Thomas Tuchel’s Chelsea sacking – told from both sides

Chelsea’s sombre players shunned most of their non-mandatory media duties as they made their way out of Stadion Maksimir after Champions League humiliation at the hands of Dinamo Zagreb on Tuesday evening, only to find their discomfort was far from over.

Boarding the plane that would take them back to England from the Croatian capital meant filing awkwardly past the front rows of seats containing head coach Thomas Tuchel and his staff, as well as co-owners Todd Boehly and Behdad Eghbali. The scene repeated itself on the team bus that carried Chelsea’s travelling party on the 90-minute journey back from London Southend Airport to Cobham in the early hours of Wednesday morning.

“It was so silent up there,” one source, who asked to remain anonymous in order to protect his job, told The Athletic.

Tuchel ended the journey with no inkling that his 100th match as Chelsea head coach would also be his last. His initial reaction to being summoned to a conference call and relieved of his duties early the next morning was a mixture of shock and disappointment. When those emotions subsided, his abiding impression from the organised nature of the meeting was that this decision had been taken well in advance of the Dinamo defeat.

Tuchel cuts a lonely figure in Zagreb (Photo: Darren Walsh/Chelsea FC via Getty Images)

His conclusion chimed with the message emerging from Chelsea on Wednesday. Boehly, Eghbali and the rest of the owners had known exactly what was coming, and witnessing their new club’s third limp defeat in the first seven matches of the new season only reinforced the need for the change they had already convinced themselves was necessary. For Tuchel, the new owners’ tenure had been difficult, at times confusing and incredibly frustrating.

Chelsea officially announced Tuchel’s departure shortly after 10am UK time. The news broke as Brighton head coach Graham Potter was having breakfast with his players ahead of a training session at the Amex Stadium. Less than half an hour later, Boehly called Brighton CEO Paul Barber to seek permission to talk to Potter about the new vacancy, making clear that the buyout clause in the 47-year-old’s contract — understood to be worth up to £20million ($23m) — would not be a problem.

High-profile free agent Mauricio Pochettino was also contacted, but Potter was the clear first choice. Understanding how Chelsea’s new owners settled on this drastic and ruthless course of action requires a closer look at the sequence of events that led to this point — a remarkable story that includes:

  • Tuchel delegating some recruitment meetings to his agent owing to tensions with owners
  • “Slapstick” moments as new owners got used to soccer, including a 4-4-3 formation Chelsea deny happened
  • Tuchel feeling he wasn’t given the signings he asked for
  • Too many players left feeling isolated or even ignored, with separate pre-season meetings
  • Tuchel believing he had verbally agreed a new contract with Chelsea
  • Tuchel feeling he was close to sack on pre-season over tensions with Behdad Eghbali
  • Boehly displaying detailed knowledge of Potter’s career in Cucurella meeting
  • How communication from owners dried up after Leeds defeat

Tuchel is out only 16 months after leading Chelsea to Champions League glory, and the new ownership group led by Boehly and Clearlake Capital have made their most divisive decision yet.

During a summer sit-down interview with journalists as Chelsea prepared for the new season in Los Angeles, Tuchel provided a pointed assessment of his additional recruitment responsibilities under the club’s new ownership following the departures of director Marina Granovskaia and technical and performance advisor Petr Cech in June.

“I am in contact with Todd directly on a daily basis, and sometimes more than once on a daily basis (about transfers),” he said. “My concern is for the team to be competitive. This is where my focus is and has to be. For this we have to invest a lot of time and we need to be hands-on. There is no other way.

“I am very glad I have the staff, not only my staff but also the football staff and we have a certain routine that I can rely on. It is very time-consuming (the recruitment conversations). It’s not my favourite thing to do and in the long run the focus has to be on coaching because it is why I am here. But at the moment, of course, my help is needed and wanted. It is of course necessary that I step up and take the responsibility.”

