MSR Round Table: Chelsea Edition

Marc Separator February 24, 2020

Question 1

How has the season for both teams developed so far? How much of the success of the season will be measured on the outcome of the Champions League?

Marc: Both of these teams have had their ups and downs this season although their goals and aspirations are completely different. Chelsea is long out of their domestic title race and appear to be long shots for the Champions League title or the FA Cup where they play Liverpool a week after their first tie with Bayern. Their primary goal at this point surely is to secure a Champions League place for next season which is not a given as they are currently in 4th with four other teams within 5 points of them. Not following Chelsea closely nor being a supporter of the club, it’s hard to give an accurate assessment of how much the Champions League means to them this year. However, from the outside looking in, it seems as though they should be fairly happy with where they are now and consider any further advancement as an unexpected bonus.

Bayern on the other hand are still favorites in both domestic competitions despite the rocky start to the season which saw the replacement of Niko Kovac with Hansi Flick. In the Champions League, they are one of a few teams that would be in the general conversation of possibly winning depending on draws, form, injuries and luck as there is no clear favorite. For Bayern, I think the Champions League results will have a major impact on how successful the season is viewed. Given the vast amount of domestic success they’ve had since their Treble winning season, the Champions League has been largely disappointing, especially in recent years. I think Bayern supporters expect to at least make it to the next round and many are hopeful of going beyond. Anything less than the Semi-Finals will probably be considered a disappointment. For Hansi Flick, anything less than the Semi’s may very well spell the end of his tenure following the season.

Michael: Chelsea had a strong start to their league season, initially. They were right behind Leicester and City due to their attack scoring a good amount of goals which has slowed down throughout the campaign. The Blues inability to close out games has cost them several points throughout the season. Another big issue has perhaps been their defence, the goalkeeping position in particular. Kepa’s performances have been so bad that Frank Lampard has recently decided to drop him for 38-year-old back-up Caballero. Chelsea’s defence has only managed one clean sheet in the league in 2020.

Chelsea’s Spanish goalkeeper Kepa has had his share of shaky moments this season.
(Image: Javier Soriano/AFP via Getty Images)

Lampard was pretty much begging for signings in January, especially in attack after summer arrival Christian Pulisic got injured in December and the loss of Eden Hazard in the summer.Chelsea didn’t sign anyone which understandably left the manager very dissatisfied with the situation. With all that said, the club is still 4th in the table with a three point lead over Manchester United and if you take the injuries and how young some of the squad is, Frank Lampard’s Chelsea are doing a fine job. They should certainly aim for Champions League football for next season and City’s ban might come in handy if they fall behind United or Spurs. I don’t think success in the Champions League will be all too important as it’s Lampard’s first year at Stamford Bridge with a squad in a big transitional period with all this talent coming through from their academy.

Overall, Bayern are in a much better situation than the club from London. They’ve recently crawled back to the top spot in the Bundesliga table and have made it through to the quarter-finals of the DFB Pokal. However, it wasn’t always sunny – and still isn’t at times – for FC Bayern this season. After a 5-1 trashing at the hands of Eintracht Frankfurt the club decided to sack Niko Kovac and appointed Hansi Flick as caretaker manager for the foreseeable future. Although it took a few weeks for the players to come to grips with the new manager’s philosophy, it has done a world of good for the squad. FC Bayern have given Hansi Flick the role until the end of the season with the prospect of a longer contract depending on how Munich finish the season. Champions League success is much more important to the German club than it is for Chelsea. Since 2013 they haven’t made it further than the semi-finals and with every other elite club struggling bar Liverpool, Bayern is as likely to win it as most other contenders. If Munich crash out against Chelsea, I don’t think Flick will stay past this season and the season will probably end up being another disappointment. 

Question 2

What impulses have the new coaches implemented in their teams? Do they have the potential for long term success stories at the helm?

Marc: This is where Michael is the expert. I have not seen Chelsea enough to know exactly how Frank Lampard has changed their team structure and ideas. From the few matches I’ve seen, they appear to be stronger in attack than defense which could certainly play into Bayern’s hands. To give you an idea, they have just 7 shutouts in all competitions (37 matches) this season, 4 of which were against teams in the bottom half of the EPL or second division. This could be an even bigger problem with Kante out injured for at least the first leg of the tie. I think the likely area where Bayern will need to be wary is on the counter attack. Chelsea have some very quick players up front and will likely look to get in behind Bayern’s backline, which is an area that Bayern has certainly had problems this season. Having Hernandez back and a real life Flash in Alphonso Davies should certainly help in this regard but is still a concern nonetheless.

