Chelsea’s Champions League success over Real Madrid completed a remarkable half-season transformation under Thomas Tuchel. The movement, pace, and skill of forwards Kai Havertz and Timo Werner tormented the Real rearguard while indefatigable N’Golo Kanté produced one of the great Champions League performances in midfield. Their keeper Edouard Mendy produced fine saves from Karim Benzema when needed.
But it is at the back where Chelsea’s improvements under Tuchel have been most pronounced.
Antonio Rudiger sums up Chelsea’s revival more than any other. Overlooked for a large part of the season under Frank Lampard, the masked German produced a masterclass at centre-half. Rudiger was powerful, aggressive, and energetic in defence and was lauded widely for his performance. However, the Blues’ season of two halves has been mirrored most markedly by the 28-year-old’s.
Early Season Woes
The German found himself an outcast under previous manager Frank Lampard, making just four appearances in the Premier League before Tuchel’s arrival. Rudiger was part of a porous defence under Lampard that conceded 54 goals last season.
Chelsea under Lampard were a loose outfit, with attacking prowess matched by woes at the back. In the summer, the arrival of Thiago Silva left Rudiger the odd man out and he didn’t even make the squad for four of the opening five league fixtures. It is rumoured that Rudiger refused to play a Carabao Cup match against Tottenham in September.
The ex-Roma man recently confessed that he nearly left the club early in the season. Rudiger flirted with the idea of joining Paris Saint Germain and Spurs, under Jose Mourinho. “I was close,” he said. “There were really like two teams — mainly one — that I was considering; that was PSG, to be honest.
By the end of Lampard’s time in charge, rumours and innuendo surrounded the relationship between the pair. Chelsea legend Lampard persistently overlooked Rudiger in favour of Kurt Zouma and was even said to prefer Fikayo Timori who was loaned to AC Milan. After Lampard’s dismissal, Rudiger was further forced to deny a rift, amid rumours he had gone to the board to complain about the Englishman.
Despite their troubles, it is interesting to note that Lampard turned to Rudiger for the final two games of his reign against Leicester and Fulham saying, “Toni’s a personality in the group and at the moment, we need personalities to try and get a result to try and kickstart us again.”
However, this ‘personality’ can get him into trouble and teammates have described him as an alpha-male and domineering character in the dressing room. What Tuchel has done so well is channeling this energy into a remarkable run of form. All this in spite of a recent bust-up with Kepa Arrizabalaga, where Rudiger found himself ejected from a training session.
“You honestly don’t want to be in a fight with Toni Rudiger’ – Thomas Tuchel
Rudiger has been imperious since the arrival of his compatriot in January. And while much of the German focus at Chelsea centres on Havertz and Werner, Rudiger has benefitted just as much from Tuchel’s arrival.
The ex-Dortmund coach has effectively galvanized Chelsea and made them extremely difficult to break down. His reign began with 11 clean sheets in the first 13 games and his preferred 3-5-2 (or 3-4-1-2) formation suits the defenders at his disposal. Thiago Silva’s experience under Tuchel at PSG has proven invaluable alongside Rudiger, and a much-improved Andreas Christensen.
With Tuchel at the helm, Chelsea have powered past Atletico and Real Madrid as well as Manchester City in the FA Cup. Their consistency in the Premier League has seen them leapfrog their rivals into the top four. And while attackers such as Werner are gaining in confidence, the key has been the defensive solidity anchored by Rudiger.
When Rudiger has started, Chelsea have conceded just eight times in 29 games this season. Chelsea’s one aberration since January has been the bizarre 5-2 reverse at home to West Brom. Coincidently this was one of only two Premier League fixtures Rudiger has missed since Tuchel took charge. The bust-up with Arrizabalaga took place the following day.
Rudiger’s abrasive performances over the two legs against Real Madrid typified his renaissance under Tuchel. Facing the in-form Benzema, Rudiger was a leader at the back, cajoling his teammates and barely putting a foot wrong over the two legs. His performances earned the praise of Chelsea legend Marcel Desailly who said. “I haven’t really been convinced by him throughout the season, but today he showed, with N’Golo Kante, that they are the top players for Chelsea.”
While the reasons for the feud between Lampard and Rudiger have never been fully identified, alienating the German has proven to be one of his biggest mistakes. Rudiger has helped Tuchel preside over a remarkable 18 clean sheets in 24 games, compared with 26 in 84 under Lampard. The travails of Werner in front of goal have provided much of the narrative of Chelsea’s season, but the presence of their incumbent German, Rudiger, has aided their second-half recovery as much as any other this season.
And the season that began with near departure, is ending with a clamour for Rudiger to sign a new contract amid interest from Bayern Munich. Ahead of the Euro’s the German is in the form of his life, and an ever-present in the Chelsea side. Perhaps this is the strongest evidence of Tuchel’s transformative qualities or even Lampard’s shortcomings as a manager.