UEFA Champions League Final Analysis: Breaking Down Chelsea Before Showdown With Manchester City (Saturday, May 29)
Darren Walsh/Chelsea FC via Getty Images. Pictured: Manager Thomas Tuchel of Chelsea.
Chelsea’s season has been dramatically turned around since the arrival of manager Thomas Tuchel in late January. Like his counterpart Pep Guardiola at Manchester City, Tuchel has mastered how to play in the COVID-19 era by slowing the game down, generating lots of defensive possession and counter pressing hard after losing the ball against lesser opponents.
The pieces and talent were always there for the Blues, who added a ton of key players over the summer, including Kai Havertz, Timo Werner, Ben Chillwell, Thiago Silva and Hakim Ziyech. Former manager Frank Lampard wasn’t quite able to figure it out to unlock Chelsea’s potential. The Blues pressed hard, but were far too open at the back and relied too much on N’Golo Kanté to break up play in the midfield.
Tuchel is one of the best managers in global soccer, which allowed him to correct Chelsea’s issues. The expected-goals allowed run the Blues have been on since his arrival has been incredible — 11.7 xG allowed in 19 matches.
Now, they’ll face the best team in the world in Saturdays Champions League final, and Tuchel has multiple lineup and tactical choices to make to counter Manchester City’s superiority in overall talent.
Tuchel’s Arrival Changed Chelsea’s Overall Approach
Offense: Manager Getting Most Out Of Top Talent
Chelsea’s tactics have often been determined by the lineup choices Tuchel makes. When he’s opted to start Havertz and Pulisic up top, that tends to suggest they’ll want to play a more possession-based style that gets the ball to the feet of those two and allows them to create from there.
Havertz is an excellent passer for a striker, who’s a bit of a hybrid striker and attacking midfielder. Pulisic’s best trait is running at defenders in and around the penalty area with the ball at his feet. This system best works with Ziyech paired with Mason Mount in the midfield, putting together two excellent, creative attacking midfielders.
Tuchel will likely opt for a less possession-centric approach, given the success the Blues had in the FA Cup semifinal against Manchester City by conceding the midfield, forcing crosses from wide and then looking to spring Werner in behind.
Chelsea could allow Manchester City a lot of defensive possession, wait for it to turn the ball over in the attacking half and then have Kanté, Jorginho and Mount look to spring Werner.
In the FA Cup semifinal, Chelsea managed five total shots, but two were big scoring chances and one was a goal that came from Werner to a late arriving Ziyech for a tap-in. The German striker has struggled in front of goal with finishing, but he’s drawn plenty of penalties, created for others and is due for regression. This strategy works for the Blues, so long as they’re ahead or tied.
If it goes behind, Chelsea will need to press a bit more and Manchester City will force it to come get the ball. It’s at that point where the Cityzens have the edge and shown an ability to really play through this situation. They exposed flaws in Borussia Dortmund and Paris Saint-Germain en route to the final.
Chelsea’s attacking strategy has shown it can work, but will rely on its defense being rock solid yet again.
Defense: Stingy Group Powers Club To European Final
The Blues made their Champions League run on their defensive solidity. Atlético Madrid didn’t score against them in 180 minutes. Porto didn’t score until the last minute of the two-legged tie, when things were long decided. Real Madrid scored on a set-piece goal from one individual moment of brilliance from Karim Benzema, but barely threatened the Chelsea goal otherwise.
Needless to say, Manchester City will be its toughest test yet. The Blues have played the Cityzens twice in the last few months, but one game saw their foe not send out a true first-team lineup. For Chelsea, the biggest question is how the back three handles the lack of a striker from Manchester City.
Sometimes, Kevin De Bruyne (who plays as a false nine) might not have an outlet to avoid Chelsea’s back three and possession could die in the area around the penalty box, with Kanté pressing him and the center backs stepping up. That’s the concern with not playing a striker to get in behind or link up play.
I’d be stunned if Guardiola plays a striker, but Chelsea’s wing backs will be busy dealing with Phil Foden and Riyad Mahrez. Tuchel could opt to deploy César Azpilicueta at right wing back instead of Reece James. Tuchel did this against Real Madrid to prevent Vinicius Jr. from destroying the Blues in the channels.
Foden is less likely to run the channels, but Azpilicueta and a center back could do a better job of stopping overlaps with Foden and either Joao Cancelo or Oleksandr Zinchenko on the left side.
My guess is that Rodri, İlkay Gündoğan and Fernandinho will compose the midfield, which means two pivots and more freedom for Gündoğan to get forward. He’s the X factor for the Manchester City attack and has been excellent at getting into the penalty area, where he’s generating plenty of chances. Perhaps the biggest thing is that Kanté and Jorginho need to be careful not to lose sight of him while tracking De Bruyne.
Tuchel’s back three has been a defensive juggernaut, but Manchester City’s attacking is incredibly dangerous and allowing it possession unchecked is a big risk from Tuchel. It should work if the Blues can keep the game tied.
Kanté also needs to be totally fit, which isn’t abundantly clear at the moment. He’s expected to start, but it’s unlikely the standout will be able to play 90 minutes or potentially more.
Keys To The Match
There are five major questions that will serve as the keys to the game. Everything from lineup decisions to tactics to substitutions to fitness will be critical to deciding the final. Let’s take a look:
- Does Chelsea choose to contest the midfield or ride with the FA Cup semifinal strategy of sitting deeper and countering?
- What do Tuchel’s lineup choices say about his tactics? We’ll know about 75 minutes before kickoff.
- How fit is Kanté to play potentially more than 90 minutes and can Chelsea maintain itself defensively without him?
- With five substitutions at his disposal, how long do the managers stick with their respective Plan A before switching it up?
- And finally, how will Guardiola and the Manchester City center backs adjust to Werner’s pace on the shoulder of the last defender? Will he play a double pivot of Rodri and Fernandinho?
Bottom line, we’re in for quite a match.