At what cost?
Securing the top spot of our Champions League group should always be a priority, and after the first game under Thomas Tuchel and then the second under Potter whilst Chelsea sat bottom of the group, that possibility seemed bleak. Four wins on the trot in our group afterward, albeit through not entirely convincing means, has both born the fruit of our labours and even hoped to compensate for our latest folly in the Premier League … but at what cost?
Potter’s inability to rotate his squad has been due largely to an ever-increasing number of injuries in defense and midfield. Our history of throwing money at flashy wingers has left us with an abundance in that position and thin at the middle and at the back. For the second straight season, our group stage games have decimated our defense, as now all of Wesley Fofana, Reece James, and Ben Chilwell have been sidelined due to games in the competition. While our recruitment (Koulibaly, Cucurella, Fofana) made it seem like there might be ample cover even after losing the centre backs that we did in the summer, we once again face an injury crisis similar to last year’s.
Tactics start with the team selection, and while the starting XI seemed straightforward enough, there were still some odd decisions. Because Potter didn’t seat a full bench, the media has run rampant with questions about his strategies for both player rotation/rest and youth integration. That Denis Zakaria, who hadn’t seen a minute, played an overall impressive game in a central midfield position that already needed reinforcing further helps make the media’s point. His forced removal after 70 minutes (after not playing competitively for since late August) should have served as a premonition to Potter about potential injuries from overexertion, but he didn’t read the signs.
We had a heavily rotated squad from the blip at Brighton over the weekend and abandoned the 3-4-3 that had essentially been Potter’s preferred starting attack-minded formation. Dinamo Zagreb fielded the exact same formation and lineup they had in the first leg, hoping a similar result would keep hope alive of continued European participation. Similar to the first game, they were gifted their best chance early on, due largely to a lack of coordination along the back line — alarmingly, the fourth time we have conceded in the first 15 minutes under Potter.
A lack of width in the midfield due to Mason Mount’s tendency to try to pick up central pockets of space combined with our high press made the transition from their defense to attack all too easy on this opening sequence. Jorginho had to shift right to cover for Mount, which left the pocket of space centrally that you can see in the second image. Thankfully that positional concern would be sorted out as the game wore on as Jorginho would slide into a regista type role and Mount and Zakaria playing in more of a No.8 role. Their split strikers kept our back four honest in the buildup and Aubameyang neglected his defensive responsibility by not tracking the run of Stefan Ristovski, whose forward run drew Chilwell and Zakaria towards him and gave Sadegh Moharrami time to pick out a cross to the back post where their numbers confused our marking to leave a free second header from point blank range.
It was nice to see Kalidou Koulibaly drop back onto the line to cover the goal, something Thiago Silva surely would have done, and with both Mount and Azpilicueta addressing the initial header, Trevoh Chalobah fields a large part of the blame for leaving Bruno Petkovic unmarked centrally. Mendy likely thinks he should have done better, too, but reaction saves are never easy to make. It was an inauspicious start after the result on the weekend. Thankfully, their xG and attacking threat timelines flatlined immediately thereafter.
Perhaps Dinamo Zagreb’s faltering is due to the fact that their goal seemingly woke Chelsea up. Having Mount and Zakaria on either side of Jorginho was instrumental in our victory. Their positioning, combined with the floating role of Havertz as a No.10 and both Sterling and Aubameyang up front was far too much for their back line to handle. Havertz’s positioning was the sine qua non in particular for our first goal. Being where he was both held their midfield deeper off Jorginho and gave him time to pick the threaded pass that broke their defensive line and his movement gave Aubameyang the space centrally he had to get onto the end of the ball. The inventive heel flick from Aubameyang and the patience Sterling showed to put the ball away (our first ever goal against Dinamo Zagreb) eased the concerns of the opening minutes.
We were relentless in attack down the right due to the linkup play between Mount, Sterling, and Havertz, and were brilliant in working sequences down the flanks, getting to the touchline, and finding viable crosses, often cutbacks, into the box. Moments before Zakaria’s goal, Sterling had a great chance to simply pass a shot on goal, but instead swung at the ball and hit it high. In fact, our finishing was anything but clinical, noting that we would finish the game with our highest xG of the season, a 2.84 with 22 shots, but only 6 were on target. Even more astonishingly, our goals came from two shots with a .07 and .09 xg respectively. The chances that were not put away were frustrating to watch, but thankfully most of those were in the second half and after Zakaria had already put us in front.
And Zakaria was most certainly the outstanding story of the day. His passing stats are downright impressive, with 98% accuracy and 4 progressive passes combined with a defensive workrate that included 7 ball recoveries and 2 interceptions. His first Chelsea goal with his only shot on the day was the icing on the cake of his performance — his glare towards the dugout after scoring perhaps a challenge to Potter to give him more minutes.
The substitutions were essentially like-for-like replacements, but the excessive reliance on some players, who might only be our best performers due to the excessive minutes allotted, is becoming apparent. A triple change saw Conor Gallagher, Thiago Silva, and Armando Broja replace Havertz, Koulibaly, and Aubameyang. Considering Gallagher was one yellow away from suspension, he needed to play with a level head. Considering Mount was one away, too, he could have been given a rest after the job was done. Thiago Silva was not at risk of suspension, but did amazingly accumulate a .96 xG in his half hour with two chances that should have rippled the net.
Ruben Loftus-Cheek had to replace Zakaria after the 70 minutes of relentless work in midfield wore on the debutant’s legs, and Christian Pulisic was given a cameo for Sterling to close the game out and add more fresh legs. It must be said that Pulisic’s introduction did cause surges in the attacking threat chart, and he and Broja worked together down the right well, nearly getting Gallagher a goal in the process. The final minutes were marred with the injury to Chilwell, and why he wasn’t one of the substitutions made after only recently returning to form from his ACL injury is frustrating in hindsight.
Chelsea in the #UCL under Graham Potter:
The last Chelsea manager to go unbeaten in his first five Champions League games incharge of the club was Roberto Di Matteo in 2011/12…
You know what happened next:
Potter has maintained his fantastic Champions League record and Chelsea enter Monday’s draw as a seeded team. He is still establishing the expectations of his squad both in offense and in defense, and the relentless schedule has given him minimal training sessions in between matches. With three still to play in the 7 days prior to the break for the World Cup against arguably our toughest competition all season, he will have to find the right adjustments in tactics and personnel to adapt to the style of play that Arsenal, Manchester City, and Newcastle will present — with virtually no rest period between them. It certainly is an unenviable task, but that’s what you sign up for when you become a Chelsea manager.
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