I understand that it's a trifling matter that may have slipped your attention, but it turns out that Chelsea Football Club are playing in the UEFA Champions League final on Saturday. That's tomorrow, for much of the world, and today for the rest. Their opponents are FC Bayern Munich, who're lucky enough to be playing at home. What can we expect from our esteemed hosts? Find out after the jump.
We should all be entirely familiar with the shape that Jupp Heynckes favours for his team, because the structure is broadly similar to Chelsea's - a fairly attacking 4-2-3-1 with the pivot occupied by one more defensive player and one more adventurous box-to-boxer. On paper, they're a supremely well-balanced team, with Bastian Schweinsteiger and Luiz Gustavo locking down the midfield, Toni Kroos staying disciplined in the hole, frightening talent on the flanks, a world-class goalkeeper and then Mario Gomez up top. The only obvious weakness of a full-strength, injury-free Bayern is the centre backs.
Fortunately for Chelsea, Bayern aren't at full strength. They'll be missing David Alaba, who is on my shortlist for best left backs in the world at the tender age of 19, Holger Badstuber, who's their most imposing centre half (although I don't rate him any higher than, say, Gary Cahill) and Luiz Gustavo, who's a major force in the centre of the pitch. They're also having to deal with an injury to Schweinsteiger, which is clearly sapping his dynamicism and turning him into something of a liability in the middle of the pitch.
So there are reasons for hope. Let's take a closer look at the details.
Jupp Heynckes has been managing since Roberto di Matteo was nine years old. He's a competent enough tactician but doesn't seem to be very good at generating team unity, as a quick browse through the sordid details of the Arjen Robben-Franck Ribery spat will attest. He's also not been a particularly successful boss, winning just three major trophies since 1978 and none since 1998. That said, the last one was a Champions League win.
The major critique I've heard of Heynckes is that he's too tactically inflexible and wedded to his 4-2-3-1. If it's not working, he'll attempt personnel switches instead of system ones and only move away from his preferred shape as a very last resort. Inflexibility with a versatile system like the 4-2-3-1 isn't all bad, of course, but he's unlikely to do something surprising to us in terms of shape. That makes Bayern predictable, not only in terms of how they'll come out but how they'll react to specific Chelsea changes or goals being scored.
Bayern have three starters suspended and Daniel van Buyten missing to a long-term injury (he's back, but unlikely to play). Will Alaba gone, I'd have expected them to shift captain Philipp Lahm from right back to left and deploy Rafinha on the other flank, but word has it that they're going to use Diego Contento at fullback instead, leaving Lahm where he is. There's some evidence that Heynckes is leaning this way - Contento was used as a substitute during the 5-2 loss last weekend against Borussia Dortmund, presumably to give him some actual game minutes before Saturday.
Since van Buyten is unavailable, Badstuber will be replaced by midfielder Anatoliy Tymoshchuk, which is currently my favourite name in the world. Alas for Tymoshchuk, his abilities as a centre back are nowhere close to as nifty as the flow of his name - he's a defensive midfielder with good positioning and reasonable tackling, but not an actual centre back - and the Bayern back line will be significantly weaker thanks to him playing there.
Tymoshchuk (I'm going to write it out as often as is reasonable) would also be the natural replacement for Luiz Gustavo in the pivot, but instead Toni Kroos is going to have to drop back in order to help shield the back line. Kroos' absence means a place for Thomas Mueller as a number ten/support striker. This has rather interesting ramifications for the Blues, as we'll explore later.
Anyway, as of right now I'm fairly confident that this is how Bayern will line up on Saturday:
Bayern Munich starting XI (4-2-3-1): Manuel Neuer; Diego Contento, Anatoliy Tymoshchuk, Jerome Boateng, Philipp Lahm; Bastian Schweinsteiger, Toni Kroos; Franck Ribery, Thomas Mueller, Arjen Robben, Mario Gomez.
Or, if you're a visual person...
That's all well and good, but I imagine you're going to want an indication of how they actually play. Bayern are a versatile attacking side and aren't really locked into the same set of attacking patterns as, say, Napoli or even Barcelona, but it's instructive to take a look at some of the areas of the pitch and why we might expect Bayern to try to do there.
