It’s somewhat unfortunate for Marc Cucurella that following his full Chelsea debut – which came against Tottenham Hotspur on Sunday – the biggest post-match talking point was centred around the Spaniard’s marvellous head of hair.
Had Cristian Romero not pulled it cruelly in the dying moments of the contest at Stamford Bridge, had VAR Mike Dean not inexplicably decided that was no violent conduct, and had Tottenham not grabbed a late equaliser moments later, the focus would have instead been on Cucurella’s performance at left wing-back.
There was pressure on the 24-year-old to deliver, especially given he was selected ahead of Ben Chilwell. Yet despite having only had a week to train alongside his new teammates, Cucurella appeared at ease in the Chelsea side. He linked well with Jorginho, used the ball smartly in the final third, and was ready to run the hard yards back to defend his goal when needed.
Cucurella’s display was an early justification for Chelsea spending £62.5million to sign the Spain international this summer. Many eyebrows were raised given the fee, although it was overlooked how the Blues had negotiated a loan deal for Levi Colwill, rather than a permanent exit for the young defender, in the process.
It leaves Tuchel with two high-quality, left-sided options. That is arguably something they have not had for the past two years with Marcos Alonso a fading force and Emerson Palmieri not quite at the standard expected of a Chelsea player. But such riches also come with potential pitfalls.
The challenge Tuchel faces in the weeks ahead is keeping Chilwell and Cucurella content. On Monday evening, the former took to the field for the Blues’ Development Squad. It was pitched to Chilwell as a chance to increase his match fitness as he continues his comeback from a knee ligament injury last season and the England international played the full game.
Tuchel has spoken about the need to be cautious with Chilwell. Speaking ahead of the season opener against Everton, in which the wing-back won the decisive penalty, the Chelsea head coach explained: “Ben is very ambitious; he couldn’t wait to come back to team training.
“He looks better and better, but at the same time, it looks like he needs more time to adapt to the physicality of the match itself, which is absolutely normal. It is not only about training and training exercises, little pitches.
“In the end, it is a very demanding league. We have to take care of him, it’s our responsibility. We can’t throw him in and see what is coming. He is impatient, we will never expect him to be fully patient. He knows, we speak a lot about it. Everything needs its time.”
However, time is something many players simply don’t have this season. And that is because of the winter World Cup in Qatar. The tournament kicks off on November 20 and there is just one international break – which takes place next month – before the action gets underway.
That is a game changer. Tuchel knows it too. “The players are very focused on this World Cup, which is a good thing because they came in shape [for pre-season] and take care of themselves,” the German said at the start of the month. “But it is also a bad thing as they are focused on the World Cup and not here.
“A part of them, I have a feeling, is already thinking about November. We will see how it influences the players and the performances in October when it gets closer, then it will be for me a huge impact emotionally and physically on the guys that go to the World Cup.”
Cucurella will be hoping to force his way into the Spain squad for the tournament – his only national team appearance to date came in June 2021, and that was only as the result of players pulling out of the squad having tested positive for Covid-19.
Chilwell, meanwhile, used the World Cup as motivation in his recovery from a knee ligament injury suffered last November. He will be desperate to make Gareth Southgate’s squad and prove a point having not played a single minute as England reached the Euro 2020 final last summer.
“I’ve dreamt of playing in a World Cup since I can remember and to know it’s just around the corner is more motivation than you can know for me to try and seal that spot — not just for myself but for my family, especially after the Euros, which were a difficult time for me,” Chilwell explained prior to Chelsea jetting off to the USA for their pre-season tour.
“If I could go to the World Cup as the number one left-back, have a good tournament as a team, go all the way, it would be amazing. It would be the highlight not just of my career but of my life. So over the next three or four months, I’m going to do everything I can to try and make sure that is my spot.”
Tuchel has spoken about Cucurella playing on the left of Chelsea’s back three since his arrival, but that is unlikely to be an option used often in the months ahead. So the battle will be very much on between Chilwell and the Spaniard in the weeks ahead.