The manager appointed to replace the Chelsea icon Roman Abramovich sacked saw his bid to win the FA Cup disappear in ignominy at Barnsley. Not Thomas Tuchel in 2021 but Jose Mourinho’s successor Avram Grant in 2008. In contrast, Tuchel averted an upset and set up a quarter-final with Sheffield United. As much as Tammy Abraham, he was the match-winner.
He failed to replicate Frank Lampard’s 6-0 Carabao Cup win over Barnsley but instigated an improvement that brought their altogether narrower triumph at Oakwell. Chelsea were mediocre in the first half, failing to registering a shot on target as the manager’s many changes felt an imperfect 10 alterations.
But further tinkering reaped a reward. On came Reece James in a half-time double switch. It was accompanied by a new system, the 3-4-2-1 Tuchel has preferred to far being jettisoned for 4-2-3-1. The new right-back set up the decisive goal; Abraham, who had taken Chelsea into the fifth round with a hat-trick in Lampard’s final game, became the first striker to score under Tuchel, tapping in the overlapping James’ cross after Billy Gilmour provided a defence-splitting pass for the substitute.
A tie that inspired nostalgia in South Yorkshire was a throwback match in other respects. There was no VAR: Chelsea may have benefited for the goal, with Abraham appearing offside, but suffered before then, when Toby Sibbick’s challenge on the forward might have led to a penalty. Referee Martin Atkinson thought not, and there was no option to seek a second opinion at a Championship ground.
But an early goal would have flattered Chelsea. Tuchel had vowed to select those who “deserved” to play but had not featured much so far. Few of those promoted suggested they merited further opportunities; their brightest player in the first half was Callum Hudson-Odoi, already a firm favourite of Tuchel’s anyway.
He had been involved in their one moment of ingenuity and invention, resulting in a sliding Christian Pulisic skewing a shot wide after he completed a long-range one-two with Hudson-Odoi. He was relocated from right wing-back to the left flank in the half-time overhaul and, from his new berth on the other side, posed the first threat thereafter, angling a shot just wide.
Chelsea owed parity at that point to a man who has often cost them goals. For Kepa Arrizabalaga, a new manager brings the potential of a change in fortunes. He erred in Lampard’s last game, gifting Luton a goal. His first meaningful moment under Tuchel was a wonderful close-range block from Callum Brittain, who had evaded the makeshift centre-back Emerson Palmieri to meet Conor Chaplin’s flick-on. The finish could be faulted, but the keeping could not.
Chelsea had a second reprieve, with Brittain again denied the status as the first opponent to score against Tuchel’s Chelsea; this time not by Arrizabalaga but team-mate Victor Adeboyejo who, after a well-worked corner routine, inadvertently deflected a goal-bound shot wide. As Barnsley pushed for an equaliser, there was a second goal-saving intervention, Abraham appearing in his own six-yard box to come to Arrizabalaga’s assistance and head Michael Sollbauer’s effort over the bar.
Enterprising and unafraid, clearly well-coached by the former Bayern Munich defender Valerien Ismael, Barnsley were hugely impressive. A pitch that had been waterlogged at the weekend was scarcely smooth but their cabbage-patch kids coped better with it, pressed in a very cohesive way and ensured the former Chelsea academy keeper Brad Collins was a spectator for long periods. Tuchel had been a more frustrated onlooker, but amid an undistinguished performance, they could savour the sense their new manager might be a game-changer.