There was a symbolic absence from Thomas Tuchel’s Chelsea teamsheet on Sunday. There was no No. 9 and if the immediate reaction revolved around Tammy Abraham, the wearer of the shirt who was omitted from the matchday 18 for the stalemate with Manchester United, it highlighted a broader issue.
Nine games into Tuchel’s reign, there is no No. 9 who has ticked all his boxes. The early indications are that Tuchel’s main target in the summer could be a striker, and not merely because Chelsea are credited with an interest in Erling Haaland; sadly for them, so is everyone else who has spotted his goalscoring record and has a substantial budget.
But in a few weeks at Stamford Bridge, Tuchel has used two bonafide No. 9s, in Abraham and Olivier Giroud, and two false nines, in Mason Mount and Christian Pulisic.
He has voiced a belief Kai Havertz can operate as a false nine, a role he played for Bayer Leverkusen, though without yet deploying his compatriot as such (Thursday’s match with Liverpool offers a reminder that Frank Lampard used a rusty Havertz in that role against the champions, without much success). “I would say he is in between a nine and a 10,” Tuchel said last week; the perception nevertheless is that Havertz is more of a 10.
But it is also notable who he has removed from the reckoning. Timo Werner was the Bundesliga’s second-highest scorer last season and arrived in England amid expectation he would end the Abraham-Giroud job-share by taking over as the centre-forward. Tuchel has said he sees a man who scored 34 times for Leipzig in 2019-20 either as one of the wider players in his front three, a “left 10” in Werner’s words, or as one of two main attackers, rather than the one focal point. He has been a split striker, not a solitary one, a runner rather than a target man.
He has also used Callum Hudson-Odoi as that hybrid of winger and striker; less surprisingly, he is not deemed a No. 9.
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It is evident no one has fully met his demands. Abraham is the most obvious example, a player removed twice at half-time already, even if the second occasion was overshadowed when the substitute Hudson-Odoi was subsequently substituted at Southampton. Giroud feels in his now-familiar struggle to convince his managers of his attributes. He has scored the biggest goal of Tuchel’s tenure, last week’s winner against Atletico Madrid, but was nevertheless taken off for Pulisic when Chelsea required a goal against United. At 34, he scarcely looks the long-term option. As he is Giroud, he forever feels everyone’s perfect Plan B.
So rude from Olivier Giroud 🤭pic.twitter.com/AcECnOyPVEFebruary 23, 2021
And the imperfect element of Tuchel’s strategy thus far has been in the final third. Chelsea have gone unbeaten, dominated possession and only conceded two goals, one of them donated by Antonio Rudiger. But they have only scored 10 goals, half of them either penalties or from defenders. It does not just reflect on the strikers, and Giroud has two goals to Abraham’s one, but statistical dominance has been turned into too few chances and goals.
Tuchel seems to have a surfeit of options for the two supporting roles in his front three – Werner, Havertz, Hudson-Odoi, Mount, Pulisic and Hakim Ziyech – and no compelling choice as the frontman. It makes for a contrast with his immediate past.
He is accustomed to a prolific No. 9, whether Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang for Borussia Dortmund or Edinson Cavani and then Mauro Icardi at Paris Saint-Germain. Indeed, when he had Neymar and Kylian Mbappe running the flanks in France, he was used to his attack picking itself.
Not at Chelsea. With Giroud’s contract expiring in the summer, with Abraham looking on the fast track to the exit, with Tuchel’s Blues having already spent 236 minutes without either on the pitch, there feels a vacancy. Maybe Havertz will fill it.
But maybe the signs are that Tuchel’s first signing will be charged with giving his Chelsea the one thing they have lacked so far: goals.
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