Chelsea – Real Madrid: King Karim Is Transcendental (1-3)

Special nights call for special players. Stamford Bridge set the stage for the rerun of a clash that paved the way to Chelsea’s European glory. But if their triumph spoke to the tactical acumen of Thomas Tuchel, the outcome of this duel was in debt to the brilliance of the world’s best striker.

Tactical analysis and match report by Emmanuel Adeyemi-Abere.

On their path to European glory in May 2021, Chelsea trumped Real Madrid in the semi-final of the Champions League. Eleven months down the line, the same pair of outfits now prepare to lock horns again in the last eight of the competition, grappling with the same central question. To stick or twist?

Chelsea can hardly afford to look much further past the present. Roman Abramovich, whose tenure as owner marked a peerless era of success, is no longer at the helm. The saga is only one of many factors to trial the metal of Thomas Tuchel, whose managerial class stands the test of time. From a return to first principles to the back four, tools to launch a dual pronged cup charge offer hope of more trophies.

Real Madrid’s pursuit of the summit in LaLiga might be on the verge of sealing the championship, but they are still straddling eras. If PSG laid bare the age of the old guard, on the field and in the dugout, a rallying reply in the return leg reminded all of their timeless quality. Tactical fragilities indicate they might not be able to oust the elite in fine fettle: could their black magic sustain one more fabled run?

For all his nous, Tuchel fell foul of a stinging 4-1 loss to Brentford on the weekend. Picking a 4-1-4-1 formation for that clash, he fell back on the safety blanket of the 3-4-3 system once more. To this end, Andreas Christensen lined up on the right of the back three as a third central defender. Ruben Loftus-Cheek dropped to the bench, making way for Jorginho, who joined N’Golo Kanté in the double pivot. A mobile trident of Mason Mount, Christian Pulisic, and Kai Havertz then looked to cash in upfront.

Former Chelsea manager Carlo Ancelotti wished to undermine his old club from the other dugout. The choice of a 4-3-3 shape was no shock from the Real Madrid boss, whose thinking centered on personnel. He made two changes to the starting eleven that took to the field in a 2-1 win over Celta Vigo last time out: neither were in the middle of the park. Dani Carvajal replaced Lucas Vázquez on the right of the back four, and ahead of him, Federico Valverde brought industry from the flank.

Valverde’s tactical dutifulness

Nearly a year after Chelsea had run Real ragged, Ancelotti seemed not to have heeded Kanté’s warning in midfield. Did he have a ruse up his sleeve to trump the title holders this time around?

Tuchel’s men operated in their usual 3-4-2-1 offensive structure. From the off, Ancelotti had devised a key role for Valverde. The right winger dropped off to cover César Azpilicueta, forming a row of five at the back if Madrid defended in a low block. But he also tended to hold off from closing down Antonio Rüdiger in higher pressing, giving the home team a free man to work with in possession.

Madrid rarely stressed Chelsea’s buildup, relying on the resilience of a low block. But extra coverage at the rear let other men step out of the backline aggressively. Carvajal looked to mitigate the 4-on-3 inferiority by marking of Pulisic, while Alaba shot out from the left. All in all, the mechanisms in the last line were highly individualized but largely stood firm in the face of an outfit far from their best.

Chelsea’s convoluted pressing

True to tradition, Madrid’s work on the ball came from a spacious offensive setup. Kroos often dropped off to the left of Alaba to pick up the ball and distribute passes from deep in the halfspace. So, Ferland Mendy did not always make forays up the field along the flank, frequently rotating inward to the halfspace. Vinícius was then the width holder, relishing chances of 1-on-1 duels. Benzema looked to link the play together while Modrić and Valverde offered connections inside Chelsea’s block. But Madrid’s threat rarely emanates from these zones. The job of the reigning champions would be to stop their guests circulating the ball round their bulwark to probe their way to the box.

