Chels’ Bells: Bayern win 0-3 at Chelsea
“Die Meister. Die Besten. Die Größten. Les grandes équipes. The Champions!” Goose bumps. The hymn, the competition, the memories of many a magical and many a difficult moment. What kind of evening might be in store for Bayern this time?
Against Chelsea, Hansi Flick opted for full-on attacking power: The Bayern coach answered the question about Kingsley Coman or Leon Goretzka by giving the nod to the more offensive Frenchman. At the back, he preferred Jérôme Boateng to Lucas Hernández.
As for Chelsea, Frank Lampard selected the same eleven that beat Tottenham 2-1 last weekend. The only question was how much courage his side would show in their approach to this game.
It did not take longer than two minutes for the game to indicate what was on the menue for the night. Bayern lost the ball, Kovacic dribbled past Kimmich and got into a good position to launch an attack, but failed because of a lack of precision in his passing. A few seconds later, Bayern won the ball from pressing Chelsea’s double defensive pivot, but Müller missed from the resulting half-chance.
In addition to building up the play through their two central midfielders, Chelsea tried to strike long balls towards Giroud again and again, which lead to several attacks. The best chance of the opening phase, however, fell to the visitors: Thiago lost the ball, but Bayern were able to recapture it immediately. After a quick switch of the play, Coman had a clear way on goal, but his shot missed the post by inches (12′). Lewandowski too did not find a successful finish a little later (15′), and in the following a game developed in which Chelsea was waiting for Bayern to make mistakes and hit them on the counter.
And the mistakes came, too. Again and again, the Bayern players were too careless in their forward play, which allowed Chelsea a number of counter-attacks. However, Bayern still were the side with the better chances (Lewandowski (27′), Müller (29′)). Then, the match picked up speed. First, Chelsea only narrowly failed to capitalize on a misplaced pass from Neuer (33′). A little later, Müller put a header against the crossbar (35′). Because Alonso (40′) also missed with the last big chance of the half, the scoreboard remained goalless for the interval.
The second half saw Bayern getting an almost perfect start. First Jorginho saw a yellow card because of complaining a bit too forcefully to the referee. As a consequence, Chelsea will have to make do without their key pacemaker in midfield in the second leg. Shortly afterwards, Bayern scored the important away goal. After Thiago won the ball, Lewandowski got hold of it in a good scoring position on the left of the penalty area. But instead of going for a goal himself, he squared the ball to the much better-positioned Gnabry in the center, who clinically used his first good chance of the night, making it 0-1 (51′).
Now Bayern played with more intensity than in the first half. After going behind, Chelsea tried to come back quickly and forced Neuer to clear his lines with a seemingly uncontrolled long ball. But the ball arrived at Lewandowski on the left side in the middle third. After a one-two with Gnabry, Lewandowski once again served Gnabry who kept his cool: 0-2 for Bayern (54′)!
In the following, the five-time Champions League winners did not let up and kept the intensity levels high. Lewandowski (56′) and Gnabry (59′) missed out on further opportunities to increase the lead even more. Lampard reacted and brought on Willian and Abraham for Barkley and Giroud in a double change (61′). Hansi Flick also had to change for the first time in the 66th minute because Coman had injured his hamstring. Coutinho came on for the Frenchman. The match calmed down a bit and Lampard used his final substitution to bring on Pedro for Azpilicueta. From now on Chelsea played in a 4-3-3 formation.
But who cares about such minutiae if you have someone like Alphonso Davies in your team? The Canadian, with all his technique and speed, bombed his way past everything that stood in his way on the left and served Lewandowski, who crowned his outstanding performance with scoring a goal himself. 0-3 (76′). Possibly a tie-deciding goal?
Be that as it may, it definitely decided this game anyway. Chelsea came dangerously close to scoring several times yet, but they ultimately failed to do so. Instead, Alonso was sent off the pitch with a straight red card for a knocking Lewandowski in the face with his elbow (83′). Bayern also seemeed to have sated their appetite for the night and did not score another goal. And so the game ended 0-3. A sign to Europe, although there are still things the coaching staff need to work on.
