Conspiracy of nihilism suits Chelsea and pragmatic Thomas Tuchel

Sport

And so the Tuchel revolution roars on. In a manner of speaking. The second-best thing anyone could say about the second leg of Chelsea’s 2-1 aggregate defeat of Porto in Seville was that it was, on balance, an act of cardiovascular exercise. Everyone involved burned some calories.

The best thing – arguably the only thing – is that Chelsea cruised through without a scratch and will now take their place in the semi-finals of the Champions League, setting up a mouthwatering denouement to their own peculiar season of two halves.

This game was decided by a stupendous overhead kick from Mehdi Taremi in the last minute of injury time, Porto’s second shot on target, but it felt more like a punchline than a winning goal.

Often occasions like these are described as “forgettable”. This one didn’t get that far. In order to be forgotten, a thing must exist in some material form in the first place. Instead this was a conspiracy of nihilism, Chelsea happy to oversee 90 minutes of nothing, Porto struggling fruitlessly to escape their own part in it. Not that Thomas Tuchel will lose a microsecond contemplating any of this. The best way to win a quarter-final is to do it without breaking sweat. In which case: job done.

And from here Chelsea are quite capable of winning the Champions League, of overcoming two more opponents from Real Madrid or Liverpool, followed by either Manchester City, Borussia Dortmund or Paris Saint-Germain, all teams that Tuchel will view with informed interest and absolutely no fear.

Tuchel is often cast as a technocrat and a systems man, but there is a strong seam of pragmatism too. He doesn’t want to play three at the back and edge forward behind his tortoise defence, shields locked together, because he thinks it’s more fun or more pure that way. He does it because in his opinion it’s the best way to win right now.

And so it proved to be over two games in Seville, despite some utterly misleading zest from Porto in the opening minutes. Sérgio Conceição has clearly been studying Sam Allardyce videos. Here Porto pressed high and hard early on, eager to disrupt the deep, metronomic heart of this Chelsea team.

It soon become clear there was something strange about what Porto were trying to do. The white shirts were a trippy mix of pressing like maniacs followed by slow dithery possession when they got the ball. This was like watching the world sprint-knitting championships, or a particularly angry attempt to tickle someone to death. At one point early on three players pressed N’Golo Kanté, took the ball, then passed it backwards.

It was that kind of game. Porto attacked constantly without really ever attacking. Their total first-half offsides equalled zero, as did their total first-half shots on goal. This was like watching someone trying very hard to give an impression of wanting to win.

They did it again at the start of the second half, pressing high but with no real object in mind, passing sideways with an angry air of urgency.

There was still tension. Would someone have a shot, just to see what it felt like? Would Porto accidentally discover the physical plane known as “forwards” and instantly lose their minds at the scale of such a find, like the first Russian cosmonauts looking down and seeing the world an unfenced blue ball?

Steadily the game became an endless stream of shirt-tugging fouls, which is certainly one way of passing an entire half-hour of your own finite mortal existence.

If this game was a formality from about the five-minute mark, it was still significant in three things. It told us once again about Chelsea’s game management, their ability to oversee this lack of content.

It also flagged up the one obvious area in this team that still lags: the precise makeup of the attack. Tuchel went with the Havertz-Mount-Pulisic trident, one to run, one to pass and press, one to drift around like a dreamy-looking Jane Austen hero with talent to burn, a player so agreeably effete at moments you half-expect to look down and notice he’s wearing a ruffled blue shirt and a pair of britches.

But Chelsea struggled to counterattack. They struggled to hold the ball in forward positions and move up the pitch. Tuchel will perhaps look again at the effectiveness of this system against teams that can dominate possession for long spells.

The third thing was simply to emphasise once again what a time this is to be a Chelsea fan, player, or manager. The fixture list from here is stupendously good: Champions League and FA Cup semi-finals, three delicious‑looking London derbies, and a late-breaking top-four shootout with Leicester.

And Chelsea really do have very little to lose from here. This feels like fresh snow, an unspoilt peak, and a degree of overachievement already. It shouldn’t feel like that given the money spent. But somehow Tuchel, an elite manager, and Chelsea, with their wealth of playing riches have the air of a sporty, unencumbered, underdog. Both have a free hit in this competition from here. They may not get a better shot at it.