Champions League RO16 first leg Preview: Chelsea against Bayern
Tuesday night. London SW6. Floodlights. UEFA Champions League round of 16 first leg. Chelsea FC against FC Bayern Munich. By the time the two teams line up at 9 p.m. and the Champions League anthem booms through the stadium, each and every last one should have realized what is on the line here.
Both Chelsea, according to legend apparently Champions League winners sometime and somewhere in the last ten years, and Bayern, who won the competition in 2013, have not beaten any major rivals in Europe for quite some time now.
In the round of 16, both teams want to show that they are still capable of doing so. That is what makes the meeting on Tuesday so exciting: It is not at all clear how both teams measure up in comparison to European’s top teams. While Chelsea are looking for some kind of a new beginning with a lot of young players, Bayern are finally looking to bring consistency to their game.
Last summer, Chelsea unexpectedly for some parted ways with Maurizio Sarri, who won the Europa League with his team and finished in a Champions League qualification place with room to spare. His successor was club legend Frank Lampard, who is still in charge today.
Lampard’s record so far: 19 wins, 7 draws, 12 defeats and 1.68 points per game. In the league, this currently means 4th place – not outstanding, but not bad either. An important factor for the fluctuations in his team’s performance could be that Lampard has relied a lot of young players this season, partly by choice and partly by necessity.
Mason Mount (21 years old; 37 appearances), Tammy Abraham (22; 33), Fikayo Tomori (22; 21), Reece James (20; 22), Callum Hudson-Odoi (19; 25) and other still very young, albeit more experienced players such as Christian Pulisic (21; 23) or Andreas Christensen (23; 18) have all seen a substantial amount of game time this season.
In addition, the club from London also has a number of experienced players in their squad who add routine to their youthful exuberance. Olivier Giroud, César Azpilicueta, Jorginho, Pedro, N’Golo Kanté, Marcos Alonso and German international Antonio Rüdiger, for example, have already seen their fair share of on-pitch action in their careers. The tale of the young Chelsea yet having to mature is therefore only part of the story.
Lampard has built on the work of his predecessor Sarri. With around 57% ball possession (3rd place), Chelsea are one of the teams in the league that actively try to make the game. Central playmakers such as Jorginho, Kovacic or the dynamic Kanté provide a solid basis for this. Lampard attaches great importance to a clean passing game. Approximately 84% of his team’s passes reach their target, which is the second-best value in the Premier League behind Pep Guardiola’s Manchester City.
Nevertheless, Chelsea create the most danger from their counter-attacks. They still find it difficult to get in behind the back line against deep and well-organized opponents. If the Blues manage to send their fast wingers into one-on-one duels or play them free through the half-spaces, they are very difficult to defend.
Chelsea’s creative midfielders pull the strings in the engine room of the pitch. Especially Jorginho, whom Sarri brought with him from Naples, is an outstanding pacemaker. His positional play, his technique and his vision allow him to split the opposition open with his passes, which are his most important asset. Against Tottenham, for example, he managed a defense splitting pass over 25 to 30 metres at the weekend, which ultimately led to his team’s lead.
Jorghino is usually assisted by N’Golo Kanté, who as a dynamic and robust box-to-box player takes on many defensive tasks but is also able to create spaces in possession thanks to his physical presence and ball control. Above all his quality in gegenpressing is very important for the team. However, the Frenchman will be unavailable against Bayern and will be sorely missed.
Mateo Kovacic has also recently been given more responsibility. The Croatian is a technically gifted player who, like Jorginho, can overplay several pressing lines at once with a single pass. But his most important quality are his dribble skills. 3.7 of his 4.3 dribbles per 90 minutes come off successfully, which is an impressive 86 percent.
Like Thiago, Kovacic is very agile and makes frequent short dribbles to move the play forward. From his advanced position, he is then capable of exposing the opposition’s defense with a single pass. When Lampard’s team gets going under the direction of their playmakers, every opponent in the world is given a hard time.
A supposed weakness of the Blues is their defense. With 37 goals against, they have already conceded more than twice as many goals as Liverpool. However, on average they only allow 8.7 shots and 0.94 expected goals against. Many of the goals scored against were the result of individual mistakes rather than tactical shortcomings.
And yet this must be an important insight for Bayern: If you put pressure on Chelsea, they make mistakes. Their build-up play in particular is not always flawless. Against Manchester United, they resorted to an unusually large number of long balls over the top because their playmakers were unable to turn around and build the game after receiving the ball.
Another possible weakness of Chelsea lies in the area behind their first pressing line. Their midfield and defense do not push up consistently enough, especially when their opponents force them to make decisions quickly. This means that if their central midfielders have to decide in a split second whether to push up or stay put, the team tends to lose their shape. Bayern can force such situations by their offensive players aggressively closing down Chelsea’s midfielders.
Similar to the team from Munich, Chelsea still have a problem with keeping their full-backs well protected when they push up high. If Lampard’s team plays with four at the back, there are spaces on the wings when they turn over the ball. And even with a back five as against Tottenham, there were situations where Tottenham could have created more pressure on the wings. Kanté in particular will be sorely missed as a ball winning interceptor before his back line.
How Lampard and Chelsea could approach the game against Bayern and what resources both teams have, we have analyzed in a new episode of “Mia san Rotstift”:
Bayern have recently indicated that they must still be counted as one of the best teams in Europe. In terms of consistency, however, things have looked anything but good of late. Too great has been the spread in their performances. Dominant first halves were regularly followed by poor second ones.
The key against Chelsea will mainly lie in a combination of two aspects. On the one hand, Bayern’s intensity against the ball must be so high that Chelsea’s midfield does not get rolling. On the other hand, Bayern need to inject spells of controlled calm in which they save energy without conceding too much control of the game to their opponents.
The test of the back three against Paderborn suggested a new option for defending a counter-attack-heavy game, which could be very valuable against Chelsea. For this Bayern would not even have to deviate from their 4-2-3-1 or 4-3-3 formation. If the team chooses a wide positioning for their center-backs, they will ideally have two faster players in the left and right inside channels, who would be able to chase down Chelsea’s attackers if Chelsea manage to play a through ball in behind. In the center, there would also be an additional player as a backup if needed.
Two questions are crucial here. Firstly, how quickly can Bayern close down their opponents on the wings? When Chelsea’s full-backs charge ahead, Bayern have to block their passing options in the center quickly to prevent being outplayed through the wings. And secondly: Who will take up the position next to David Alaba? Jérôme Boateng has been in good form lately, but his speed deficit and his unpredictability at tackling are well known. Lucas Hernández, however, did not leave a particularly good impression in the right center-back position. At least he would be faster than Boateng. But Flick will have to carefully weigh up who is the better fit for the role he has in mind.
Chelsea are not one of the absolute top teams in Europe. Above all, they lack cleverness and flexibility. If the opponent covers the center well, they often seem to lack alternative ideas. In addition, many of their key players are simply short of experience.
But Bayern, too, have yet to prove that they can rightly lay claim to the Champions League title. The match at Stamford Bridge seems like a suitable occasion to do this. Bayern have not exactly covered themselves in glory in recent weeks. But they have at least always fulfilled their duties.
In contrast to Chelsea, they have the necessary experience that can make the difference in the end. But if they are as careless as they have been in many a second half lately, they may face elimination. When the floodlights go on in London SW6 on Tuesday evening and the UEFA Champions League anthem is played at 9 p.m., each and every one will know what is at stake: No less than a proof of their capabilities. The match will be about winning, but it will also be about sending a signal to Europe. For both teams.