In pictures: Brighton v Chelsea
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Thomas Tuchel does not need reminding of the issues his side face in what is proving to be his toughest period as Chelsea manager. After watching the Blues throw away yet another two points in a 1-1 draw with Brighton, the German boss knows he has an issue to solve at wing-back which could play a key role in defining their season.
A spate of injuries and recent Covid cases have disrupted the Blues’ campaign and they have fallen 13 points behind Manchester City, with the Premier League title appearing to be beyond their reach.
The biggest problem Tuchel faces is finding a way to use his tried and tested 3-4-3 formation without the players it is suited to.
It may be unspectacular in the football it produces, but the system is effective in delivering defensive solidity and guaranteeing some form of control of possession.
But the issue of not having his key wing-back pairing available has been hurting the Blues on the pitch.
And as evidenced by Tuchel’s starting XI for their visit to the South Coast to face Brighton on Tuesday night, he doesn’t trust using it without Ben Chilwell and Reece James.
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England international Chilwell is expected to be sidelined until the end of the season at least after undergoing surgery on his anterior cruciate ligament injury picked up against Juventus.
His compatriot James, who contributed four goals and five assists this season, is also out for a lengthy spell due to a thigh injury sustained against Brighton in the 1-1 draw at Stamford Bridge in December.
It has forced Tuchel to trial several different options on either flank to keep his formation in tact. Christian Pulisic, Callum Hudson-Odoi and Saul Niguez have all been given an opportunity to impress, but all have largely flattered to deceive.
It is no surprise then that Tuchel reverted to the 4-2-2-2 formation he has recently used to counter-act the effect of their absentees, selecting with Marcos Alonso and Cesar Azpilicueta as his full-backs.
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His side began the game nervously, with heavy touches and tired passes pounced upon by a much fresher-looking Brighton side. The manner in which they were carved open would have given Tuchel with some cause for concern.
Hakim Ziyech’s speculative effort beat Robert Sanchez to hand Chelsea the lead against the run of play on 28 minutes. But going forward, Brighton looked the more dangerous side.
Alonso was often second-best in his battle against the crafty and skilful wing-back Tariq Lamptey, who was signed from Chelsea for £4million back in 2020.
The 22-year-old twisted and turned down the right hand side, using his low centre of gravity to torment the lanky Alonso, firing in inviting crosses into the Chelsea area that deserved to find a Brighton player.
The youngster’s threat often required Mason Mount or Hudson-Odoi to track back to provide support to the Spaniard. But if Chilwell had lined up without his injury, it is fair to assume Lamptey’s effectiveness may have been somewhat limited.
The contrast in pace between the two was stark enough for Brighton to focus their play down the right flank as Lamptey sprinted forward at will. Tuchel, a man known for spotting the small details, would have been aware of the problem knowing he had very little way of stopping it from happening.
Tuchel has refused to hide away from the necessity of signing a replacement and the 48-year-old recently addressed the club’s movements in the transfer market, admitting they were looking at “solutions” to the problem.
And yet, 18 days into the window, Chelsea are yet to make a signing. A move for Layvin Kurzawą, the PSG left-back who worked with Tuchel at Parc des Princes, has been ruled out, while there has been no concrete interest to suggest a bid for Ajax’s Nicolas Tagliafico will materialise.
The problem Tuchel faces is finding a player who is available for loan and adds quality to the squad. It is the reason why the Blues did not move for Lucas Digne, with Chelsea seemingly unwilling to sign add another left-sided player to their ranks permanently.
Kenedy has been recalled from his loan spell at Brazilian outfit Flamengo after the club failed to persuade Lyon to allow Emerson Palmieri to cut his stint short and return to Stamford Bridge.
And Tuchel has challenged the versatile winger to prove he can break into the first-team by taking advantage of the squad’s lack of options at left wing-back.
“Kenedy is back and I’m very happy about it,” Tuchel said.
“It is a huge opportunity for him to make his mark at this club and in this team. We will try from this day on to push and support him as good as we can.”
But Kenedy’s return will do little to solve Chelsea’s problems in replacing Chilwell.
Kenedy is likely to only play a bit-part role in providing backup when Alonso needs a rest, and may get his chance in the FA Cup fourth round clash against Plymouth Argyle on February 5.
Tuchel knows it is only a temporary solution, a stop-gap. More clinical teams than Brighton will be able to expose Alonso’s lack of pace and durability on the left flank and it will be viewed as a weakness.
It is an issue the Chelsea head coach knows he must address in January, and based on the evidence of how his current first-choice option Alonso struggled, it is a pressing matter that must be solved before the deadline in two weeks’ time.
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