‘Lucky’ Chelsea can lean on defensive foundations to remain ahead of title rivals

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  • Chelsea
    Chelsea
    LiveTodayTomorrowvs--|
  • Thomas Tuchel
    German association football manager and former player
Hakim Ziyech of Chelsea celebrates after scoring (Getty)
Hakim Ziyech of Chelsea celebrates after scoring (Getty)

Thomas Tuchel is a manager who leaves nothing to chance, which means he knows good fortune when he sees it.

On Wednesday evening, wrapped up in multiple layers of Chelsea FC branded stash, he watched on at Vicarage Road as the defending European Champions put on perhaps their worst performance of his tenure. They were disjointed and uncharacteristically loose in a battle against a Watford side who looked far more assured than their 17th place suggests.

Chelsea won, of course. All the more important when you’re not playing well, as the adage goes for title contenders. On a night when Manchester City and Liverpool both picked up three points, this unconvincing 2-1 win may be chalked up as a difference maker if Chelsea finish top of the pile come May. For now, though, Tuchel saw it for what it was.

“We were lucky,” he said without hesitation in his press conference after this 10th win of the campaign. “We should admit it. Sometimes you need it.”

So, just how lucky were Chelsea? Well enough for Tuchel to admit they “stole minimum two, maybe three” points. There’s also the fact Watford were without Ismaila Sarr, a proven difference maker at this level with his five goals and five assists this season.

Thomas Tuchel admits his side were fortunate at Vicarage Road (PA)
Thomas Tuchel admits his side were fortunate at Vicarage Road (PA)

The Blues also returned their lowest passing accuracy of the season (77.51 per cent completed), clear beyond the numbers as they were as careful with the ball as teenagers with virginity. Watford shaded possession in both halves, having more overall (50.3 per cent) than their opponents for just the third time in 14 matches so far. Chelsea even got away with handing a second league start to this Saul Niguez impersonator they picked up at the end of the transfer window. This appearance ended like the other with the midfielder hooked at halftime for his own benefit as much as the team.

Chelsea seem in a weird spot at the moment. The machine is still working, though the processing is clunky, no doubt because some of the alternative parts aren’t quite up to scratch.

The loss of an in-form Ben Chilwell was compounded by a knock picked up by Reece James in Sunday’s 1-1 draw with Manchester United, which meant a second-string wing-back pairing of Marcos Alonso and Cesar Azpilicueta started against Watford. Jorginho was only fit enough for the bench and might have secretly enjoyed how the match unfolded. The best ball-recyclers are ones you only notice when they are not there, and the No 3 on the Ballon D’Or was confirmed as one of the best in the league on Wednesday night without having to brace the cold.

Jorginho’s absence was felt in Chelsea’s midfield (Getty)
Jorginho’s absence was felt in Chelsea’s midfield (Getty)

Meanwhile, the right combinations at the top of the pitch are still to be determined. It was Timo Werner, Callum Hudson-Odoi and Hakim Ziyech leading the line on Sunday before they were swapped out for Kai Havertz, Christian Pulisic and Mason Mount here. Ziyech was the only member of the former trio to make it onto the pitch, grabbing the winner - and first league goal of the season – on 72 minutes.

These last two games have shown a lack of synchronicity among these brilliant forwards. That may be a problem that eventually sorts itself out. Romelu Lukaku’s 21 minutes here following his eight against Manchester United suggest it’s not long until he takes the central of those front three spots. And Mason Mount, integral with a goal and assist, should lay claim to another. The identity of the third remains a mystery beyond match-ups with opposition and the team around them.

“We tried to infuse some courage with offensive changes and we hoped spaces would open up if Watford continued to attack bravely with their number eights,” said Tuchel, almost apologising as he relayed his pre-match thinking. He ceded perhaps this was not the right approach. That even though it got better in the second half, when the game was a bit more open, Chelsea seemed to concede two chances for each one they created.

Saul Niguez (No 17) endured a torrid half at Watford (Getty)
Saul Niguez (No 17) endured a torrid half at Watford (Getty)

“The two situations we had, we scored,” he said in summation. “We were very lucky to escape with the win.”

At the same time, it was hard not to believe some of that “luck” had been earned, and maybe not even luck at all. Because this is a Chelsea side who, above all else, have the best defensive structure in the country, perhaps even Europe. To bastardise Billy Zane in Titanic, perhaps real defenders make their own luck...

Watford did have better openings, but only registered 0.85 on the “expected goals” metric. Even without control of the game, the back five, but specifically that middle core of Andreas Christensen, Trevoh Chalobah and Antonio Rudiger (along with Thiago Silva in the second half) were composed and perceptive to dangers throughout. The concession to Emmanuel Dennis – a touch fortunate with a deflection – was the first goal they have conceded away from home in open play this term.

Those points dropped against Burnley (2.4 xG) and Manchester United (2.54 xG) were due to poor finishing. But as much as the two (or three) gained against Watford were down to over-performing on their 0.83, the foundations, as per most of Chelsea’s best work under Tuchel, came in defence. Manchester City and Liverpool might have the higher attacking ceilings, but Chelsea’s defence ensures the floor never falls.

Next up is West Ham on Saturday, the first of seven games that conclude with Liverpool on 2 January. In this period Tuchel will have to shuffle his pack to keep players fresh and cover for the niggles starting to rack up. With the top three separated by two points, even the slightest of trembles cedes ground. Chelsea, despite an almighty shake on Wednesday, remain steady.

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