Romelu Lukaku was meant to be the final piece of the puzzle. Chelsea’s £98m signing of the Belgian striker last summer was taken as a recognition from Thomas Tuchel that his team needed a penalty box operator who could put the ball in the back of the net. 12 months on and Tuchel’s opinion has seemingly changed on this matter.
Chelsea have started both of their opening two Premier League fixtures without an out-and-out centre forward. Kai Havertz has grown into the number nine role under Tuchel, but the 23-year-old doesn’t play the position like an orthodox striker would. Indeed, Havertz frequently drops into midfield to help in possession.
Raheem Sterling’s scoring record in the Premier League (109 goals in 322 games) is impressive, but the England international attacks from wide areas even if he occasionally makes runs through the middle. Then there’s Mason Mount who acts as the link between the Chelsea attack and midfield. He also likes to drift wide.
On paper, Chelsea lack cutting edge, and this was certainly one potential conclusion from their 2-2 draw against Tottenham Hotspur on Sunday. The Blues might have found the back of the net twice, but they created the opportunities to score more. Tuchel’s team didn’t effectively translate their dominance of possession and territory into goals.
Tuchel, however, was surely pleased with most of what he saw from his attack. In fact, Chelsea’s striker-less frontline could get the best out of them as a group. They might well be a stronger team without a recognised number nine. A frontline of Havertz, Mount and Sterling looks like the way forward for the Blues.
As counter pressers, Havertz, Mount and Sterling are all extremely sharp. Tuchel wants Chelsea under his stewardship to be a modern, proactive outfit and that requires a mobile attacking line with the ability and willingness to close down from the front. He doesn’t want Chelsea to let opposition teams out from the back.
On top of this, Tuchel wants nimble players to lead his attack in possession. Marc Cucurella and Reece James offer width as the overlapping wing backs and so Mount and Havertz are free to stay inside and give Jorginho and N’Golo Kante the option of creating a box midfield to overwhelm opponents in the centre of the pitch.
Of course, Manchester City used a striker-less system for much of last season to good effect. The Etihad Stadium club chased Harry Kane following the departure of Sergio Aguero, but failed to land the Tottenham Hotspur striker. Pep Guardiola, however, tweaked his approach and used Phil Foden, Sterling and even Kevin de Bruyne through the middle. It worked as City retained their Premier League title.
Erling Haaland’s arrival this summer has changed the landscape for City, but Tuchel clearly saw something he liked in the way Guardiola set up his team last season and has borrowed some of his ideas for Chelsea. There are similarities between the way City played last season and the way Chelsea are playing this term.
Armando Broja gives Tuchel a more conventional option as a centre forward, but the Albanian international could still leave Stamford Bridge on loan before the summer transfer window closes – Everton have been consistently linked with the 20-year-old who caught the eye for Southampton last season.
Some reports claim Chelsea still want to add another attacker to their squad, but the profile of Tuchel’s first-choice frontline has already been established. Just because the Blues don’t have a striker doesn’t mean they can’t play the way their German coach envisages. In fact, they might be an even clearer reflection of what Tuchel wants.