Chelsea’s Thomas Tuchel goes back to basics as Kai Havertz excels in Romelu Lukaku’s Champions League absence


LONDON — His tactics under the spotlight after Romelu Lukaku’s (inauspiciously) record-breaking performance at the weekend, a run of acceptable results with underwhelming attacking performances and a crucial run of games looming on the horizon. You could not blame Thomas Tuchel for going back to what he knew worked. For the most part he was vindicated, a 2-0 win over Lille bringing with it greater cutting edge and, most importantly of all, what ought to be a relatively serene path to the Champions League quarterfinals.

He has tried to shoehorn Lukaku into his frontline to diminishing returns. The move to a back four, enforced on him by the absence of his first-choice wing backs, seemed to gum up the Blues attack. Now was the time to return to a template he knew would bring him European success.

Of the 11 that beat Atletico Madrid here in last season’s round of 16 second leg, eight returned for the knockout rounds Tuesday night. Were he fit Reece James would have made that nine. Even among the different players there were tactical similarities, Christian Pulisic brought in to stretch play in behind as Timo Werner had a year ago whilst Thiago Silva offered an upgraded version of Kurt Zouma’s anchoring role in the defense.

Going back to Plan A meant no room for Lukaku, the second time this year that Tuchel has responded to headlines about his club record signing by withdrawing him from the firing line. As had been the case when the Belgian was dropped ahead of the game against Liverpool, this was framed as protecting the player, in this case preserving his fitness after a lethargic performance against Crystal Palace that saw him register just seven touches across 90 minutes.

It took just 13 minutes and one second for Havertz to better that, by which time he had already scored. On the basis of his start at Stamford Bridge it will be hard for Lukaku to take back his central berth from the man he succeeded as Chelsea’s most expensive player. Havertz simply fits what Tuchel wants from his attack.

That much was apparent from touch number one. Havertz dropped just inside the Chelsea half, bringing a center back with him to the left channel. As he had done whenever the ball came to Lukaku on Saturday, Pulisic ran on in behind. This time his center forward delivered a flick right on the mark, sending the U.S. international careening into the space his teammate had forged.

“Kai is very strong for weeks now, really steps up,” said Tuchel. “His effort is immense, the work rate is immense, the areas of the pitch he covers for us is very, very good. He was decisive, created chances, was involved, and was never shy of defending.

“We had a very aggressive high line today on the pitch with the offensive three players together. The formation was to have intensity, a high work-rate consistently throughout the whole match and they did all very good.””

He may not have the build for it but in many ways Havertz is a more natural target man than Lukaku. His height means he can win headers but more importantly he served as a point of reference for Chelsea’s passing plays, getting the ball in his feet and allowing Pulisic, N’Golo Kante and, on occasion, Hakim Ziyech to run beyond him.

When the ball comes to Lukaku’s feet with his back to goal, Chelsea’s attacks slow down. When it is Havertz he has a habit of propelling them forward. In an ideal world Tuchel might be able to Jeff Goldblum-in-The Fly his way into a hybrid of the two, but right now it is the German who fits better.

That is not to say he was perfect, the best chance that came his way in the game was spurned after just two minutes when he lifted Cesar Azpilicueta’s cross over the bar.

Crucially he was getting these chances. After just seven minutes he had registered three shots on goal, stinging Leo Jardim’s palms before leaving the Lille goalkeeper without a prayer of getting near a bouncing header from the resulting corner.

Havertz would not exert quite the same influence over the 83 minutes that followed but then perhaps that had been Chelsea’s plan all along. Certainly they did not attack with quite the same abandon, seemingly happy to hold on to what they had. This was not entirely Tuchel’s side as a prime defensive unit with 15 shots going the way of the visitors. For a time Renato Sanches looked like he might be able to find gaps in the armor that simply did not exist a year ago.

And yet Lille ended the game with their shots worth an average of 0.04 expected goal, 0.62 combined. Edouard Mendy only had to make two saves, neither of them particularly exacting for a goalkeeper of his standard. On occasion Lille looked like Scrappy Doo, screaming “lemme at em” without getting close to laying on a fist on Chelsea.

Lille’s touches in the Chelsea half of the pitch in the Champions League round of 16 second leg
TruMedia

In the period before Christian Pulisic doubled the hosts’ lead Lille had gone 15 minutes without a touch in the box, 20 without a shot of any variety. It feels like time to dig out the opposition touch map to once more show how effective Chelsea were at keeping their penalty area safe.

Will this work as well against better opponents, starting with Liverpool in the EFL Cup on Sunday? The evidence of this season suggests that the Blues aren’t quite the defensive force they were in Tuchel’s early months in charge. Perhaps continuing at such a rarified standard was impossible. Maybe trying to change the team to fit in Lukaku brought compromises further back in the pitch. Either way this was a reminder at both ends of the pitch of how effective last season’s base template can be. It will surely not be the last time it is used.





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