The good news first: This time Bayern managed to maintain their intensity levels high for more than just one half of the game. Tested at Champions League level, however, Bayern showed that they still have certain minor problems in their game that need ironing out, particularly in possession. One area they need to work on is one of Flick’s trademark plays: The wall pass. For a wall pass, first a player plays a vertical pass to a teammate further upfield, who accepts the ball with his back to the opponent’s goal-line and puts it slightly back or sideways for a third player to get onto it. Bayern used this method to good effect several times in the first half and created many good chances as a result.
However, especially in the first half, they gave away possession of the ball too often in the attempt to play a wall pass, either because there was no good passing option available after the initial pass upfield or because the available passing option made a different run than the pass required. Such misunderstandings led to several dangerous turnovers and Bayern could count themselves lucky that Chelsea was not able to capitalize on them.
Bayern sometimes have the tendency to over-embellish their combinational play when in possession, which always runs the risk of a loss of control. Especially when they are winning clearly, it is often not necessary to take as high a risk as they sometimes tend to do.
Against Chelsea, Bayern also found it difficult to create opportunities from longer spells in possession against a well-organised opponent. Although Bayern usually have a lot of possession, they are at their best transitioning on the break after winning the ball. All in all, this style is akin more to Jürgen Klopp than Pep Guardiola.
However, this is not a problem per se, because as the goals against Chelsea show this style can be very successful and attractive. Looking ahead, however, it will be important for Bayern to make further progress in their possession game and rekindle some of the elements that made their football under Pep Guardiola football so exceptional. Bayern are still too prone to mistakes, as demonstrated for example by Kimmich’s terrible misplaced pass in the second half or Neuer’s in the first. If Flick wants to become as successful in the Champions League as Klopp, he will need a stronger playmaker than merely (gegen-)pressing. Even the Liverpool coach has had to learn this over the course of his career. For Bayern, a combination of the best of both worlds, pressing and possession, could possibly be the right way forward.
The reckoning at FC Bayern is actually just as simple as the headline above suggests: If a coach manages to give his attacking players not much more than a rough outline of the pitch, it will result in the kind of fireworks on display against Chelsea. At the back, Bayern had excellent directors in Thiago and Davies, while in attack Lewandowski, Müller and Gnabry executed their duties with aplomb. Good positional play and frequent space-opening runs made for an irresistible performance, especially in the second half, which resulted in Bayern scoring three away goals in a Champions League knockout game for the first time since the away game in Istanbul 2018. Singling out individual players tends to undervalue the performance of the collective as a whole, but for Lewandowski in particular the evening will have been a source of satisfaction.
At the end, there stood a 3-0 away win and a performance the like of which Bayern have not managed to deliver for some time in the Champions League knockout stages. That alone sends out a very strong statement to Europe. Gnabry, Müller, Lewandowski, Davies, and Thiago in particular linked up with each other in an outstanding fashion on the left-hand side of the pitch. Several times they played their way through Chelsea’s defense like a hot knife slides through butter. This was by no means due to a weak opponent. Chelsea did well within the scope of their capabilities, kept the spaces tight and managed to win the ball often enough. The biggest difference to Bayern was that they were not clinical enough at taking their chances on the day. Chelsea could have scored two or three goals as well, but they lacked the final touches.
And that’s the other side of the coin of the success at Bayern: At the back, they remain vulnerable if their pressing at the front does not work. They also need to improve their possessional play in order to avoid unnecessary turnovers. The Chelsea of today do not belong to Europe’s elite sides. Teams like Liverpool, Atlético, or Manchester City would probably accept many of the gifts Bayern so graciously dished out more readily. Having said that, the overall manner of the victory is a sign of the progress Bayern have taken in their development. They are gradually putting together the individual pieces to produce a functioning overall system. With the 0-3 away win at Chelsea, they will most likely have secured themselves at least two more games in the competition. Games and opponents that will help them grow and learn.