Tactical watch: How Chelsea became European champions again
For the second time in their history, Chelsea are the champions of Europe after knocking off Manchester City in a thrilling UEFA Champions League final — a rare occurrence, and one for which we are endless grateful — on Saturday.
So, let’s revisit the three key battles laid out by PST’s Nicholas Mendola this week, and break down how each one affected the outcome in Porto, Portugal…
Kante dominates De Bruyne
Even before De Bruyne was forced off after receiving a terrifying blow to the head courtesy of Antonio Rudiger’s shoulder, De Bruyne was anything but his typically brilliant self. To be shadowed by Kante must be the most annoying and daunting prospect in all of world football — with the possible exception of playing left back, knowing Lionel Messi will be taking you one-on-one as he cuts in from the right wing all game long. That’s the level at which Kante roams and dominates the center of the field, and De Bruyne’s subpar performance was undoubtedly a product of his presence.
It wasn’t just De Bruyne who was lassoed and corralled by Kante, as Phil Foden had his quietest game in months and Bernardo Silva was completely anonymous for the entirety of his 64-minute shift.
But, that’s enough from me on Kante, because Mr. Mendola has already waxed lyrical about the best defensive midfielder, who’s somehow still underrated, of a generation.
Ngolo Kante's titles:— Mr. Numbers (@Mister_Numbers) May 29, 2021
Premier League (15/16, 16/17)
FA Cup (17/18)
Europa League (18/19)
World Cup (2018)
Champions League (20/21)
Tuchel gets the best of Guardiola
Here’s where things can get tricky, if you’re willing to think longer than 0.2 seconds and tweet the first knee-jerk thought that comes to mind.
In an alternate universe, Chelsea’s lineup plays out as such: a deep bank of five defenders with three ball-chasing midfielders fewer than 10 yards in front of them, with only Werner and Havertz venturing forward until possession is safely secured. On paper, that’s almost exactly how it reads.
In that scenario, either one of Rodri or Fernandinho is largely wasted, sitting back between Dias and Stones, unlikely to unlock the mass of royal blue bodies atop Chelsea’s penalty area. So, that’s how you get a midfield-three of Gundogan, Foden and Silva.
That isn’t necessarily meant to be a defense of Guardiola’s tactical setup, but that’s how most of us would have seen such a lineup from Chelsea ultimately functioning. Perhaps — and you tell me if I’m crazy for this — we should be praising Tuchel exponentially more than we’re blaming Guardiola.
Havertz & Werner pull Dias & Stones every which way
Timo Werner has taken a boatload of flack this season — and rightly so in a lot of instances — for his profligacy in front of goal, and that same inability to finishing chances reared its ugly head again on Saturday, but Werner found other ways to contribute to the cause. Without his self-less, and downright dead-end, run to pull Dias out wide, Mason Mount doesn’t have half the space to play Kai Havertz in behind the defense, and Havertz doesn’t have half the time to collect the ball before rounding Ederson and slotting home.
Rightly or wrongly, center forwards are oftentimes judged solely on their goals output. By that metric alone (6 in the Premier League, 4 in the Champions League), Werner was quite the flop in his first season at Chelsea. The same would go for Saturday’s Champions League final, only the above clip paints a drastically different picture.