From a 5-2-3 shape, Tuchel assigned his men different tasks across the pitch. The point man Havertz led the press from the front. Mount soon began to mark Casemiro, while Pulisic oriented himself towards Carvajal. Jorginho sat at the base of the midfield o his inside to secure the room in front of the central defenders, and Kanté shuttled outward to take care of Kroos. The wing-backs contributed by shifting out of the chain of five to press the fullbacks: James was the most prominent in this role.

Therefore, Christensen tended to end up pulling wider into the vicinity of Vinícius. That dynamic in and of itself was not ideal in theory, but the relatively slow recovery of Azpilicueta and indecision from the front gave Madrid license to build and exploit momentum. Thiago Silva and Christensen were prone to the danger from the Brazilian, presenting the visitors with their best chances of the half.

42nd minute: throw in sequence. Carvajal throws the ball to a dropping Benzema, whose layoff pass hits the third man Modrić. The Croat slips a pass into Vinícius, exploiting the gap inside Christensen.

Benzema breaks forth

The deadlock broke at the midway point of the first half thanks to a stellar play from Real Madrid’s top marksman. Vinícius Júnior linked up with Benzema from the left flank, racing onto a neatly weighted through ball to break into the final third. He whipped a flat cross towards the edge of the penalty area, forcing his teammate to stoop down to direct a header at goal. But, the striker rose to the task effortlessly, guiding the ball into the roof of the net. And the aerial masterclass was not over yet.

In the 24th minute, a mere 150 seconds after the opening goal, Modrić received a pass on the edge of the box. An incisive delivery split Thiago Silva and Christensen, waiting for a white shirt to meet the ball. Benzema leaped, contorting himself to steer a header back to the right side of the net. Édouard Mendy dived to his left but could not deny the brilliance of the Frenchman: 2-0. Revenge incoming?

Another breakaway on the left might have wrapped up Benzema’s hat trick, but Chelsea survived the scare to get back into the contest. Their right edge was the basis for the assault on Madrid’s goal in the 40th minute. James cut away from Vinícius, setting the ball back into the path of Jorginho. He dinked a pass above the backline to find Havertz, whose header sailed beyond the reach of Thibaut Courtois.

Self sabotage

Halving the deficit did not convince Tuchel to stick with his original plan. At half time, he made a pair of changes. Mateo Kovačić came on for Kanté, and Hakim Ziyech replaced Christensen. But before the alterations could take hold of the battle, a critical blunder shifted the outlook of the contest.

A clearance sent the ball back to Édouard Mendy, who ought to have reset the play with a simple pass to Rüdiger. Selling the German short, he allowed Benzema to pounce, fighting for the loose ball before slotting goal bound into the empty net. The home team had a much steeper mountain to climb.

The fates had conspired to diminish the value of Tuchel’s modifications. The entry of Ziyech saw Chelsea move to a 4-1-4-1 formation. James stayed much deeper, keeping an eye on Vinícius, while Mount continued to mark Casemiro off the ball. After the hour mark, he plucked for a 4-2-3-1 system, where Ruben Loftus-Cheek stepped into the double pivot, and Romelu Lukaku led the frontline.

The Belgian spurned two headed opportunities that would have changed the complexion of the tie. Ancelotti duly reacted. Casemiro dropped off into the last line to form a 5-4-1 block and Eduardo Camavinga added fresh legs in the middle of the park. Real Madrid’s decisive lead stayed in tact.


For the second clash since the international break, Chelsea dipped far below the standard they set under Tuchel. Usually finding the right tactical solution from his box of tricks, the manager came up short this time around. His men will strive to bounce back in the return leg at the Bernabéu, but whatever Tuchel does, Madrid’s talisman is in the form to thwart it. Asserting his credentials on the big stage once more, Benzema’s claim to being the best striker in the world has never been stronger.

"Possession as a philosophy is overrated. Possession of the ball as a tool is underestimated." João Cancelo stan (19) [ View all posts ]


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