Mario Gomez is the focal point of the Bayern offence. Expect him to be on the end of crosses, through balls, loose balls in the box, set pieces, and basically everything. He's the first option for a pass the second Bayern transition into the attacking area, and while he has a reputation for the occasional awful miss he's a very good goalscorer regardless. He's competent in the air (although he's not as good as his frame would suggest), dangerous with the ball at his feet both in one on one situations and incredibly quick to react to goalscoring opportunities.
Bayern will play wide frequently, using Franck Ribery and Arjen Robben to devestating effect. Both are better when they're cutting inside as inverted wingers, and they'll frequently be picked out with long diagonals designed to open up the space between the centre half and fullback on the opposite flank to the play. Both are fully capable of unleashing long range shots, dribbling straight through players and finding space to play the ball through.
When Bayern are forced to play wide rather than in the channels as they really prefer, some dangerous overlaps can occur. Philipp Lahm is extremely adventurous at right back and we should expect Diego Contento to go forward frequently as well in an attempt to cause a two-on-one overload of the defending fullbacks, generally allowing one of the wide players in behind the defensive line.
If the two-on-one doesn't work, expect to see Thomas Mueller get involved. He'll be playing in the hole but he's not a real number ten, and he'll drift to the flank to help out if need be - or if he's getting no joy in the middle. That's generally good news for the opposing defence when it happens, however, because it leaves Bayern very short on players in the middle, and only Gomez is a serious aerial threat on crosses (although the opposite-side winger will look for far-post tap ins more often than not).
This team will create chances and will score goals, although they have a bad habit of some absolutely incredible misses at times. They're also less structured without Toni Kroos in the hole - Mueller is brilliant and essentially unplayable when he's on, but he doesn't have Kroos' discipline to stay central and create.
So, how do we defend against Bayern? First of all, we have to accept that if the front four are all on their game, they're basically unstoppable. If Mueller is playing brilliantly and the wingers are causing havoc, there's no way to defend them all at the same time. However, if Mueller remains in his slump, there are several options for Chelsea.
First of all, attempt to track Gomez with Cahill as closely as possible with the ball on the flanks. Both Chelsea centrebacks should be quick enough to stay with him and put in a tackle if he's on the move, but Cahill has a clear advantage over Gomez in the air that David Luiz doesn't - the Brazilian should focus on spotting and clearing loose balls. Ribery and Robben are going to be very, very difficult to deal with, and the key will be to avoid having our fullbacks caught up the pitch on the transition. This is a major worry with the right back since Branislav Ivanovic will be suspended.
With two world-class players in the pivot and an intelligent, cultured passer in front of them, you might expect Bayern to be absolutely superb at playing the possession game. At full strength, they are. With Luiz Gustavo suspended and Bastian Schweinsteiger slightly crocked... well, they're less dangerous. Toni Kroos, who doesn't have the positional discipline required of a pivot midfielder, will accompany Schweinsteiger, and while he can link up play without a problem, we're unlikely to see Mueller dropping back into the midfield:
As a result, Bayern look a little bit like a broken team whenever Kroos and Schweinsteiger are playing together in a pivot. The number ten and the deeper midfielders rarely overlap one another and so there are problems bringing the ball through the centre. Chelsea can exploit this by intelligent marking of Mueller (mostly by John Obi Mikel and then one of the centre backs in a zonal system) and using Frank Lampard to block off the obvious passing lanes and then launching a counterattack. Doing this properly is of paramount importance.
We've discussed the defensive aspects of the Kroos-Schweinsteiger partnership before, but we might as well reiterate them here. Kroos is an attacking, pass-first midfielder being played out of position in a deeper role. His tackling numbers and interception rate looks fine, but he's caught of position far too often and is nowhere near the defensive wall that Luiz Gustavo or a fully-fit Schweinsteiger are. Borussia Dortmund destroyed Bayern last weekend by taking advantage of the space that the midfield pivot left open, especially when they were pressing for a goal, and if Chelsea can score early they can do exactly the same thing.
