Chelsea – LOSC Lille: A Return To First Principles (2-0)
In a crisis, a leader has two primary options: unearth a unique answer, or go back to familiar ideas. Thomas Tuchel has delved deep into both choices, but at home to an outfit wallowing through their own campaign, the return of a back three was the gateway to a routine victory.
Tactical analysis and match report by Emmanuel Adeyemi-Abere.
Not too long ago, Chelsea once had the world at their feet. Thomas Tuchel’s brisk European conquest only beckoned more glory: matters have turned out to be ambivalent. Club World Cup success and a place in the Carabao Cup final marginally offset a premature end to their Premier League title charge. Nonetheless, an unyielding trophy haul masks stagnation on the field. New parts within the ecosystem have urged the manager to shift pieces on the chessboard, but he is yet to break free from checkmate.
Lille’s collapse in the new campaign has brought a sudden end to one of the best projects in Europe. Their first Ligue 1 title in a decade briefly shook up the Parisian hegemony, but manager and players have taken divergent paths. Whereas Christophe Galtier has now excelled at Nice, a lowly Lille have meekly handed over their spot at the summit of French football back to PSG. Reaching the quarter-finals of the Champions League, a new height for the club, might be the only pride they can salvage.
As a rule of thumb, new manager Jocelyn Gourvennec has not strayed from the 4-4-2 formation that was the hallmark of the title winning campaign. Yet, keen to secure the middle of the park, he selected a 4-2-3-1 block this time around. To this end, Burak Yılmaz dropped to the bench. The striker made way for Amadou Onana, who operated just off lone forward Jonathan David. Renato Sanches then replaced Angel Gomes as the right winger and behind him, Zeki Çelik stepped in at right back.
On the other hand, calling Chelsa’s setup is much more of an enigma. Tuchel has tested out a front two in the new year, while a back four has frequented lineups of late. Yet, falling back on a back three at the Club World Cup, the manager signaled how his faith in a 3-4-3 system has not waned in high stakes moments. So, Marcos Alonso operated as the left wing-back, Mateo Kovačić joined N’Golo Kanté to make up a double pivot, and Kai Havertz led the line upfront in place of Romelu Lukaku.
Confident Chelsea impose their will
Abandoning the 4-1-4-1 setup from the trip to Crystal Palace, Tuchel seemed to have guided his men back into their groove. Chelsea promptly asserted their control in the opening ten minutes of this duel.
15th minute: buildup sequence from Chelsea. Alonso plays a pass inside to Pulisic, whose link splits Lille’s double pivot. The inside forward draws four men to the ball, before popping out of the pocket again to find Havertz. Since Alonso continues to bomb down the left wing beyond Çelik, José Fonte does not aggressively shut down Havertz, who threads the play back into the path of the wing-back.
The basis of their play is the ball security in their network of five at the back. But, above all, it was the movement of the front three that Lille could not handle. Christian Pulisic can still be a dynamic threat with the ball at his feet for all his battles with injury. He often abruptly dropped off to demand passes between the lines, nimbly turning away from his man to get free from pressure. Along with the central link of Havertz, the timing of such movements could break a high press that arrived late at the wings.
On the right flank, Tuchel deployed a familiar tool against a back four that he has already used against Liverpool in the league and Al-Hilal in the Club World Cup— to name but two outfits. Either Antonio Rüdiger, Kovačić or Thiago Silva would look to hit high, diagonal switches to the ball far side. Here, the home team sought to create a 2-on-1 overload against Lille’s left back Tiago Djaló with the inside forward Hakim Ziyech and wing-back César Azpilicueta threatening to make runs behind the defense. In their element with these patterns, it seemed as if it were only a matter of time till they went in front.
4th minute: buildup to Havertz’s first chance. Rüdiger stretches the play with a switch to Azpilicueta on the right flank. Note the asymmetry of the wing-backs: the ball near wing-back (here Alonso) is deeper, having drawn Çelik out of the back four, triggering an initial run in the channel from Pulisic.
