Lille surprised everyone by winning Ligue 1 last year ahead of PSG, but they have been nowhere near those levels this season, thanks in large part to a change at manager. They’ve been specifically ineffective up front, winning their Champions League group with just 7 goals scored (in the 6 games) and a +3 goal differential. In the league, they have scored only 32 goals in 25 games and have a -3 goal differential. Even Jonathan David has yet to score this calendar year.
That said, they do not have a shortage of attacking talent, many of whom were on display against us despite playing slightly out of their preferred positions.
Chelsea were fortunately able to play our starting XI in preferred positions, most notably Hakim Ziyech and Christian Pulisic. We opted for a 3-4-2-1 with Kai Havertz leading the charge and Thiago Silva putting in yet another absolute masterclass on how to marshal a back line while winning back possession a jaw-dropping 12 times at the ripe old age of 37. (Thanks, PSG!)
Thiago Silva for Chelsea vs. Lille:— Squawka Football (@Squawka) February 22, 2022
89% pass accuracy
96 touches (most)
12 ball recoveries (most)
5 aerial duels contested (most)
4 aerial duels won (most)
2 shots blocked
A titan at the back. #UCL pic.twitter.com/EbehoBhD3e
N’Golo Kanté and Mateo Kovačić were deployed as double-sixes and bossed the midfield in the first half. Kanté had another man-of-the-match performance (that’s 5 from our last 8 Champions League knockout ties, mind) while Kovačić was also doing well until injury forced him off just after the break.
Chelsea changed to a 3-5-2 shortly after his removal in order to compensate (replacing him with Ruben Loftus-Cheek and then adding Saúl Ñíguez not long after). Thankfully, Kanté was able to play out the game and was instrumental in our second goal.
N'Golo Kante’s game by numbers vs Lille:— Statman Dave (@StatmanDave) February 22, 2022
91% pass accuracy
68 total touches
10 ball recoveries
6 ground duels won
5 attempted long passes
4 successful long passes
4 tackles won
2 chances created
2 dribbles completed
1 big chance created
What a performance. pic.twitter.com/vqG6lJ1UTT
César Azpilicueta and Marcos Alonso slotted in at wingback, with the former lasting the full 90 mins and having a significantly better outing than the latter. Alonso was not getting up and down the touchline, was often caught out (both by pace and positioning), and his offensive contribution was subpar, especially by his standards.
Chelsea came out of the blocks with intent, and our fluid movement and crisp passing nearly reaped immediate benefits. Havertz’s runs were exquisite. He had a plethora of chances as a result, while demonstrating his versatility in both showing for the ball but also running the channels, even drifting wide creatively for overloads and adding a commendable defensive workrate. And that was only the first ten minutes! It was a stark contrast to what we had been getting from Lukaku.
The press was fully engaged at the start, more than it had been in previous matches. We did not give Lille easy time on the ball, despite them finishing with nearly as much possession and more shots. They were never really were a threat as the xG map indicates, with half their shots off target and most taken from outside of our box and skied over by a country mile. The two saves Mendy had to make to keep his clean sheet were routine and helped us set a new record for consecutive clean sheets at home (14 of his 18 in total), and the most of any team still in Champions League competition.
Renato Sanches was really their only true threat, especially with his powerful runs forward.
Our pace of play, quick switches, and the aforementioned runs from Havertz nearly came good in the 4th minute.
After the first of numerous cross-field balls that Rüdiger made on the day found Azpilicueta, a quick interchange between him and Ziyech frees up space to deliver a cross into the box. The cross is delightful as is the run Havertz makes to get onto it: he started well behind the play and timed his run impeccably to get goal-side of his mark and find the space to get a touch on the delivery. He also opened his body up to attempt a simple deflection into the far side of the goal but, unfortunately, his touch was slight and the whip on the cross and bounce off the turf made things difficult, as the ball sailed just over the bar.
What this highlights is that there were set plans of attack and that rote practice of those plans were effectively coming to fruition. The agenda was focused on the right, and slick interplay and overload down that side again nearly got Havertz onto the scoresheet.