Although the central midfield trio Bayern can field boast absurd technical ability, there's no reason for Chelsea to doubt that they can hold possession in this match. Of the three, Schweinsteiger is the only player I'd be worried about being dispossessed by, and I'd expect him to be spending most of his time wondering where Juan Mata has gone. Chelsea are not at risk of being Barcelona'd here, and will be able to hold their own in the centre. If this wasn't at the Allianz, I'd expect a significant possession advantage for the Blues.
Expect Franck Ribery to do a little tracking back in a running around annoyingly sort of way. Don't count on Arjen Robben to do anything but look annoyed that he doesn't have the ball though.
It's difficult to get a grip on what exactly this Bayern defence is going to look like, because I don't think I've ever seen them all play together. Obviously, the one constant is Manuel Neuer, who's one of the world's best goalkeepers. Chelsea should avoid speculative shots, because in all likelihood he's going to stop them. Although he's a commanding presence in the area, the Blues shouldn't be afraid to cross.
Bayern's defence has seem mildly disorganised all year, and they have trouble holding a line even with Holger Badstuber and David Alaba around. With Tymoshchuk there, I'm not entirely convinced that they'll be able to hold any sort of offside line whatsoever, which will make runs from Chelsea's front three incredibly dangerous whenever Juan Mata's on the ball.
Philipp Lahm is a superb all-around right back - think of what Ashley Cole could do in his prime and you're not far off, but I'm wholly unconvinced by the rest of this Bayern team. Jerome Boateng is a big, physical player who might be able to deal with Didier Drogba up top, but fortunately, we can decide who Drogba goes up against, and that will inevitably be the 5'11" Tymoshchuk.
Diego Contento's kind of a wild card. I've only seen a couple of game's worth of Contento, and he looks ok going forward but absolutely terrible defensively. Assuming Lahm does stay on the right, I simply don't see Bayern's left side not giving up at least a few glorious opportunities for Chelsea to score. In addition, both Neuer and Boateng have occasional lapses in positioning and judgement, with Neuer often his own worst enemy - think of David Luiz as a goalkeeper and you have the general idea.
In terms of the defense-midfield transition, Bayern won't have much of a problem. Schweinsteiger is a phenomenal distributor and he'll pop back to help the defence, while the fullbacks will pushing forward to link up with Robben and Ribery on the flanks or passing the ball inside to one of the pivot mids, who should always have space. Chelsea don't really have the personnel to stop Bayern pushing from their defensive third to the centre, and should instead focus on stopping them inside the Chelsea half.
Bayern's free kick and corner defence is usually exceptionally strong. Jerome Boateng and Holger Badstuber are a beefy defensive duo, Mario Gomez pitches in to help, and Manuel Neuer will try to claim pretty much everything anywhere near his vicinity. Fortunately for Chelsea, Badstuber isn't there, which means that Gomez and Boateng will have to figure out a way of containing Didier Drogba, Gary Cahill and David Luiz. My guess is that David Luiz and Gary Cahill get picked up by Bastian Schweinsteiger and Gomez respectively, both of which are significant mismatches in Chelsea's favour.
In front of Petr Cech's goal, I'd be worried about the threat of direct free kicks from Arjen Robben or Franck Ribery, but both of those (and Toni Kroos, who'll also be taking set pieces) are fully capable of a delivery into the box. This will generally be aimed at Mario Gomez. It's absolutely vital that Cahill covers Gomez, probably to the point of man-marking him. They'll aggressively chase loose balls in the box as well, and the defenders will have to work very hard to clear their lines quickly. Fortunately, Bayern will be hurt by the absence of Badstuber, and will have Drogba, David Luiz and John Obi Mikel as strong aerial defenders in case Bayern aim at someone who isn't Gomez.
Bayern have no problem adapting their game to a certain situation. They're aggressive when they need to be and defensive when they're not. However, they're much, much happier when they're in control of the game, and their suspensions mean that their ability to completely dominate possession is in some doubt. If Chelsea can get an early lead, there's every reason to believe that they're as likely to add onto is as Bayern are to come back. Their 5-2 annihilation by Borussia Dortmund showed that the Kroos-Schweinsteiger pivot is particularly vulnerable to leaving large spaces open in the centre, which Mata in particular should feast on.