Boehly’s appointment as interim sporting director made for a slightly awkward dynamic with Tuchel. It is one thing having a difference of opinion with your club’s sporting director over a particular player, but it is very different when the sporting director also happens to be the co-owner of your club.

By the end of pre-season, Tuchel felt the meetings were endless, with different owners demanding his time at breakfast, lunch and dinner.

Tuchel did not in fact, perhaps understandably, always step up himself, instead sending his agent to recruitment meetings so he could focus on coaching the team. This is understood to have been an early source of tension with Chelsea’s new owners, who were seeking more direct communication with and input from their head coach as part of the process of identifying transfer targets.

A source close to Tuchel, who does not wish to be named to protect his job, counters that the former head coach was involved in every signing other than deadline day addition Denis Zakaria. When he did participate, Chelsea sources claimed his guidance was inconsistent.



Chelsea’s new owners promised change – Tuchel’s sacking shows they are as ruthless as ever

Some of the owners advocated a potential move for Gabriel Jesus early in the summer but Tuchel, perhaps scarred by the Romelu Lukaku experience, insisted he did not want a No 9. He later reversed his position but then felt frustrated when Chelsea’s owners did not pursue the deal and Jesus, who was very keen to move to Stamford Bridge, joined Arsenal instead. Eventually, Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang arrived on deadline day.

The conversation about signing another midfielder followed a similar course, with Tuchel’s initial reticence discarded after N’Golo Kante and Mateo Kovacic were sidelined by foreseeable injury problems. Chelsea’s sudden urgency late in the window manifested in large, failed bids for Edson Alvarez and Romeo Lavia before the loan signing of Zakaria from Juventus.

When Boehly was intrigued by the possibility of signing Cristiano Ronaldo after meeting Jorge Mendes in Portugal, Chelsea’s head coach made his opposition to the potential deal known in no uncertain terms on several occasions. His opinion was informed by the problems he encountered managing Neymar and Kylian Mbappe at Paris Saint-Germain and from his own reservations about the player.

Boehly backed his head coach’s stance and abandoned the possibility, but relations were further strained by Tuchel publicly criticising Chelsea’s lack of transfer progress following a 4-0 pre-season humbling at the hands of Arsenal in Orlando.

Boehly openly described Tuchel as a “nightmare” to deal with on recruitment to a fellow Premier League executive and, in recent weeks, there has been a greater desire within the Chelsea hierarchy to present the nine players purchased for a total outlay in excess of £250million ($287m) this summer as club signings, rather than at the behest of the head coach. That even extends to Aubameyang, whose much-anticipated reunion with the man who unlocked him at Borussia Dortmund lasted a grand total of 59 minutes in Zagreb.

Tuchel argued that the harmony of his squad would be damaged by Ronaldo and helped by Aubameyang. The problem, however, was that any notion of harmony had already been lost.

Tensions grew outside of recruitment too. Tuchel was unhappy at being asked to feed back to Eghbali about his team meetings and felt he was likely to be sacked during pre-season because of it, only for Boehly to smooth things over. After Chelsea had lost away to Leeds a few games into the season, Tuchel and the owners stopped talking.

Tuchel’s appointment in January 2021 had galvanised the Chelsea squad beyond all expectation. He immediately got them to defend consistently at an elite level, sharpened their collective pressing and provided a sophisticated tactical foundation for a spectacular run that revived a drifting Premier League campaign, brought them to an FA Cup final and yielded a surprise Champions League win.

Just as important as the tactical impact, he reunited a dressing room that had become fractured in predecessor Frank Lampard’s final months. Players once frozen out were brought back in from the cold and given clean slates to impress, and Tuchel’s communication skills were widely regarded as one of his biggest strengths — both in terms of setting out tactical game plans and explaining his selection decisions to players who might otherwise have become disaffected.