After stretching the field and quick outlet passes from Silva to Ziyech, who laid the ball off for Kanté, the ball is worked all the way to Azpilicueta through silky, one-touch passing. Azpilicueta finds Pulisic in acres of space in the centre of the park, and because Pulisic has eons of time and the ability to bear down straight at goal, Havertz drags his run wide. Pulisic follows Havertz, taking his run wider than he ought to. Nevertheless, Havertz is patient and eventually receives the pass, although now he has three marks surrounding him. Remarkably, after setting himself up with his first touch, he find the space he needs to rip a low drive that is barely parried away by Léo Jardim for a corner.
On the ensuing corner, Havertz would indeed show that he is the man for the occasion when it comes to big goals.
Lille usually defend corners in a zonal marking system but very oddly had quite a few players at the near post for this first corner. The gaps that emerge from their concentration at the near post and the overload of our players charging their penalty spot leads to Havertz being granted an unchallenged header. This time he would make the chance count, furthering our prowess from set pieces as well.
With the lead, Chelsea wouldn’t relax per se, but we did certainly lighten the press and intensity a bit. The game was much more open after those first ten minutes, and while both teams experienced spells of influence, aside from a noteworthy (but side-footed) volley from Alonso in the 18th minute, an injury-inducing tackle from Kovačić in the 43rd minute, and the defensive stamina of our back line and double-sixes, the half would come without more consequence to either side.
That Kovačić did have to be pulled shortly after half from the injury sustained influenced the game tremendously. Loftus-Cheek does have somewhat of a similar skillset while on the ball, but his ability to pick up appropriate spacing either in attack or defense off the ball isn’t as astute. And since Lille were employing a 4-2-3-1 specifically against our 3-4-2-1, they were primed for counter-attacks.
Due to the subsequent injury to Hakim Ziyech and drop of our midfield imposition, Tuchel chose to bring on Saúl and shift into a 3-5-2 with the intention of reacquiring possession in the middle third. Lille’s counters were thus forced wide and much less threatening thereafter.
Chelsea are now unbeaten in their last 16 games at Stamford Bridge across all competitions:— Squawka Football (@Squawka) February 22, 2022
The Bridge is now a fortress. ️ pic.twitter.com/RFUJW33whZ
While defensively we would maintain the status quo, the attack, which hasn’t had many high xG chances at all of late, would decide to kick into second gear and lock up the first-leg win. Those three chances in the xG map above (the big dots) are by far our biggest as of late, and we like big dots.
Similar to the first goal, the second also came as a result of quick and precise passing from back to front — emphasis on quick. Note the times on the screencaps below; just nine (9) seconds is all it took!
That second goal would prompt a change from Lille, putting on another unpderperforming attacker in Burak Yilmaz for the ineffective Onana, but there would be no substantial change to the outcome. Both teams made a double change in the 80th minute, rotating on some fresh legs but not being able to impact the game otherwise.
Tuchel’s decision to leave off Lukaku will receive most of the headlines: expensive striker, underperforming, yada yada yada. But while the space offered all night behind the Lille defense might have been suitable for him, indeed a break and a refocus might be what he needs more. After a lengthy run of games and a progressively poor return, combined with the hyperfocus placed upon the striker, Tuchel made a decision for the overall team, as he made sure to note afterward.
Chelsea have already had 10 different goalscorers in the #UCL this season:— William Hill (@WilliamHill) February 22, 2022
⚽️ Romelu Lukaku
⚽️ Andreas Christensen
⚽️ Kai Havertz
⚽️ Hakim Ziyech
⚽️ Trevoh Chalobah
⚽️ Reece James
⚽️ Callum Hudson-Odoi
⚽️ Timo Werner
⚽️ C. Pulisic
We’re only at the R16 stage. pic.twitter.com/H33CaujnW4
Besides, it’s not like we are struggling for goalscorers in the Champions League, anyway.