Thomas Tuchel’s persistence in keeping Ben Chilwell out of the team made little sense to the Chelsea fans who had witnessed the full-back thrive in his first season at Stamford Bridge. But the German may well be regretting his decision to bring the defender back in from the cold after nearly costing his side against Southampton.
Having lost against Manchester City and Juventus twice in the space of four days, Tuchel was facing the unfamiliar problem of fixing a losing side.
He had made five substitutions in the second half of their Champions League fixture in Turin, sending on their academy stars Trevoh Chalobah, Callum Hudson-Odoi, Ruben Loftus-Cheek and Ben Chilwell in the second half.
And the German head coach was clearly impressed with what he saw as he fielded the same quartet as part of five changes against Southampton.
It was a big moment for Chilwell, who had been frozen out of the first team since returning from international duty with England for Euro 2020.
Things started well for the hosts when, inside 14 minutes, Trevoh Chalobah put the Blues in front after latching onto Ruben Loftus-Cheek’s flick-on from a corner with a diving header at the far post.
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In a desperate attempt to stop the cross coming into the box, Chilwell lunged into a challenge and caught the 18-year-old. Referee Martin Atkinson had no option but to point to the spot.
Chilwell punched the turf in anger, not at the decision but in himself. He knew this was his chance to impress his manager and perhaps he had blown it.
His relationship with Tuchel had been positive on the whole, despite being left out of the team.
The head coach insisted that he was simply using Marcos Alonso because he was further ahead in his fitness schedule than Chilwell, who had returned five weeks later to pre-season.
But the Spaniard’s return to form kept the 24-year-old on the bench for the opening five matches of the season, with only a number of cameos from the bench enough to satisfy his craving for first-team action.
However, Alonso’s drop in performance had been enough motivation for Tuchel to hand Chilwell the chance he had been waiting for.
Giving away such a careless penalty when his side were on top will give his coach is exactly the sort of ammunition he needs to keep Chilwell out of the side in future.
All players make mistakes and suffer dips in form, but when two players are fighting for a place, errors of this kind simply cannot happen.
It goes some way to suggesting why Tuchel was keen to bring in Adama Traore from Wolves and play the Spaniard as a wing-back, with the 47-year-old clearly unsatisfied with his options on the flank.
Tuchel had also chased Achraf Hakimi earlier in the summer and lodged a bid, only to see Paris Saint-Germain swoop in to sign the Moroccan from Inter Milan.
Fortunately for Chilwell, his mistake did not cost his side any points as Timo Werner slotted home late on to put the Blues back in front.
And late on, Chilwell got his opportunity to redeem himself in front of his animated coach on the touchline.
Romelu Lukaku somehow hit the post from close range after a cross from Mason Mount and Cesar Apzilicueta then hit the bar.
But as it came out to the left-back, he showed a cool head and incredible technique to volley towards goal from a tight angle, which Southampton goalkeeper Alex McCarthy appeared to claw out on the line.
The referee pointed to his watch, indicating the ball had crossed the line according to goal-line technology and the crowd cheered in delight.
To his relief, Chilwell was able to smile again after his regrettable challenge 15 minutes earlier.
His inclusion had finally produced a positive outcome for Tuchel and will no doubt give him the confidence to build on this performance.
Now Tuchel must decide on whether to bring back after watching his Jekyll and Hyde performance, or bringreinstate Alonso back into his first-team against Brentford in a fortnight’s time.