‘Are we ready for a title race?’ Tuchel seeks solution to Chelsea setbacks | Chelsea

Repeated bouts of carelessness were never going to sit well with a manager as demanding as Thomas Tuchel. The German cut a frustrated figure after Chelsea’s 3-3 draw with Zenit St Petersburg on Wednesday, his displeasure clear as he laid into his side’s new habit of coasting when they have a lead, and he knows that there is no option but to respond when Leeds visit Stamford Bridge on Saturday.

Suddenly the prospect of falling away from Manchester City and Liverpool feels all too real. After looking so polished a few weeks ago, the European champions have allowed standards to slip. They lost first place in the Premier League after their 3-2 defeat at West Ham last Saturday, while the draw with Zenit leaves them at risk of a difficult draw in the last 16 of the Champions League, and Tuchel needs to see a change in attitude. “We have had good performances, we have had average performances,” Chelsea’s manager said. “But average and good sometimes looks horrible if you wear a Chelsea shirt. Ninety-five per cent is not enough.”

Tuchel, always articulate and intelligent, was honest in his analysis and was entitled to point out that injuries have taken a toll. The loss of Ben Chilwell to a potentially season-ending knee injury has disrupted Chelsea’s balance at left wing-back, with Marcos Alonso a more ponderous alternative, and midfield is an issue. N’Golo Kanté’s knee injury refuses to go away and Mateo Kovacic’s return from a hamstring injury has been disrupted by Covid. Jorginho, weary after a draining year, is battling through hip and back pain. Wearing a wry smile, Tuchel said that the midfielder would be playing on one and a half legs against Leeds.

The problem is that Jorginho is essential. He was overrun against West Ham, but Chelsea missed him when Tuchel experimented against Zenit. With Ruben Loftus-Cheek not risked after picking up a minor injury in the warm-up in St Petersburg, Reece James moved inside from right wing-back to partner Ross Barkley and the result was Zenit repeatedly tearing through the middle to expose Chelsea’s increasingly error-prone defence.

“Reecey will start as a wing-back [against Leeds],” said Tuchel, who is trying to come up with solutions. Saúl Ñíguez, who filled in at left wing-back against Zenit, is yet to convince in midfield. “We’re talking about being relentless,” Tuchel continued. “We talk about N’Golo, we talk about Kovacic, we talk about Chilwell. These guys are about high speed.”

Chelsea, who have won two of their past five league games, are a different proposition with Kanté fit. It cannot be a coincidence that the Frenchman was absent on the four occasions when Tuchel’s side have conceded more than once in a game.

The defensive structure is not as sound without Kanté’s energy. Loftus-Cheek is not as dynamic. Chelsea have become easier to play against and a previously rock solid defence has started to suffer.

Antonio Rüdiger’s contract runs out at the end of the season and he is expected to join Real Madrid.
Antonio Rüdiger’s contract runs out at the end of the season and he is expected to join Real Madrid. Photograph: Paul Childs/Action Images/Reuters

That is partly due to a levelling out; it always was fanciful to expect Chelsea to shut out opponents for ever. Or for Édouard Mendy, who was jittery before letting in Arthur Masuaku’s freakish winner for West Ham, to keep making astonishing saves. But away from the tactical concerns, there is talk of contract uncertainty unsettling the dressing room, with César Azpilicueta, Andreas Christensen, Antonio Rüdiger and Thiago Silva available for free at the end of the season.

Of that quartet, only the 37-year-old Silva is definitely expected to agree a one-year extension and stay. Azpilicueta, the club captain, has not played much and could return to Spain. Meanwhile, negotiations with Christensen and Rüdiger have stalled. Christensen, poor against Watford, West Ham and Zenit, has frustrated the hierarchy by changing his mind after agreeing two contracts and there has been no movement on Rüdiger’s deal.

Chelsea have offered the German a contract worth £140,000 a week but he wants closer to £200,000 and it is understood that the club’s position is unlikely to change. As it stands Rüdiger, who can agree a pre-contract agreement with foreign clubs from 1 January, is expected to join Real Madrid next summer.

“We have to be patient,” Tuchel said, but he needs it sorted out. Chelsea cannot afford to have distractions. Tuchel knew that they were lucky to beat Watford last month and he was livid at how they let four leads slip against Zenit and West Ham, slamming his players for changing their behaviour after going ahead. “We were not outclassed,” he added. “We were outworked.”

The question for Tuchel is whether that complacent mentality is ingrained in this squad. Antonio Conte, José Mourinho, Frank Lampard and Maurizio Sarri made similar complaints during their spells at Chelsea. “That would be worrying, if it is like this,” Tuchel said. “Then it’s my job to stop it. It is very difficult to come to this kind of level where we have pushed ourselves. It’s maybe even harder to stay there.”

Chelsea have not been in a title race since winning the league under Conte in 2017. They have the firepower – Romelu Lukaku and Timo Werner scored against Zenit – but can they stay with City and Liverpool? “Are we ready to be in a title race?” Tuchel said. “I don’t know. Until now it seems like it. We just have to go back to our highest level. Then we can produce consistent results. Then it’s horrible to play against us.”

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