Patience in Tuchel’s plan tested but players’ trust ultimately brings reward
As the half-time whistle edged closer, with openings scarce and Zenit St Petersburg carrying out their containment plan to perfection, an increasingly animated Thomas Tuchel could be seen urging Chelsea to calm down in the final third. There were too many rushed decisions from the European champions, a little too much desperation to force the issue, and Tuchel did not hold in his frustration when he saw Reece James spank a cross into the first white shirt after finding a rare pocket of space on the right flank.
“Slow it down,” came the cry from Tuchel, who had spent most of the first half sadly shaking his head as he watched most of Mason Mount’s crosses fail to find their target. More control, greater care: that was the aim. Chelsea did not have enough of either, even though they dominated possession and territory, and it felt like the only way forward if they were going to find a way past Zenit, who had attacked for 20 minutes before deciding to settle into an intense defensive operation.
In a way it was a counterintuitive instruction from Tuchel. If anything it seemed that Chelsea needed more speed, more urgency, perhaps another attacker on the pitch against opponents who had little intention of playing an open game.
Yet that is to miss the point about Tuchel’s Chelsea. This, after all, is how they won the Champions League last season: not by blowing teams away but by managing the moments. They kept clean sheets, picked their moments and were clinical when a big chance arrived. In the end, with Romelu Lukaku primed to break Zenit’s resistance with just over 20 minutes to go, this was more of the same.
Solid in their 5-4-1 system, Zenit had given little away in the opening period, with Wilmar Barrios an efficient screen in front of the Russian defence. There were a couple of sighters for Lukaku – a shot blocked from the angle, a difficult header planted over the bar – but nothing clearcut. Zenit simply would not allow it. There were always at least two defenders around Lukaku, crowding him whenever he tried to link the play, and it felt like a bad sign when the striker turned in frustration to Marcos Alonso during the early stages, banging his chest and asking why Chelsea’s left wingback thought that launching long balls over his head was ever going to work.
It was a test of patience for Lukaku. In Tuchel’s favoured 3-4-3 system, there is room for only two support players around the focal point up front. Chelsea’s line-up often looks defensive on paper and there tends to be a heavy onus on the two No 10s to provide the invention.
Yet it was a struggle for Mount and Hakim Ziyech, the players given the nod over Kai Havertz, Timo Werner and Callum HudsonOdoi. Neither offered much inspiration. Mount huffed and puffed, working tirelessly, but produced little. As for Ziyech, it was a night to forget. Though he is capable of moments of genius, particularly when he cuts on to his left foot, the Moroccan winger is maddeningly inconsistent at times and it was not a surprise to see him make way for Havertz midway through the second half.
Naturally there was no change of shape from Tuchel. Chelsea trusted in their plan. They kept probing, looked for the angles and never gave up, even when moves broke down after a heavy touch or a bungled pass. Professional and mature, they refused to lose their shape.
So much of Chelsea’s success is based on their outstanding defence and there was never any prospect of them letting Zenit through. There was always a blue shirt waiting to mop up whenever the visitors threatened and nothing epitomised Chelsea’s excellence at the back more than the moment when the exceptional Antonio Rüdiger denied Sardar Azmoun with a wonderful tackle with the game still goalless.
They kept probing, looked for the angles and never gave up, even when moves broke down after a bungled pass
It gave Chelsea security. They improved after Havertz’s introduction, playing with more conviction, and the moment eventually arrived. It came when César Azpilicueta advanced from right centre-back and played one of his trademark crosses, curving a peach of a ball towards Lukaku, who finished brilliantly.
Once again, just as he had against Aston Villa on Saturday, Lukaku made the difference in attack. The last question hanging over him is whether he can thrive in the Champions League and this was a good start. Chelsea were always at their most dangerous when the Belgian, who became a much sharper link player under Antonio Conte at Internazionale, had the ball with his back to goal, bringing others into play.
Ultimately he just needed one clear sight of goal to give Chelsea a perfect start to the defence of their European crown. He did not disappoint when it arrived, his low header enough to ensure that Chelsea stayed in control.