Hansi Flick has put Bayern back into their attacking and hopefully winning mentality.
(Image: Glyn Kirk/AFP via Getty Images)

As for Bayern, Flick has, in my opinion, returned Bayern to a standard level of play after the somewhat disastrous run under Kovac. Hansi’s style suits the Bayern players far more than Niko’s and his relationship with the players is clearly a boon as it has made it easier for them to acclimate to his style and buy into his ideas. However we are also starting to see some of his weaknesses. In-game management is certainly a concern. Weirdly, Bayern have struggled to find a manager who is even remotely competent in this area since Pep left (excluding the few months Jupp returned). Hansi is the best of the bunch, but still struggles to adjust to his counterparts moves and make the right substitutions at the right time. Injuries have played a part of course, but the team has been largely healthy the last few weeks and as the Paderborn match can attest, this is still a weakness.

Michael: Frank Lampard has quickly implemented a high-energy and more free-flowing attacking approach instead of Maurizio Sarri’s often rigid and methodical positional play. As mentioned before, Tammy Abraham was on a great scoring streak up until early December. Since then, he’s only managed three goals in eleven starts. That such a young striker slows down scoring at such an impressive rate in his full debut season in the Premier League is normal. Problem is, Chelsea doesn’t have a reliable goalscorer behind him. Giroud and Batshuayi have a combined 490 minutes in the league and managing just two goals. Lampard gave Pulisic time to settle in and the American scored five goals in three games after earning a proper starting spot but he too wasn’t able to score anymore after that. Since the turn of the year he has been injured which obviously doesn’t help.

Chelsea’s crown jewel has been their midfield. Kovacic and Jorginho are having very good seasons. Mason Mount is having an impressive debut campaign in the English top flight, too. Had a strong start like Abraham and has probably cooled off quite a bit since then but his set-pieces remain a threat. Their defence is shaky and they don’t really have a goalkeeper that can bail them out if they are on the back foot. I think the club has a bright future depending on how smart they’re going about recruitment. If Chelsea get the right acquisitions and utilize their youth well, they have the ingredients to be a very fun team to follow. Chelsea arguably have the best academy in England so there is a lot to work with, in my opinion. 

Frank Lampard will be looking to pull off the upset again the Bavarians with very little pressure to reach the next stages of the Champions League.
(Image: Julian Finney/Getty Images)

Bayern have certainly improved their play since their replacement of Niko Kovac. Under the former manager, Bayern were often carried to victory by a moment of brilliance from Lewandowski, Gnabry or someone else. Over time it became pretty obvious that the squad was aware of this and became increasingly unhappy. Flick, former assistant manager of Joachim Löw, has tried to bring back the attacking style Bayern have been chasing ever since Pep Guardiola has left the club for Manchester City in 2016. Counter-press after losing the ball and a comeback of positional play in possession with intricate passing sequences in the final third. Prime example might be the resurgence of Thomas Müller, who has 15 goal contributions in 13 league games since Flick took over. The mood in the team appears to be a lot better and they genuinely seem to enjoy stepping on the field. 

Not everything is positive for FC Bayern, however. Recently, there have been big questions about their game management because the performances have dropped off quite a bit in the second half. They took their foot of the gas immediately after scoring three early goals against Mainz and Cologne making these games unnecessarily nervy towards the end. Last Friday was another instance of possibly getting too comfortable and pretty much gifting Paderborn a lifeline right before half-time. Fortunately for Bayern the duo Gnabry and Lewandowski stepped up to save the day. Marc and I might be exaggerating this but it is definitely cause for slight concern.

Question 3

What players impressed in each team so far in the season? Which players have the potential to decide the Champions League matchup?

Marc: Again this is hard for me to gauge with Chelsea. The player that usually springs to mind when I think of them is N’golo Kante and his absence in the first leg is surely devastating for their supporters. Kovacic will likely be the player to start in his absence and I think he and Jorginho could be key in how successful Chelsea is at keeping Bayern off the scoreboard. Up front, Tammy Abraham appears to be the player that Bayern must be wary of. With 15 goals in all competitions this season, he is easily Chelsea’s most dangerous attacking threat.

As for Bayern, any mention of players who have impressed must start with Robert Lewandowski. He is turning in a career year and is largely responsible for the position that Bayern are in within every competition. Davies is clearly the revelation of the season, seemingly coming out of nowhere to be an indispensable part of both the attack and defense at left back. David Alaba has also been very impressive since moving to center back.

Thomas Muller could very well be the difference maker in the Bayern attack and the tie as a whole.
(Image: Christian Kaspar-Bartke/Bongarts/Getty Images)

Besides Lewandowski, I think the players who have the most potential to decide this match are Thomas Muller and Lucas Hernandez. Muller has been on a tear since making his way back into the starting 11 and his movement and play could certainly be the lynch pin to how well Bayern perform up front. At the opposite end of the field, Hernandez will need to put in better performances if Bayern are to advance in this competition. A fully functioning Hernandez should be the rock of the defense but the injuries and lack of game time have impacted his form and he could have his hands full with Abraham, Willian and Chelsea’s other quick forwards.