What Graham Potter would bring to Chelsea: pressing, tactical tweaks, developing players

But in the second half of his tenure, that approach shifted dramatically. Tuchel did not initiate a single conversation with one first-team player for more than a year, offering no guidance on how the player could get back into his team whenever they fell out of the starting XI. Others who found themselves on the bench or left out of matchday squads entirely for stretches felt they were left similarly isolated, rather than being given advice on how to improve their situations. Despite this, most of the squad sent Tuchel messages to say thank you and good luck when he was dismissed.

The Athletic first reported in January that several of Chelsea’s attackers were beginning to consider leaving the club at the end of the 2021-22 season as a result of how Tuchel used and treated them, and Romelu Lukaku, Timo Werner, Hakim Ziyech, Christian Pulisic and Callum Hudson-Odoi all went into the summer deeply unhappy with their situations. This level of discord presented unwelcome complications for Boehly and Clearlake, who already knew significant spending would be required to re-stock the squad’s heavily depleted defensive options.

Lukaku was allowed to rejoin Inter on loan terms highly favourable to the Serie A club but some close to the Belgian believe he would have been far more open to staying at Chelsea if he had known Tuchel would be leaving. Werner’s desire to leave brought him into open conflict with Tuchel during the US tour, with the two men engaged in a heated argument in the days after Chelsea’s second pre-season friendly against Charlotte FC that was overheard by the other players. The former head coach was surprised when told about the possibility of Werner joining Newcastle United on a cut-price deal. He was eventually granted a permanent transfer back to RB Leipzig at a reduced price.

Pre-season was also the setting for Tuchel to employ the unusual tactic of arranging two separate player meetings: one for those who wanted to stay and fight for the club, and another for those either uncertain about their futures or minded to leave.

The fact that some of those who wanted to leave were then included in Tuchel’s squad to face Everton on the Premier League’s opening weekend, while others who signalled their desire to stay were not, severely undermined his dressing room authority in the view of many inside Chelsea.

Tuchel’s ability as a world-class tactician is not doubted within the Chelsea squad, and there remains huge gratitude towards him from those who played regularly throughout his tenure and those who shared career-defining success with him in Porto — but there is a feeling that he fell short in his ability to manage people.

During the takeover process, the consensus among Chelsea’s new owners was that Tuchel would be central to the project: a proven world-class coach on a par with Pep Guardiola and Jurgen Klopp who was believed to have the emotional intelligence to manage a large squad of international stars, and who could be further empowered within a stable structure. But the extensive time that Boehly and Eghbali spent around the squad throughout pre-season and in the early weeks of the new campaign opened their eyes to the problems on the ground.

In the dressing room and the boardroom, a perception formed of Tuchel as a more detached figure than he had once been. This was also partly fuelled by the upheaval in his private life over recent months: the collapse of his 13-year marriage and his new relationship, both covered in some UK newspapers.

Chelsea’s new owners were determined to take a longer view on whether or not Tuchel was the right fit for the club’s broader new direction. Youth development — both of Cobham graduates and top talents signed from elsewhere, some at significant expense — is being emphasised by Boehly and Clearlake.

Within that context, Tuchel becoming only the second Chelsea coach to give no league minutes to teenagers last season was noted. The impression of distrusting youth was reinforced by his insistence following the Southampton defeat that he had “no one left” to play in central midfield, while leaving Billy Gilmour and summer signing Carney Chukwuemeka unused on his bench.

Then there were the on-field performances: inhibited players making unforced errors, wilting in adversity and looking unable to sustain the level of intensity required to compete in the Premier League or Champions League beyond short bursts. Chelsea’s owners contrasted the first 50 matches of Tuchel’s tenure with the second 50 and found only negative trends, with the defence suffering an alarming dip and the attack continuing to lack fluidity, imagination and ruthlessness.

Tuchel did not give off the air of a man with the answers, and by the end there was no real confidence he could turn it around.

Feeding into Tuchel’s shock at being sacked on Wednesday was his belief that he and Chelsea had agreed the framework of a new long-term contract that was due to be signed later this month. Sources at the club dispute this, insisting that while the new owners were initially inclined to extend him, talks were halted several weeks ago with no agreement reached.

