PORTO, Portugal — Nothing quite underlines the unusual dynamic between owner and head coach at Chelsea as the first meeting between Roman Abramovich and Thomas Tuchel taking place on the field after they had just won the Champions League on Saturday.
Almost an hour beyond the final whistle of the 1-0 victory over Manchester City and with only a few hundred supporters left inside the Estadio do Dragao in Porto, Abramovich drifted on to the pitch to belatedly join in celebrations, almost sheepishly posing alongside the trophy with captain Cesar Azpilicueta, among others.
Tuchel conversed with his employer, the first face-to-face talk they had since the 47-year-old succeeded Frank Lampard in January, an encounter he described as “the best moment for a first meeting … or the worst, as from now on it can only get worse!” Winning the biggest prize in club football would immortalise a manager at many clubs, but Chelsea has long been an outlier in that regard.
Club director Marina Granovskaia runs the Blues on a day-to-day basis, but, unlike some more removed figureheads at rival clubs, Abramovich still retains an active interest and is the final arbiter in the biggest decisions. Tuchel is Abramovich’s 13th different manager since he bought the club in 2003, a remarkable burn rate which was greeted with scepticism for years in the English game, counterintuitive to the conventional wisdom that stability breeds sustained success.
Yet Saturday’s silverware is the 17th major trophy of the Abramovich era. No English club has won more in the same period. It is their second Champions League crown, and the parallels with the first nine years earlier are stark. On both occasions, they sacked a manager midseason; nine years ago, Roberto Di Matteo replaced Andre Villas-Boas in March. Two months later, he was a European champion.
City have long been lauded as one of the finest teams of this era, making Chelsea’s win in Portugal a clear upset for the prevailing consensus. And if we’re being honest, they weren’t objectively the best team in Europe in 2012 either, but they still found a way to walk off with the trophy by beating Bayern Munich in a penalty shootout in the German club’s own stadium. The only other Champions League final in their history, the 2008 defeat to Manchester United in Moscow, came in yet another season with a managerial change halfway through.
None of this is a fluke. Maurizio Sarri’s departure was all but officially confirmed prior to comfortably beating Arsenal 4-1 in the 2019 Europa League final, paving the way for Lampard’s appointment. Six years earlier, they won the same competition having dispensed with Di Matteo and placed Rafa Benitez in interim charge, before Jose Mourinho was brought back for a second tenure. Benitez was unpopular with Chelsea fans for comments he previously made about the Blues when Liverpool manager and was never likely to stick around, yet they beat Benfica with a stoppage-time winner to give John Terry another excuse for a full-kit celebration.
The constant throughout all this is the unrelenting, unforgiving pursuit of excellence, ruthlessly enforced in a culture created by Abramovich. Stamford Bridge is effectively the setting for a sports version of “Saturday Night Live,” the long-running U.S. comedy sketch show which aims to keep itself relevant by using a different guest presenter every week. Each brings their own personality to it, some look at home, others out of their depth, but the show remains primetime viewing. At Chelsea, Tuchel is the current incumbent and what a show he delivered this weekend. But there is a key difference with many of his predecessors, particularly those with fleeting tenures including a Champions League final.
Di Matteo had just three years’ experience managing Milton Keynes Dons and West Bromwich Albion before replacing Villas-Boas. A popular former player, Di Matteo simply set about reversing many of the changes his predecessor had made, restoring established but ageing players to the heart of the team. Similarly, when Avram Grant replaced Mourinho, he was a relative unknown working in Israel but with close ties to Abramovich. He pushed a reset button and allowed the team that had grown tired of Mourinho’s moods to largely pick itself.
Tuchel is different. He has a pedigree and he has modified rather than maintained. Despite taking over in the middle of a schedule further condensed by the COVID-19 pandemic, the German has found a way to bind together an expensively assembled squad to be more than the sum of its parts. The tactical change was vital, adopting a 3-4-2-1 shape that withstood the best City could throw at them, the same as Real Madrid and Atletico Madrid before them. But moreover, the mindset was everything.
Tuchel has not fallen into the trap of many before him, feeling a need to talk about legacy building, longevity and why he’ll buck the trend and create a dynasty in west London. From day one, he has accepted the hire-and-fire culture. He knows he is on a merry-go-round, determined to enjoy the ride rather than waste energy trying to stop it. The players have bought into it: here and now is all that matters.
Frank Lampard desperately wanted the same sort of extended stay he enjoyed as a player, spending 13 years cementing his status as a club legend. But despite an intimate knowledge of the club garnered over those years, he was unable to keep up with the pace of change, the level of expectation. Chelsea spent £220 million in the summer transfer window and, amid teething problems, Lampard spoke about hoping to still be around when they realised their potential. With five of the six signings starting against City, Tuchel made that happen in five months.
Lampard is just starting out on his managerial career, he will improve and find more forgiving environments in which to hone his craft. He will also find it easier to have more of a say in the players a club signs, more of an influence in hierarchical politics.
Tuchel, fired by Paris Saint-Germain on Christmas Eve, is well versed in this harsher climate. A contract extension is expected in the coming days but he knows there are no guarantees he’ll see it out: Di Matteo was sacked 186 days after winning the Champions League.
Tuchel, however, recognises his surroundings. “The level is now set from when the celebrations are over and when we have digested this experience, it is the moment to evolve and to use it, become better to learn,” he said. “It is absolutely crucial. We have young players, now it is a big challenge to stay hungry and go for the next one. I can assure him [Abramovich] that I will stay hungry. That I want the next title.”
Perhaps the match-winner summed it up best. As Chelsea’s celebrations began in earnest all around him moments after the final whistle, Kai Havertz was asked in a television interview whether this was the perfect end to a difficult season carrying the burden of being the club’s record signing.
“To be honest, I don’t give a f—,” he replied. “We just won the f—ing Champions League.”
And that, in essence, is Chelsea: winning really is the only thing that matters.