Proper No. 9
Superb performances from Real Madrid’s veteran stalwarts, combined with a healthy dose of game management, time wasting, and pragmatic play conceding possession and playing on the counter resulted in a 3-1 first leg victory for the visitors. Their plans worked well. Ours did not.
Although on paper our formation was a 3-4-3 to start, out of possession it offered limited defensive support on the flanks. Mount was dropping into the No. 10 role, and it seemed like he was given the task of man-marking the deeper-lying Casemiro while leaving N’Golo Kanté and Jorginho to mark Toni Kroos and Luka Modrić, respectively.
While that may seem like a relatively straightforward task and one that the three of them did exceptionally well last season, that was against a different manager (Zidane) and a different system. In Ancelotti’s system, their midfielders are dropping deeper.
Kroos in particular was able to receive deep on a number of occasions and this really stretched the centre of the park and caused countless headaches for Kanté and Reece James on our right side.
Kanté was hesitant to press so high up the pitch when Kroos would drop into positions almost level with their two centre backs. When Kanté did press, the space behind him was immense and Karim Benzema and Vinícius Junior were happy to occupy it. Vinícius’ speed and direct play was something that Andreas Christensen could not handle, and Christensen often compounded that by making poor decisions off the ball.
In the first ten minutes, a turnover from César Azpilicueta to the energetic Frederico Valverde would give Benzema the first chance to show off his guile. Had it not been for a slight deflection onto the crossbar, Vinícius would have had the opening goal.
Ten minutes after that chance, Real would make a similar passing pattern count.
Kroos drops deep and receives a ball from Dani Carvajal in acres of space, with Kanté again hesitant to press all the way up the pitch. Kroos turns and advances, drawing Kanté out and opening a channel between him and the back line. Benzema duly fills that space and plays the ball wide to Vinícius, isolated against Christensen.
Vinícius, rather than taking Christensen on directly, plays a quick 1-2 with Benzema and outpaces Christensen to the return ball. A hopeful chipped ball in from the byline finds Benzema, his trailing run untracked. Still, the location from which the header is taken means he has plenty to do, but he makes no mistake, generating tremendous and surprising power from such a nothing cross.
And the in-form man would not wait long to punish again, scoring an equally ridiculous header: an xG of 0.08 this time, slightly higher than the 0.04 xG from his previous effort.
Once again, their ability to play through our press and expose gaps in our midfield was critical.
Alaba starts the play by driving forward, forcing Mount to break from Casemiro and pick up that run. Alaba is forced to turn back and play to Ferland Mendy, who sees the freedom Casemiro now has in the centre of the park. Havertz would’ve needed to pick up Casemiro with Mount having shifted, but Havertz was blocking the pass across to the goalkeeper instead, essentially gifting them the ability to play out.
Casemiro picks out Modrić, who engages our left side and springs the ball forward to Valverde while continuing to trail the play. Carvajal makes an overlapping run, which is critical as it draws Jorginho towards that flank and opens up a small amount of space for Modrić to receive and play the perfect cross in between the two central defenders. Neither challenges well enough to win the ball, and Benzema nods home with aplomb for the second time in 3 minutes.
Even beyond the goals, Chelsea’s play left a lot to be desired. The midfield needed bolstering, the left-side was virtually useless going forward, as Azpilicueta at wingback was not adventurous and isolated Pulisic on that side, nullifying the attack. Kanté playing rather than Kovačić was a defensive posture and our drive and midfield presence was weak against their trio. For the second time in as many games our back three system was not able to handle the presence of the opposition attack.
Still, Havertz would grab one back before the break.
Pulisic, tired of being left out of the play, drops deep to receive a ball from Silva, and works it quickly to the right side and an advancing Christensen in space. Christensen slides in James, who seemed hesitant to cross all night, either per instruction or due to him just getting back from injuries. So instead he drifts in centrally and plays to Jorginho, in space as the entire Madrid defense had sagged back to their 18. A quick roll forward to set up the delightful chip, Jorginho puts a peach of a ball right onto the forehead of Havertz, who nods home bravely with the foot of Carvajal in his face.
Benzema would have his best chance via xG on the night before the whistle for half, but thankfully he would put it wide and prove that he is indeed human.
Tuchel would make some positive changes during the break, removing Christensen and switching to a back-four with Azpilicueta at left back. Kovačić would jump into the midfield double pivot with Jorginho, with Ziyech replacing Kanté and taking up a wide position on the right, permanently placing Mount into a No. 10 role.
While those changes would eventually amount to some more effective play, Benzema would complete his hat-trick thanks to a grave individual error and miskick from Édouard Mendy, failing to deal with a simple clearance and giving the ball away.
Romelu Lukaku and Ruben Loftus-Cheek would later come on for Pulisic and Jorginho, and for ten minutes or so, Chelsea would be on the front foot. Lukaku’s first touch was to send the ball quite a ways wide of the goal; but soon after he came a lot closer (from an Azpilicueta cross) — evidently the notion of having more players in the box to target with crosses is a good one.
The lack of clean sheets lately means that the chances we get need to be buried. The chances missed by Havertz, Lukaku, Azpilicueta, Ziyech, James, and even Pulisic (just 30 second in) are more punishing as a result. The fury with which we played at the end of the half should have bore more fruit than it did, if only for some more effective finishing.
Tuchel was despondent after the game, and two consecutive scathing defeats at home is bound to cause that. There is still hope, however. Stamford Bridge has hardly been a fortress this season, and because our home form is a fair bit worse than our away form, that may just suit us. The chances were bountiful in this game and likely will be next week, too.
Éder Militão is suspended for the second leg and their cover in Nacho is most certainly a step down. If the tactics and formation are good from the start, and without an away goals rule, this isn’t as much of a foregone conclusion as it’s being suggested.
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