UEFA Champions League bold predictions: Tuchel shakes up front line; Juventus go defensive; Oblak in decline


The first legs of the Champions League round of 16 wrap up this week with holders Chelsea continuing their title defense against Lille, Juventus travelling to Spain to face an in-form Villarreal and the mouthwatering matchup between Atletico Madrid and Manchester United. Below you’ll find the broadcast schedule of games on CBS or Paramount+ and three things I’ll be looking out for:

Tuesday’s broadcast schedule

Wednesday’s broadcast schedule

1. Chelsea vs. Lille: Tuchel shakes up the front line

Averaging a touch of the ball every 13 minutes will naturally draw the focus toward Romelu Lukaku, but no one associated with Chelsea would contend that the Belgian is entirely the architect of his own travails of late. It was notable that Thomas Tuchel spoke about his club record signing being “part of the solution” to what ails the European champions in front of goal, not least because it must be extremely tempting to simply ditch a player who has struggled to get on the same wavelength as his Chelsea teammates.  

Featured Game | Chelsea vs. Lille

Tuchel laughed when asked how he might address Lukaku’s form after he registered just seven touches across 90 minutes against Crystal Palace. “What can I do? I don’t know.” That there was no great sign of exasperation from the German suggests that is very much not the case. A manager this tactically astute cannot be blind to what is not working.

Simply put, no one who has followed the progression of Lukaku’s career would view him as the target man cum point striker that was the only way he got the ball at Selhurst Park. The 28-year-old may be an imposing forward but more so when he is facing goal, carrying the ball forward at his feet or running in behind to chase a through ball. What he is not is someone who drops into midfield positions to flick the ball on to overlapping forwards, nor is he someone at his best fighting duels with center backs (he has a 43.8 percent success rate in league play over the last five seasons). Yet, a back-to-goal striker is what Chelsea have often asked him to be since bringing him to London.

Many of Lukaku’s seven touches against Palace, including this one, came with his back to goal attempting to flick the ball on to other players
USA Network

Throughout Saturday’s game, Lukaku was calling for passes, they just weren’t the ones he was getting as he pointed for the ball to go in behind. That is where he is at his most deadly, on the shoulders of the last man, but for those passes to be effective they generally cannot be coming from 30 or so yards further back. Antonio Rudiger may have impressive range for a center back but it is asking a lot for him to drop the ball into fine gaps between Palace’s defense and goalkeeper.

Eventually, Lukaku gets dragged deeper because that is where Chelsea need someone. Under Tuchel, the Blues have rarely used a traditional No. 10; when flying wing backs Reece James and Ben Chilwell were available, that did not really matter as their creativity came down the flanks with forwards operating in the half spaces infield. Take those two England internationals out of the frame and Chelsea cannot stretch teams quite as wide meaning more play has to go through the middle. And yet even against Palace, where the presence of Kai Havertz and Christian Pulisic suggested a 4-2-3-1, there was no one occupying the space alongside or just behind Lukaku in the same way that Lautaro Martinez might have for Inter Milan.

Chelsea’s open play touches against Crystal Palace, note the relatively limited number in the area immediately outside the penalty area
TruMedia

A manager who succeeded Frank Lampard with a remit of getting more from Havertz and Timo Werner will not need telling twice that he must get a tune out of Lukaku even if the Chelsea hierarchy backed Tuchel’s handling of the club record signing after his controversial interview with Sky Italia. And it is of course true that when a club spends $135 million on a player, they are entitled to expect he adapt to new tactical setups. Equally, however, one does not buy one of the most expensive square pegs in history in order to hammer it into a round hole. Something will have to change soon.

2. Atletico Madrid vs. Manchester United: Oblak gets beaten to his left

It is perhaps the great unanswerable question of European football right now. What has happened to Jan Oblak? A season ago, he might have been the consensus best shot-stopper in the world; perhaps the possession play of Ederson and Alisson made them more valuable all around, but if you needed one player to get you a clean sheet it would be the Slovenian.

Not this season. The scale of Oblak’s decline is up for debate; many expected goals models are imperfect at assessing the velocity with which shots have been hit and it is fair to say that a few ripsnorters have fizzed their way into the Atletico Madrid goal. He has also faced a relatively meagre number of shots on his goal, meaning he has precious little time to get his eye in. That Oblak has declined this season is not a point of any great contention.

Featured Game | Atlético Madrid vs. Manchester United

According to Opta’s goals prevented metric — which assesses the number of goals actually conceded against the post-shot expected goals value of any effort — only two goalkeepers in Europe’s top five leagues have had a worst shot-stopping season. He has prevented 8.6 fewer goals than a league average player in his position would have in 2021-22. David De Gea, by comparison, sits first among all Premier League goalkeepers with 7.09 goals prevented. Last season, Oblak prevented 11.6 more than an average La Liga shot stopper. 

184

Alexander Schwolow (Hertha Berlin)

23

-8.12

3

185

Jan Oblak (Atletico Madrid)  

25

-8.57

7

186

Illan Meslier (Leeds United)

24

-9.36

3

187

Benoît Costi (Bordeaux)

21

-13.21

0

Those numbers should be taken with a fair serving of salt, but to see the goals Oblak has conceded is a strange sight. Though some shots are fizzed past him at a rate of knots the 29-year-old has on more than one occasion seemed to be floating like a marionette, his arm some way short of full reach as the ball floats into the net, as if you are watching the game at half speed. That issue is particularly pronounced on his left side, where several efforts have gone in despite being well inside the post.

Shots faced by Jan Oblak in La Liga 2021-22. Bubble size reflects their xG value
TruMedia

Shots from Darwin Machis and Alexander Isak that Oblak might once have swatted disdainfully out of the air are no creeping past his left side with alarming regularity. It seems to be something strikers are aware of, Enes Unal was prepared to go to the goalkeeper’s left from both penalties in Getafe’s recent 4-3 defeat to Atletico. Against a Manchester United side who need precious little invitation to shoot expect Oblak to peppered with shots. If Cristiano Ronaldo and company have done their homework don’t be surprised if more of them go to the left.

3. Villarreal vs. Juventus: Allegri shuts it down

Considering there has so far been no completed tie in the knockout stages of European competitions, a great deal has already been written about the abolition of the away-goal rule. Indeed, it seems rather that one extremely conservative performance by Real Madrid at the Parc des Princes might send this from rather popular policy to “the latest example of suits meddling with the beautiful game”.

Perhaps, all that we can say for certain so far is that the impetus to attack has been removed from visiting teams, no longer compelled to chase that bonus point that comes with a goal on their travels. That is surely good news for Massimiliano Allegri, who could do without leaving his back door unguarded in El Madrigal. Juventus travel to Spain without Giorgio Chiellini and Daniele Rugani while Leonardo Bonucci is a doubt due to a thigh issue. As such, there is a distinct possibility that right back Danilo will be shunted across the back line to partner Matthijs De Ligt.

Featured Game | Villarreal vs. Juventus

Gerard Moreno might not be available for Unai Emery’s side, but you would not want to feel compelled to push up in numbers when the likes of Samuel Chukwueze and the in form Arnaut Danjuma were lurking in behind. Watch for Massimiliano Allegri to keep things tight in this first leg, perhaps looking to nick a goal on the break through Dusan Vlahovic or Alvaro Morata but with the real priority being that this tie remains a live affair before the two teams gather in Turin next month.





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