However, Havertz had already missed the target twice from close range in this brief phase, threatening to condemn his side to another irksome evening in the final third. Thankfully, the German found favor in front of goal at the third attempt. In the 8th minute, Hakim Ziyech whipped in a cross from a corner on the left flank that his teammate nodded beyond the reach of Leonardo Jardim. 1-0 to the Blues.
Silva reigns supreme
But, almost as soon as Havertz hit the back of the net, this dominant start eased off. Simple ball losses in the middle third of the pitch contributed to the guests getting back into the match. It is a dynamic that is not foreign to Tuchel, whose frustration at such turnovers was much less visible than in the past. Indeed, nearing half time, an even share of the play had manifested between the two sides.
Thomas Tuchel on #Chelsea performance:— Absolute Chelsea (@AbsoluteChelsea) February 22, 2022
"We had very strong periods, for example the first ten minutes, but then we have periods when it is gone. Easy ball loses, a lack of fluidity, but then we recover and have good periods."
Aggressive shifting from the wing-backs in a balanced mix of man and zonal marking had molded an elite defense from the outset of Tuchel’s reign. This time around, the manager alluded to frailties in his men’s organization at this stage. Several entries from the away team into their 5-2-3 block revealed gaps behind the first line of defense. But the French champions barely mustered a threat of note.
Kanté earned plaudits after the final whistle, but Thiago Silva truly shone in a defensive capacity. His organization of the back five offered stable occupation of the center in a performance where he calmly cut out multiple plays. True to form, Gourvennec’s men were not the most inventive on the ball, but the excellence of Chelsea’s rock at the back let them ride out this shaky phase with little repercussion.
Tuchel tweaks, Chelsea coast
Grateful for the services of Silva, Tuchel then adapted after the break. His men adopted a 5-3-2 block in search of more stability. Alas, misfortune struck twice in a mere five minutes, constraining the manager’s ability to use his options strategically. Kovačić limped off the field, forcing Ruben Loftus-Cheek to come into the fray at the base of the midfield. Soon after, Saúl Ñíguez replaced Ziyech, who had moved to the left of the midfield. Their availability for the final on Sunday remains up in the air.
The new shape went hand in hand with a deep block. The home team defended behind the halfway line, but Lille’s combinations on the flanks bore no fruit. All they needed was a second goal to give them breathing space. It came soon enough. A turnover saw Silva feed a pass into the path of Kanté, who could then break forward with the ball. He dribbled away from Xeka to the edge of the penalty area, where he slipped the play into Pulisic on his left. Two tight touches and a cute dink over the sprawling Leonardo doubled the advantage in the 63rd minute. Lille could not provide a riposte.
Christian Pulisic with Chelsea’s second goal… 👏— LDN (@LDNFootbalI) February 22, 2022
N’Golo Kanté’s assist! 🤩 pic.twitter.com/8NCA34igVi
Facing charges of stubbornness, Tuchel has not refrained from altering his system in 2022. The 4-1-4-1 shape has turned Ziyech into a revelation from the right flank, while a front two is a way forward to try and get the best out of Lukaku through mimicking the dynamics of the attack at Inter Milan. Yet, even though long-term injury layoffs for Reece James and Ben Chilwell might have robbed this 3-4-3 system of its unique dynamism in the final third, its sturdy foundations manifested once more. Their return to first principles should be enough to grant entry into the last eight of the Champions League.
While it is tough to operate around the highest level for the course of a game, Chelsea’s displays have revealed much better and weaker phases in the last few months. Gourvennec spoke after the game on how his men put up a fight to make the home team graft for a win. However, Lille struggled to strain their opponents’ rearguard. Their season will likely peter out after the second leg, but the French champions must be more ruthless if they catch Chelsea on a bad day to get back into this contest.
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