There’s no such thing as a “good” defeat. But some defeats are better than others.
Chelsea’s first under Thomas Tuchel could have been worse. That it came after an unbeaten run of 14 games, the first game of the first matchweek after the season’s last international break means it was insulated by excuses and mitigation, like a chocolate binge at Easter. Broadly the toll has not been too significant: The progress made of eighth to fourth since the German took over in January remains intact. As do an FA Cup semi-final and the last eight of the Champions League to come.
But the manner of this defeat was as bad as it gets. A 5-2 loss at home to 19th-placed West Bromwich Albion, who had found the net just 20 times in 29 league fixtures coming into this one, 10 of those in the last 16 under Sam Allardyce. Even with 10 men for over an hour, after Thiago Silva’s red card on 29 minutes, Chelsea’s defensive structure was pulled apart with almost inappropriate ease. The league’s second-lowest scorers creating the chances that will cast doubt on the assumptions made on an impressive body of work built up since January. How can a team of supposed defensive robustness, with two conceded in the last 14, allow five at home for the first time since October 2011? And to a team that hadn’t scored in their previous three games?
As far as timing goes, the introduction of uncertainty to a group that had visibly benefited from better clarity is far from ideal. FC Porto await on Wednesday in the first leg of Chelsea’s Champions League quarter-final. An organised collective under Sergio Conceicao replete with the kind of snappy interplay to uncover and exploit any sliver of structural fallibility. A week ago, Tuchel’s charges had none. Now, well, we’re not quite so sure.
The immediate message from the manager was one of calm. “We can’t, after 15 or 14 matches, lose our head,” were his public words. His dressing room debrief was measured and short. Such a chastening result carried all the necessary heat to make any hairdryer treatment excessive.
Personally, this was a defeat Tuchel will mull over as a first audition of stress to gauge how those who have been so diligent under him respond to this misstep. It was telling that when breaking down the game into two parts – the first 30 minutes, which Chelsea “won” 1-0, and the rest which they “lost” 5-1 – there was one constant theme of avoidable struggle.
“There were two different games,” said the 47-year-old. “There was 11 against 11, which was not our best game where we had more or less also the same problems to be precise enough in the last 30 metres of the pitch. To kill the game with the second and third goal, which was absolutely possible. We did not do this.
“The reaction after the red card, we did not adapt to the situation at all. I had the feeling that we struggled completely. We wanted to start in a 4-3-2 to maybe have the momentum to play on the counter-attack and with two strikers. That worked out not so well because we conceded a lot of crosses, so we went to a 4-4-1, a very classic style if you’re one man down and then we conceded two super easy goals.”
The system changes did not end there. Emerging from the break after Matheus Pereira’s late first-half brace put West Brom 2-1 up, Chelsea set-up in a back five with Andreas Christensen, Kurt Zouma and Cesar Azpilicueta in the centre reinforced by deeper wing-backs to nullify those threats out wide. Structurally, it looked sound, but its implementation was awry. Darnell Furlong found Callum Robinson from the right for 3-1, before work down the left led to a fourth from Mbaye Diagne. The fifth from Robinson was merely a flourish or compounding of the situation, depending on your allegiance.
“This is not a question of system,” Tuchel explained. “It’s how we go out, how we react to a long ball from a goalkeeper and we are the last ones to react on a run – this is simply we were not sharp enough. We didn’t catch the momentum to be one man down and to be closer and to speak more and to be a bit more aggressive and be a bit more tighter and play it more as a block. To make hard to create chances and to wait for your balls wins and the counter-attack.
“We didn’t do this well so we changed to a back three, a back five in the second half because I think maybe it gives us a bit more security. But individual defending was simply not on the level that we are used to from our guys.”
You might argue the best systems leave little room for errors of execution. And maybe Tuchel comes out of the weekend with a better idea of which system to implement the next time Chelsea find themselves in this scenario. Who needs the most guidance and who, ultimately, can be trusted to stand firm when a game rallies out of control. As well as West Brom played, and as sharp as Allardyce’s in-game tweaks were, this did not have to be a 5-2. Maybe not even a defeat at all.
A long, drawn-out season is entering its endgame, and Chelsea remain in control of their destiny. Their top-four run-in is favourable for a mix of bottom-half sides and opportunities to stifle those around them, with showdowns against West Ham and Leicester City in their final eight fixtures.
Though Christian Pulisic was withdrawn at half-time through injury, Tuchel should be able to call on a wider complement of his squad for the game against Porto. In the XI for his first start since February, even Silva will have benefited from the chaotic 29-minute cameo. The FA Cup semi-final with Manchester City, Chelsea’s most realistic hope of silverware, is the best part of a fortnight’s planning away.
“If we look at this game in four weeks,” surmised Tuchel of his first defeat in English football and Chelsea’s seventh in the league, “hopefully we call it a wake-up call because it would mean we woke up and started a new run.”
Therein lies the value of Saturday’s capitulation. The jolt offers the opportunity of a refresh rather than a reset. Lessons can be learned by all involved and carried forward into a period where each match matters more than the last.
In that way, this West Brom defeat can be regarded as a relatively “good” thing. If only because any further slip-ups will be progressively worse.