There will also be understandable anger. Tuchel is still only a little more than a year removed from masterminding arguably the most impressive trophy win of Chelsea’s modern history and, prior to the takeover by Boehly and Clearlake, had also provided the club with eloquent, admirable and vital public leadership throughout the unprecedented series of geopolitical events that led Roman Abramovich to sell under sanction from the UK government.

On the pitch, despite the existential uncertainty swirling around Stamford Bridge and the daily distraction of the sale process, Tuchel still managed to guide Chelsea to two domestic cup finals — both lost by the slimmest of penalty-shootout margins to Liverpool — and a third-place finish in the Premier League, securing Champions League football for the incoming owners with room to spare.

Tuchel’s ultimate reward for these impressive achievements was to be sacked by people who did not hire him, and while those familiar with his thinking agree that relations with Boehly, Eghbali and the rest of Chelsea’s new owners deteriorated markedly this summer, it’s fair to say there is a difference of opinion as to where the blame for that lies.

Dispensing with the old hierarchy was the first point of tension: Tuchel has publicly and pointedly stressed on numerous occasions the strength of his working relationship with Cech, who was viewed as an important ally in talking to players and agents. He also regarded getting rid of an experienced transfer operator like Granovskaia in the middle of a window as a cardinal error that impacted how quickly Chelsea could move in the market and how much they ended up paying for players.

Boehly and Eghbali made a bad impression on Tuchel in one early recruitment meeting by accidentally drawing up plans for a team in a 4-4-3 formation, something Chelsea deny happening. Tuchel and his staff encountered what they felt were several ‘slapstick’ moments as the owners adapted to the rules and setup of football.

In the midst of pre-season, Chelsea’s head coach also felt the extensive discussions over targets ate into the time he needed to prepare his players for the new season, feeding into his decision to send his agent to attend in his place.

Tuchel’s initial wishlist of players included Matthijs de Ligt, Raphinha, Frenkie de Jong and Presnel Kimpembe, none of which the new owners managed to deliver. There was also a disagreement over the method of identifying targets: Boehly and Eghbali leaned on data analysts with experience in US sports, while Tuchel stressed the need for him to be able to talk to potential signings in order to get a feel for their personalities and how they might fit into the group.

He also felt he was forced to devote too much time and energy into trying to steer the new owners away from signing players he did not want — namely Ronaldo and Jules Kounde, another Mendes client. Chelsea insist they were the ones who decided to leave Kounde to Barcelona, having decided that Wesley Fofana was a better physical fit for the Premier League after conducting an extensive data analysis of right-sided defenders.

Fofana Chelsea

Fofana was eventually signed to play centre-back (Photo: Chris Lee – Chelsea FC/Chelsea FC via Getty Images)

This abrupt ending has left a particularly bitter taste in Tuchel’s mouth, because he is understood to have identified more closely with Chelsea than any of the previous clubs he has coached. His desire to be part of the future at Stamford Bridge was underlined by the fact that he never tried to encourage interest from other clubs as he navigated the chaotic end of the Abramovich era.

Tuchel has no desire to take time away from football, and he is eager to continue his coaching career elsewhere as soon as possible.

In early August, Boehly flew to the Greek island of Mykonos to personally apply the finishing touches to a deal worth up to £63million to sign Marc Cucurella from Brighton. Over the course of his conversations with the player and his representatives, the Chelsea co-owner displayed detailed knowledge of Potter’s career: his spectacular rise and European adventures with Swedish club Ostersund, his season at Swansea and his more recent impressive work at the Amex Stadium.

Around the same time, Boehly also contacted Potter to ask about Cucurella, seeking additional information on the Spaniard’s profile as a player and how his personality fit into a dressing room.