Michael: Chelsea’s attack has been somewhat underwhelming bar the aforementioned Tammy Abraham which makes him the only real standout in that department. Closer to the turn of the year, and continuing so far in 2020, this has stopped with the English forward’s goals drying up and no one else really being able to step in and provide goals. On a good day even Willian can be a difference maker, although this happens far too infrequently and Bayern would hope it won’t happen against them.

It’s probably the midfield were you’ll find their best players of the season so far. Kovacic is a tireless, yet technical midfielder with a well-rounded skill set. He’s the ideal player to connect midfield and attack with his dribbling ability and eye for his teammates. Jorginho was the target of massive scrutiny last season after Sarri had insisted on playing him as the lone defensive midfielder in a 4-3-3; trying to emulate the style the manager had became so celebrated for with Napoli. It didn’t work, at all. This season the Italian international has been a brilliant conductor with the ability to play a devastating through ball at any time. Kanté is having a decent season but worse than his previous years, in my opinion. Sarri actually found a good role for him – and Lampard is trying something similar – but probably limits Kanté a bit too much in his movement with or without the ball. His absence due to injury will be a big miss, of course. One player I’d keep an eye on is Marcos Alonso. While he’s still good going forward, he’s become a huge liability in defence. If Alonso is starting on Tuesday, I’d put Coman on the right and that match-up could certainly decide the game in Bayern’s favor. 

Chelsea’s strength lies in their midfield with Jorginho and Kovacic. Will they be able to disrupt the Bavarians enough to pull out an upset?
(Photo by John Thys/AFP via Getty Images)

The choices for Bayern’s standout players are pretty obvious. Lewandowski is on 38 goals in 32 games which is absolutely bonkers and it’ll be crucial for him to get scoring opportunities against Chelsea. I’ve already mentioned Müller’s comeback and he might be they key to unlock the Blues’ defence at Stamford Bridge. Serge Gnabry has enjoyed a great game against Spurs this season already, put in an outstanding performance last Friday and the return of Kingsley Coman will be of importance. Their pace might be the key to open the gates against Frank Lampard’s side.

David Alaba has reached a new level since he’s become the boss of Bayern’s backline. Bar one or two small mistakes he’s been a consistently brilliant centre-back for Munich. I’m not too sure if people give him enough credit for what he’s been doing this season. To his left we have one of the shooting stars of the season in world football — his name is Alphonso Davies. The impact the 19-year-old has already had at an elite club is remarkable. From the outside looking in, I think his unfazed and high-energy approach has quickly made him a fan favourite with Bayern fans. Kimmich has been an important stabilizer in midfield and has been as consistent as ever. It’s also hard to look over Thiago’s performances in 2020 — they’ve been nothing short of ridiculous for the most part. A big factor for Bayern’s chances in this tie is their game management, something Marc and I have been voicing concern about before. If Bayern keep up the intensity for the full 90 minutes, I very much fancy their chances.

Question 4

How much of the shared European Cup history will influence this tie?

Marc: Honestly I think very little. If anything I think this goes in favor of Bayern as there are still players from that 2012 squad that could be looking for a bit of revenge. But given that both clubs have largely turned over since that time and Bayern got their title the following year, I think that is a minor concern. For the most part the biggest potential advantage for Bayern is that they have more experience and are less likely to be intimidated by the stage and opposition. I don’t really anticipate that Chelsea will be intimidated either, but it will certainly be a new experience for many of their players going into the Allianz on a Wednesday night in the Champions League knockout rounds. Once the players get on the pitch however, all of the history goes out the window and whether the players tighten up or struggle will have more to do with the moment than it does with what happened years ago.

Michael: I don’t think the past really plays too much of a role on Tuesday. Both teams have changed so much that I doubt it’ll have an influence. Bayern got their trophy the following year in 2013 after the disaster that was the Champions League final in their own backyard in 2012. Bayern boast the far better squad overall with a lot more experience too. Lewandowski is approaching 32, Neuer turns 34 this year and Müller will be 32 by September so I’d say time is slowly starting to run out for these three players. Not so much for the two Germans as they’ve won it before but the striker has repeatedly voiced his ambition to win a Champions League with Munich.

Chelsea have brought in Lampard to work with many of their talented youngsters and change the face of the squad. Seems like a mid to long-term project not a short-term one to me. I don’t feel like there’s pressure on them to achieve much, so I’m expecting a more defensive approach to somehow manage a draw or even a win. If they get knocked out, that’s fine, it means they can focus on securing a Champions League spot. Bayern certainly shouldn’t take the games lightly because Chelsea still have players with vast experience in the likes of Giroud, Pedro, Azpilicueta and others who know how to be there when it matters.

»Eier, wir brauchen Eier!«

— Oliver Kahn

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  1. Müller turns 31…

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