Thomas Tuchel is seven games into his Chelsea reign and it seems to be going well. He's won five times, lost none, guided the team into the FA Cup quarter-finals and led them to the outskirts of the Premier League top four. But the real challenges are on the horizon, starting with a trip to face Atletico Madrid on Tuesday night.
For all the positivity, Tuchel's Chelsea haven't had a serious examination by a top opponent. The new manager's league wins have come against Burnley, Sheffield United, Newcastle – all in the league's bottom six – and a Tottenham side without Harry Kane or confidence. Now, against a La Liga-topping Atletico side, we get to see exactly how much has changed.
WHAT'S NEW FOR CHELSEA?
Since Tuchel arrived, Chelsea have averaged about nine or 10 more minutes of possession per game. They're also taking more shots and conceding fewer. But these stats could just as easily be explained by the quality and type of opponent as they could by the change in management.
It's difficult to assess how much Chelsea have improved, if at all, under Tuchel so far. However, we can see what has changed with regard to formation and personnel. He has stuck to a 3-4-3 system, moving away from predecessor Frank Lampard's preferred back four, with a tall centre-forward leading the front line (Tammy Abraham or Olivier Giroud) supported by Mason Mount and Timo Werner.
The change of shape seems to suit Werner. Previously fielded through the middle or wide on the left, he now gets to play inside behind a striker with greater strength and back-to-goal play. This allows him to play facing goal more often, making runs from deep and in the channels to get in behind defences.
The midfield usually consists of Jorginho next to Mateo Kovacic, who has played well of late. Kovacic is the one responsible for breaking lines with a dribble, a long ball, or a give-and-go combination with the centre-forward.
Howevrer, against Sheffield United the midfield was too open at times. If Oli McBurnie could find space to drive through the middle (below), just imagine what Joao Felix, Thomas Lemar or Marcos Llorente might do. With this in mind, Jorginho may be dropped for N'Golo Kante against Atletico, with Kante's energy and ability to break up attacks offering extra defensive protection.
WHAT TO EXPECT FROM ATLETICO?
Diego Simeone has changed things up at Atletico this season, refreshing his team with a new shape. Gone is his old 4-4-2; in has come a 5-3-2. The switch has worked, with Atletico three points clear of rivals Real Madrid atop La Liga and with a game in hand, though there have been problems of late. They have won just one of their last four league matches, dropping seven points out of a possible 12, and their most recent outing saw them lose 2-0 at home to Levante. Something is not quite right.
Surprisingly, one of the recurring themes in their recent struggles has been defensive. Atletico have been kings of defend-and-counter football during Simeone's era, and the natural conclusion to draw from the addition of an extra centre-back would be that they become even harder to break down. But their back line has been anything other than well-oiled lately.
The main problem is defending crosses – low, high, or from corners. Atletico are struggling to win the first contact and properly clear their lines, with confusion between defenders causing mistakes. There have also been instances of poor organisation, with the three centre-backs on different lines.
Going forward, Atletico remain a dangerous outfit. Luis Suarez has added a new dimension to their attack with his exceptional runs and clinical finishing. He is currently La Liga's joint-top scorer with Lionel Messi on 16 goals. He leads the line, getting in behind or running the channels, while Angel Correa or Joao Felix play slightly behind him.
Atletico often attack through the wide areas, getting the ball out to the wing-backs before playing short diagonals into the feet of a striker or an on-running midfielder. The likes of Lemar and Llorente love to break forward from midfield and get lay-offs from the frontmen, or attack the channels and receive behind the defence to cut back into the box.
HOW WILL THE STYLES CLASH?
There are weaknesses in Atletico to exploit, so long as Chelsea want to. The runs from deep of Werner and Mason Mount could take advantage of sub-standard back line organisation on balls over the top, while the difficulties Atletico have had defending crosses are asking to be pounced on by Giroud – one of the Premier League's finest in these situations.
However, all of this would require Chelsea to play a game that doesn't really feel like Tuchel's preference. He may want Chelsea to impose themselves by dominating possession, playing patiently through midfield with short passing. This approach may not only fail to exploit Atletico's weaknesses, but could play right into the Spanish side's hands.
Atletico's 5-3-2 gives them the extra man in midfield, and this could help when pressing Chelsea as they try to play out. The overload could also work for the La Liga side in possession, especially if Felix starts behind Suarez – the Portuguese is clever at finding pockets and linking play.
Another defensive poser for Chelsea will be defending out wide. Assuming Reece James and Marcos Alonso start, they will need to get close to their opposite men to stop Atletico's wing-backs having time to play inside to Suarez, Felix and co. It will also be important for Kovacic and Kante to fill in and track midfield runners to prevent the back line being out-numbered or dragged out of position.
Chelsea are in decent form, but Atletico have a track record of out-manoeuvring good opponents in the Champions League knockout stages. Expect the Spaniards to do the same again here.