One of the more controversial decisions made by Thomas Tuchel during his opening four months in charge of Chelsea came back in February against Southampton.
The match itself was largely forgettable. Tuchel’s side produced a lethargic display at St Mary’s and only came away with a 1-1 draw after Mason Mount had won and then converted a penalty in the second period.
It was the German’s handling of Callum Hudson-Odoi on that rather mild February day that is easily recalled. The 20-year-old started the game on the bench but, with Chelsea trailing, was introduced at the interval. His appearance would last just 31 minutes.
“I was not happy with his attitude, energy and counter-pressing,” Tuchel said rather matter-of-factly after the game after bringing Hudson-Odoi off in the 76th minute. “I took him off and we demand 100%, I feel he is not in the right shape to help us. It was a hard decision but tomorrow it is forgotten.”
Tuchel lived up to his word: Hudson-Odoi started Chelsea’s next game, the first leg of their Champions League Round of 16 tie against Atletico Madrid. Yet he was only named in the side on four more occasions despite the Blues’ relentless schedule.
Such treatment of Hudson-Odoi, arguably the most naturally gifted of the many Blues’ academy graduates, may seem harsh. But Tuchel has set his standards high since arriving at Stamford Bridge at the end of January and will not make exceptions for any players.
So those in the forward line have to work. And work hard. With the ball, constant movement and rotation is required. Without it, pressing triggers must be recognised and acted upon. Fail to do so and…well, Hudson-Odoi discovered what happens down on the south coast.
Having guided Chelsea to the Champions League, Tuchel’s authority can’t be questioned. Nor can his demands be ignored given they delivered the biggest prize in European football. Any player who arrives at Stamford Bridge this summer is going to have to accept that.
The Blues have been linked with a host of stellar names. Romelu Lukaku and Harry Kane are targets for the number nine role and Declan Rice is an option in central midfield.
Several former Chelsea stars have also been linked with possible returns. Willian, who departed for Arsenal a year ago, is one but that’s a non-starter. But what about Eden Hazard, the brilliant Belgian who has endured two rather miserable years at Real Madrid following his £130million move in the summer of 2019?
Hazard is a Chelsea legend and one of the most talented players to ever don the Blue shirt. There are many who would welcome a romantic return to Stamford Bridge for the 30-year-old. Tuchel is unlikely to feel the same way, however.
And that’s not because Hazard has spent the past two seasons suffering from numerous injuries. Or because he’s now the wrong side of 30. It’s simply that his work off the ball is not at the required level that Tuchel wants from his attackers.
A quick look over the numbers reflects this. During the 2018/19 Premier League campaign – Hazard’s last at Chelsea and the last he was fit for the majority of a campaign – he averaged, according to FBRef, only 12.5 pressures per 90.
In comparison, Mason Mount averaged 21.4 pressures per 90 this season. Christian Pulisic 17.4 per 90. Kai Havertz 15.4 per 90. And Timo Werner 13.2 per 90.
Of course, tactical instructions and demands do influence the numbers above. But Hazard’s desire to defend from the front has never been particularly strong.
“If you defend too much, you tire yourself out,” he was quoted as telling France Football in 2017. “If I’ve spent the whole game defending, forget about me being useful after the 60th minute. And I’m quite fit.”
That’s Hazard in a nutshell. He is a wonderfully gifted footballer and one who seemingly plays for the sheer enjoyment of the game more than anything else. Give him the ball and he can sparkle. Don’t and he’ll be something of a passenger,
Tuchel will never carry those in his side as Hudson-Odoi discovered that to his detriment that afternoon at St Mary’s back in February. And it’s why a return for Hazard is almost certainly not going to take place this summer.