Chelsea were back in action in the Champions League with a point to prove, three points to secure, and a desperate need to fix our sputtering attack. Malmӧ FF were to become the litmus test of whether Tuchel would be able to increase the pressure placed on the opposition goal.
He had indicated as much in his pre-match presser and did not reduce the issue down simply to formation but to Chelsea seeking a balanced attack and defense. That said, with a strong line-up and only Christian Pulisic still out of contention, we effectively reverted to the 3-4-3 formation.
Tuchel’s agenda to fix said issues centered on high-intensity, high-press, and relentless direct play. We were trying every avenue forward and succeeding through most of them, including balls over the top to stretch the defense, which successfully found both strikers and wide players. Our propensity to send passes over the back line opened up more space in the middle of the park for our midfielders and centre backs, who were all carrying into any afforded space from a timid Malmӧ midfield.
As a result, Kanté and Jorginho were both effective in their own way — Kanté driving the ball forward and looking to link with the attackers; Jorginho playing many more direct passes than perhaps he is wont to do. These through balls were not always accurate, but to see the ball swiftly moved forward was a breath of fresh air from the slower build-up play we had been employing this season.
Chelsea were firing on all cylinders and leaving no potential offensive outlet unchecked, even throwing a significant number of crosses into the box. Even at two-nil in the second minute of first-half added time, Tuchel could be heard yelling at Chilwell through the television, “Don’t do the dribbling, cross!” The first two highlights shown on the Chelsea website demonstrate this was part of his directive very well. And because we were also committing so many additional players into the box, it didn’t take long to produce a result.
Tuchel has clearly noted the potency of our defenders’ scoring capabilities, and as the player positions indicate, both Azpilicueta and Chilwell were instructed to get up level and at times inside their respective wide attacking players on the same wing and into the Malmӧ penalty area, adding to the threat on crosses. Our presence inside Malmӧ’s penalty area resulted in 75% of our shots coming from central locations.
Malmӧ went for a very rustic style of play of long balls and infuriating attempts of tactical fouling. Tactical fouling can be, when implemented and executed properly, quite effective. It can break up sequences of possession, frustrate the opponent, limit or halt fast breaks, and, at a bare minimum, stifle the opponent’s momentum. (Ed.note: hi, Pep Guardiola!)
Malmӧ do not have the personnel to do this however, and their “tactical” fouls were simply egregious fouls that often pushed the boundaries of a straight red. The referee in charge had sent off a player in each of his last three games, twice in Ligue 1 and once in the Champions League, but somehow he deemed their fouls not to be blatant enough this time — despite the injury to Lukaku and nearly one to Kanté after two criminal challenges.
Although Malmö’s team sheet claimed a 3-5-2, it was much more a 5-3-2 for the vast majority of the game. With such minimal forward presence, their long ball strategy did not work either — with the temporary exception of immediately after the introduction of Abubakari at half-time, though with the end-product still lacking. Many of their long balls forward were also more a result of scrambled clearances than any coherent attacking play, and resulted in a swift change of possession back to Chelsea.
The forced substitutions of Lukaku and Werner could have made Tuchel’s tactical decisions more difficult. But despite not being like-for-like replacements, the team did not miss a beat with Havertz and Hudson-Odoi coming on in their stead. Havertz perhaps showed for the ball a bit more than Lukaku, and the interchange between the front three came more naturally — Havertz drifts wide more often than Lukaku — but the team pressed on similarly to how we started the match.
Champions League substitution rules (maximum 5 players but maximum 3 substitution-breaks not counting half-time) meant that we could only make substitutions once during the second half — resulting in the triple-change just past the hour mark, though again with minimal tactical differences. Most notably of the three, Saúl finally showed some of his pedigree with better distribution and movement than we’ve seen before in a Chelsea shirt.
Drawing too many conclusions from this game may not be too wise however. While there were both tactical and line-up changes to note, they came against by far the weakest team in our group. Yes, our attack was better, but the opposition defense was worse than most we will see this season. And our full-strength back line had zero problems facing a lifeless attack.
That said, the mentality and the pace at which this game was played was much better. We went for the jugular, showed the potential our attack has even without our two recognized strikers, and we now have 15 registered goal scorers in the squad. Matters not how the ball gets into the net, so long as it does!