Chelsea’s new owners – the story of Todd Boehly and his consortium

In the course of his enquiries around this deal, Boehly is understood to have been particularly keen to canvass opinion on Potter’s man-management approach, his ability to manage a dressing room, and whether he is regarded as ready to step up to a “Big Six” club. Judging by the speed and strength of Chelsea’s approach to Brighton this week, he appears to have been satisfied on all counts.

Brighton swiftly gave Chelsea permission to talk to Potter on Wednesday, and he travelled to London after training on Wednesday to hold face-to-face talks with Boehly and Eghbali. Discussions are believed to focus on details like the make-up of his backroom staff — assistant Billy Reid and coach Bjorn Hamberg are expected to accompany him to Stamford Bridge, together with recruitment analyst Kyle Macaulay — rather than the bigger question of whether he actually wants the job.

Potter turned down an approach from Tottenham in the summer of 2021, underlining his willingness to be patient if he deems a potential job a bad football fit. An underrated factor in Brighton’s hopes of keeping him until now was the fact that his wife and children are settled in the area. The relatively reasonable commute from Hove to Cobham, however, means that taking the Chelsea job might not even require him to move house.

Money will not determine this decision either; Potter is well paid at Brighton, with a salary understood to be in the region of £7million to £8million per year. The key questions are whether he feels the same level of trust in Boehly and Eghbali as he has had for Barber and Brighton owner Tony Bloom over the past three years, and how enticing he considers the task of reinvigorating Chelsea to be despite the current flux.

Tuchel was hired by Abramovich (Photo: Matthew Ashton – AMA/Getty Images)

Potter is a trendy target in the sense that Brighton have become a trendy team under his leadership, but he does not fit the profile of coach generally targeted by stereotypically splashy club owners. He has never competed, much less won, at the highest level of football as a player or as a coach, and his lack of experience managing top-level talent marks him out as an arguably risky choice to be parachuted into a political club like Chelsea and tasked with halting an early-season slide.

The fact that Boehly has prioritised him above all other potential candidates, even a Champions League finalist like Pochettino, indicates that Chelsea’s new owners are at least sincere in their aspiration to build towards a longer-term vision — even if some of their actions in the transfer market and handling of Tuchel invite questions in that regard.

Chelsea’s statement announcing Tuchel’s sacking referenced the new owners reaching 100 days in charge. Sources close to the leadership have told The Athletic that this period of time was earmarked from the start as the stage for a comprehensive review of every aspect of the club. Judging by their actions, Boehly and Clearlake concluded that nothing less than sweeping change of senior leadership was required in order to shift things in the desired direction.

It takes remarkable self-assurance for owners with no grounding in European football to dispense with a football director regarded by many as one of Europe’s best, and a club-legend-turned-executive and a Champions League-winning coach still popular with many supporters. Boehly, Eghbali and their fellow investors have wiped the slate almost entirely clean for their new era, and that means there is no one else left to assume blame if new hires or signings don’t work out.

Potter is one key appointment, a new sporting director will be another.

Looking at the structure of the LA Dodgers, Boehly’s other big sporting interest, offers a guide: manager Dave Roberts has been in place since 2016 and recently signed a new three-year contract committing him to the team until 2025, while revered president of baseball operations Andrew Friedman was appointed in 2014.

There is a long-term plan for Chelsea too, but also immediate stakes; the strengthening of Tottenham and resurgence of Arsenal and possibly Manchester United have left the club’s top-four status looking precarious.

That will be the most pressing task facing the new head coach, with limited time to enact change on the training pitch at Cobham. September’s international break offers the first and last realistic opportunity before the winter break for the World Cup in Qatar, with Chelsea facing 13 matches across all competitions between October 1 and November 12.

Chelsea’s current predicament feels all too familiar to those who lived through the Abramovich era, with Tuchel merely the latest coach to be ruthlessly dispatched — but whatever comes next is likely to follow a new script.

(Other contributors: Simon Johnson, Raphael Honigstein, Andy Naylor, Pol Ballus, Jack Pitt-Brooke, Adam Crafton; Top image: Eamonn Dalton)

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