Rafael Honigstein also pointed out in his tactical preview that Bayern are an easy team to frustrate, and Roberto di Matteo's men have shown themselves to be pretty masterful frustrators over the course of their semifinal win against Barcelona. As long as Chelsea don't make any boneheaded mistakes (cough David Luiz cough), they should be able to exploit the pressure on the home team.
Chelsea Lineup Selection
Roberto di Matteo would presumably play his standard team here, given the chance. There's zero reason to play a 4-5-1 or similar like Chelsea did against Barcelona, and the Blues have every opportunity to control the centre with their standard double pivot. We could invert the midfield triangle and attempt to apply pressure very high up the pitch with the likes of Frank Lampard and Michael Essien, but that would make it very difficult to attack - putting Juan Mata on the flank would really jeopardise our chances of containing overlapping runs from either Philipp Lahm or Diego Contento.
Instead, we should probably stick to the standard shape, which means we need one winger and a right back to step in for the missing Ramires and Branislav Ivanovic. Unfortunately, I'm not seeing a reasonable option other than Jose Bosingwa there. It sucks, but there you have it.
There are more options on the wings. With the threat posed by Arjen Robben and Franck Ribery, Chelsea have to be very careful to provide adequate support to the fullbacks or we're very likely to be eviscerated down the flanks. However, we could also apply that by being very aggressive ourselves, taking advantage of the fact that there's only one competent defensive player out of Bayern's four wide men. If Chelsea can pin Contento high up the pitch on the right side, they can effectively blunt the threat of an overlap - although Ribery vs. Bosingwa would still pose problems.
Since Florent Malouda remains a doubt, we're not going to have two defensively capable wingers for this one, unless the experiment with Ryan Bertrand* on the left side continues (which would be interesting, but kind of crazy for a Champions League final**). That means one of Daniel Sturridge or Fernando Torres, and for reasons I've discussed in a previous post, I think I'd go with Torres for this one.
*I'm pretty sure he's eligible, but it's impossible to confirm that one way or anything. Thank UEFA for that one.
All of the above leaves us with the following lineup:
Chelsea starting XI (4-2-3-1): Petr Cech; Ashley Cole, David Luiz, Gary Cahill, Jose Bosingwa; Frank Lampard, John Obi Mikel; Salomon Kalou, Juan Mata, Fernando Torres; Didier Drogba.
Or, to draw everything up...
This match will hinge on two battles. The most important is the central midfield. If Bastian Schweinsteiger cannot turn his form around, Chelsea have a huge advantage in the centre. Mikel is capable of nullifying Thomas Mueller (he should watch Sebastian Kehl for tips on that), Frank Lampard can cut off Toni Kroos when he's playing deep, and Juan Mata can both play merry havoc with space while dictating the play. If Chelsea can win here, they're likely to take home the trophy.
The other major element, assuming lineups go as I expect, is Franck Ribery and Diego Contento vs. Jose Bosingwa and Fernando Torres. This is closer than you'd expect it to be, because Contento is really really bad at defence. Worse than Jose Bosingwa, in fact. If Torres can show signs of life early, Chelsea can actually turn the right flank into an area of strength, although they should always be very way of the threat posed by Robery, who'd be able to turn things around in an instant should Bosingwa lose him.
When I was watching Bayern play at the start of the year, they looked like the only club with any hope of pipping Real Madrid or Barcelona to the European Cup this season. They were absolutely phenomenal, racking up the score at will against basically whoever they played. They obliterated Manchester City at the Allianz Arena (although they had a rougher time with Napoli) and were steamrollering everyone in their path. Then Bastian Schweinsteiger got hurt, and since, they've had flashes (but only flashes) of brilliance. They've been pipped to both domestic cups by Borussia Dortmund and are even more vulnerable thanks to a slew of suspensions. There's no reason Chelsea can't compete with them in this match.
Let's do it.