll continue to climb deeper into double-digits before the end of the holiday period.
Premier League officials have discussed a full stop to the campaign, but to this point they have resisted such a severe measure. Still, disruption to the most congested part of the season has been unavoidable.
Football was inadvertently a canary in the coal mine for the recent surge in Covid cases beyond the sport. Because of regular testing, clubs found out right away the prevalence of asymptomatic cases of the Omicron variant (a fact scientists have warned about as they push for more proactive testing worldwide).
We knew there was a problem in football, and that issue foreshadowed what was to come in life everywhere else. Cases in the UK have now shot up to record highs, with the spike reaching unseen levels shortly after the warning signs appeared in the Premier League.
SPAIN STAR FERRAN TORRES
And finally, a bit of transfer news to finish out this edition.
Manchester City and Spain forward Ferran Torres is headed to Barcelona for €55 million ($62m/£46m) in a move that will work financially despite the Blaugrana having a €1bn (£849m/$1.1bn) hole in their finances. How? Because of what must be a brilliant set of accountants. Seriously, the amount of strings that must be pulled for the deal to go through – mostly related to existent contract restructuring – will be quite impressive.
As for what the Xavi-led Blaugrana will be getting on the pitch? A 21-year-old forward with balanced qualities in the final third who could help his manager one day field a line-up mirroring the heart of the Spanish national team. That kind of major development could take years to unfurl, but this appears a positive first step for a club low on positivity these days.
▪︎ Reports by Goal.com