If Chelsea were made to pay for a poor first-half performance against Real Madrid and trail 3-1 after the first leg of their Champions League quarter-final tie
Chelsea’s foundation crumbles
There have been very few occasions during his time as Chelsea head coach that Thomas Tuchel has been genuinely angered by a performance. But last night, after his side’s 3-1 defeat to Real Madrid, he was more frustrated, more irritated, more annoyed than in any of his previous post-match press conferences. And there have been plenty over the past 14 months.
“We were so far off our level in absolutely everything the game demands,” the German said. “We can’t expect a result from this kind of performance. It’s on all of us. I’m included in this. Like I said, individually, we lost shape and challenges. Obviously, since the international break, we don’t look the same, and I don’t really have an explanation as we were on a long winning streak and were very competitive. The first half was not good enough by far.”
Chelsea launched a high press in the early stages of the game, but it lacked coordination. And as soon as Real Madrid broke through the first wave, led by Kai Havertz, there were huge gaps for the likes of Luka Modric, Federico Valverde and Karim Benzema to exploit. They did so ruthlessly.
Vinicius Junior rattled the crossbar. It was a warning shot, something to be heeded. Chelsea didn’t, and the defensive vulnerability that suddenly emerged against Brentford at the weekend was soon punished by Benzema, who planted an expertly-placed header beyond Edouard Mendy, having escaped the attention of the Blues’ defenders.
Tuchel opted to select Andreas Christensen on the right of the Chelsea back three, but the Dane lasted just 45 minutes. With little protection offered by Reece James – who was urged to push up the pitch – Christensen was torn apart by the pace and trickery of Vinicius.
Could the academy graduate have done more for Real Madrid’s second of the evening? Probably not. Benzema drifted between Christensen and Silva and again beat Mendy with a header. The latter gestured frustratedly at his defensive colleague and questioned why he didn’t cover the French striker. It was a sign of the disharmony that had permeated the backline.
“It was one of the worst first halves I have seen from us here at Stamford Bridge,” Tuchel stated in his post-match interview with BT Sport. “Individually and as a team, it was by far not enough. It was far from our standards, and then you lose games. If we keep playing like this, we will lose at Southampton [on Saturday], and then we will get hammered at Bernabeu.”
The foundation of Chelsea’s triumph in the Champions League last season was their defence – only four goals were shipped on route to the Blues lifting the big-eared trophy after overcoming Manchester City in Porto in the final. It’s why watching Tuchel’s side be breached three times in just 90 minutes was jarring, and even more so on the back of conceding four times to Brentford on Saturday.
The Kante conundrum
Since the turn of the year, Kante hasn’t produced his best form in a Chelsea shirt on a consistent basis. There was one display in the Champions League Round of 16 against Lille that evoked memories of his astounding performances in last season’s competition, but the majority of matches have almost passed the Frenchman by.
Yet there was an expectation that against Real Madrid, in a high-profile quarter-final clash, Kante would shine once more on the biggest stage. Unfortunately, from a Chelsea perspective, that didn’t happen. It wasn’t for want of trying, however. Kante sprinted around the pitch and clattered into Toni Kroos early on, something that brought a thumbs up from Tuchel.
As Real Madrid took control of the opening 45 minutes, Kante’s influence waned. He wasn’t nipping in to retrieve the ball and wasn’t intercepting passes and launching counters. And at the interval, Tuchel opted to bring the Frenchman off as he switched from his 3-4-2-1 formation to a 4-3-3.
“It was a tactical change,” explained Tuchel. “It’s like always, and it’s never on one or two players.” To bring off Kante in a game of such magnitude – and with Chelsea trailing – perhaps highlighted the level of the 31-year-old’s performance. It wasn’t what Blues supporters have become accustomed to over the years.
The debate will now begin as to whether Kante should start the second leg at the Bernabeu. It seems almost unthinkable that he doesn’t give what is a stake, but that was the case ahead of the first leg, and it didn’t kickstart the France international’s campaign. So a big decision awaits Tuchel.
Next Chelsea owner’s important lesson
Chelsea takeover contender Todd Boehly was in attendance at last night’s game – the American watched the match from one of the executive boxes in the West Stand. However, you suspect Boehly wasn’t the only bidder that was keeping track of events at Stamford Bridge last night.
So what would those hoping to buy the club have learned from the defeat? Well, the biggest takeaway was perhaps the need to work smarter off the pitch when it comes to supporting Tuchel. Chelsea went into the game without their first-choice left wing-back, Ben Chilwell, and that the head coach felt Marcos Alonso was not a viable alternative was damning.
Instead, Tuchel decided to play Cesar Azpilicueta in the position, and while the club captain was his usual reliable self, he didn’t offer a great deal of threat in the final third barring one rasping second-half shot. The Spaniard is certainly not a like-for-like replacement for Chilwell.
That the Blues have played more than half of the campaign without the England international is far from ideal. That they don’t have an able deputy, though, is down to poor planning and decision making. The same reasons are why Chelsea had almost £150million of striking talent on the bench against Real Madrid in Timo Werner and Romelu Lukaku, neither of whom have thrived this season or are trusted by Tuchel.
This wastefulness and short-sightedness in the transfer market has to change, especially in the post-Roman Abramovich era in which extravagant failings are unlikely to be accepted as forgiving. It will be on the next Chelsea owner to recruit more intelligently, to give Tuchel the tools he needs to compete at the very top echelon of the game across differing competitions. It is a lesson that must be learned.