When Thomas Tuchel arrived at Stamford Bridge in January it was obvious to most that standards would be raised.
Chelsea, tenth in the Premier League table, lacked structure or discipline under Frank Lampard, whose preordained rise to the top meant he did not have the coaching expertise to organise the team beyond broad ideas and a vague implementation of attacking football.
Lampard’s legendary status at Chelsea had lifted the club through a difficult period but there was very little to recommend him as a top-level tactician.
Five months later, Roman Abramovich’s ruthless decision would be proved right as Tuchel guided Chelsea to their second Champions League title.
It was a remarkable turnaround that reaffirmed the importance of cutting-edge tactical acumen at the top of the game.
Manchester United fans should take note of the similarity of their current situation.
Ole Gunnar Solskjaer and Lampard were practically copies of one another, tactically speaking, and the quality of the players at their disposal when the axe fell is also similar.
There is every reason to assume that United could transform like Chelsea, both in the Champions League and by sealing a top-four finish.
They need to get the appointment right, of course, and in order to emulate what happened at Chelsea that should mean moving heaven and earth to appoint Mauricio Pochettino.
Tuchel didn’t have much time on the training field during his first half season, which is why Chelsea did not have the same complexity or variety as they do in 2021/22.
Instead, he installed a highly-structured 3-4-2-1 formation in which the players pressed less than they had done before, staying compressed together in the middle third of the pitch to reign in those chaotic, Swiss cheese performances.
It was the discipline and order the players had been crying out for, and it worked a charm in the Champions League – a stage on which conservative tactics have become the dominant method for success.
Tuchel had taken Paris Saint-German to the final in 2019 by sitting deep, staying compact, and hitting their opponents on the break, their conservatism both a response to the impossibility of being expansive with so many luxury attackers in the starting 11 and the fact Zinedine Zidane had set this template during his back-to-back-to-back triumphs between 2016 and 2018 as Real Madrid manager.
The new Chelsea manager simply repeated the trick.
His team averaged 41% possession over two legs of the semi-final against Real Madrid; held 38% in the final against Manchester City; and even commanded just 41% of the ball in the home leg of their quarter-final against Porto.
But Tuchel wasn’t the only manager proving reserved counter-attacking football was the new, and safest, way to succeed in the Champions League.
Over in Paris, Pochettino began to turn around a poor season for PSG by deploying a similarly hunched formation in the latter stages. They averaged 41.5% possession across the entire knock-out stage.
Long-term, Pochettino would implement a Bielsa-inspired system at Old Trafford of hard pressing, sharp vertical passing focused through a narrow and intricate formation, and quick diagonal switches to overlapping full-backs.
His tactics as Tottenham demanded commitment to piercing attacking football that had all the on-the-ball structure and choreography that was lacking from the Solskjaer era.
Jesse Lingard could come to life as an inverted winger; Donny van de Beek has the qualities of an elite Pochettino midfielder; and Jadon Sancho can return to his Borussia Dortmund best as a hard-pressing, transitional forward.
But Pochettino would not do that in the Champions League or indeed in the first few months of the league campaign, during which time defensive organisation and a return to something calmer – and simpler to coach in a short time frame – is in order.
United were at their best under Solskjaer when sat in regimented rows, happily conceding possession as they shuffled across and waited for chances to break quickly in behind.
Consequently, the basic idea is already in their bones, and with Pochettino working tirelessly with the team the pace in their counter-attack could suddenly look like one of the most potent threats in Europe.
After beating Villarreal 2-0, this weekend’s game at Chelsea has taken on huge significance as Michael Carrick embarks on the peculiar role of caretaker before the interim manager.
That title alone tells us the United board are not very organised, and plenty could go wrong before a Pochettino appointment.
Even if he is currently open to moving mid-season, PSG’s demands could scupper a potential deal before the end of the campaign.
What’s more, should Carrick continue his good start – and after this week, United have a very straightforward run of games through to the start of 2022 – then the United hierarchy might feel it best to ride the high and wait until the summer for a permanent manager.
Pochettino’s potential move to Old Trafford, then, could be strangely dependent on what happens at Stamford Bridge on Sunday.
Manchester United supporters ought to hope Carrick does not tempt the board to go through another Solskjaer cycle, and indeed it is probably a blessing in disguise that Chelsea should win the match.
Tuchel has built upon those early foundations by coaching an extraordinary array of different attacking methods, his 3-4-2-1 showing width and depth to make Chelsea one of the most unpredictable teams in Europe.
Whether it’s inverted full-backs overwhelming the United midfield, a false nine confusing Carrick’s centre-backs, or the speed of Chelsea’s attacks feeding off the low morale in the United dressing room, it is very hard to see anything other than a comfortable home win.
If they aren’t already, such a result should spark the Man Utd board into action.
Years in the making, a deal for Pochettino could finally happen – and if it does, we can’t rule out the Champions League trophy coming to Old Trafford within six months.