Thomas Tuchel opted for a 3-5-2 formation to start, something he has done against teams he expects to press us high or battle for possession centrally. However, as many times as this formational switch has been effective, the game against Tottenham very early in the season springs to mind, it has also floundered (see the game against Manchester City.)
The categorical win in the first leg might have led to a bit of a reserved and defensive lineup, knowing how easily that was achieved and that just seeing out a draw would send us through on aggregate. As Tuchel admitted afterward, and addressed at the half, it was an incorrect tactical adjustment.
On paper, Tuchel set up a sturdy midfield, relying on the quality of the starting trio to form our typical triangles with the back three, wingbacks, and strikers. He expected them to play organized and deliberately out of the back, as we prefer to do, but it was rough going due to Lille’s cohesive press and our slower pace of play. Typically, we are a masterclass at negotiating the press and moving the ball into the opposition half, but that wasn’t the case at the start of the game.
Apparently Lille prefer different shapes to our triangles and essentially formed an adaptive circle to both press high and remove any central midfield outlet. Balls over the top were not on and so working through our width would once again prove the only access into their half.
Lille were happy to concede the flanks and focus on clogging up central areas, essentially encircling Jorginho and man-marking N’Golo Kanté and Mateo Kovačić. For whatever reason, we persisted with our pattern of play through Jorginho in the middle and not through wide areas, and as a result, our attack was stifled and presence minimal in the final third in the first half.
To make matters worse, the more we forced the pattern, forcing play through the press, the more turnovers we had, and in crucial areas.
With a focus on keeping possession, there was difficulty linking up with the striking pair. With fewer options available from having one less player up top, despite relentless runs from both Kai Havertz and Christian Pulisic, the penetration to the final third was minimal and the often smothered and cleared.
Thanks to tactical fouling and some questionable officiating, the pace of play in the first half had absolutely zero rhythm. But on the rare circumstances we were able to break through their lines, often due to them committing players forward, we were in business.
The best such chance comes after Kanté is able to smother an attack from the incessant Burak Yilmaz, he slides the ball to Kovačić with space to carry forward. Kovačić obliges, then makes some deft cuts through a pair of players and releases Pulisic down the left with Havertz in front of him. Although Pulisic is somehow able to feed the ball through their defenders and onto the foot of Havertz, Havertz was not ready for the pass and the opportunity is lost.
Shortly after this, Andreas Christensen would be forced off with injury and Trevoh Chalobah would be brought on with no warm-up. Unfortunately, his first contribution to the game would be a foul on Jonathan David after David had turned him near the baseline just outside of our penalty box. The ensuing free-kick would be bobbled around before being chested by Xeka into Jorginho’s flailing arm. As it was inside the box, VAR would intervene, the spot kick would be awarded, and we would see ourselves chasing a game in the Champions League for the first time since the defeat to Juventus in late September.
The lead would not last long, as Chelsea really started to apply the pressure better and ask questions of the Lille defense. One of the better ways to get through a sound defense is to change the point of attack quickly.
Our goal is a direct result of one of those, starting down the left side through Rüdiger and Alonso, but quick passing found it moving central to Jorginho and then wide to Azpilicueta, stretching their back line and creating the gap that Pulisic could exploit. Jorginho sees his run and dinks a wonderfully little pass perfectly weighted into his path, redeeming himself for the penalty. With plenty to do still, Pulisic buries his shot low to the far post and levels the game just before the halftime whistle.
Tuchel realised his mistake and, never one to shy away from changes after the break, he replaced Kovačić with Mason Mount and reverted to our tried and trusted 3-4-3. The presence we now had up top was a deciding factor on how well we could press, our attacking impetus, and the overall flow of the game.
And although we were much more comfortable after the change, Lille would have the first great chance of the half, hitting the bar from a free header after a quick corner caught our defense at sixes and sevens. Xeka ghosts past at least 2 of our defenders, starting his run from outside the box, and gets onto the end of a great cross from Yilmaz. Xeka’s only competition for the ball is his teammate, Jonathan David. The defensive lapse fortunately goes unpunished, but is nonetheless concerning after being caught out so easily from just a quick corner.
Just like the goal in the first half, this served as a wake-up call to the squad and we would soon establish our superiority and put the game to bed. Again, in the moments prior to our goal, the change of play becomes crucial. It begins with sustained pressure down the right, switches to the left between Mount, Havertz, and Alonso, but nothing forms of it and it is brought back to be recycled yet again to the right.
Their shift to cover defensively is noticed by Silva, who sends a ball back out to Alonso with Mount in support on the overload and able to occupy take up space in front of Alonso. Uncovered, he takes the ball towards goal and fires a lethal ball across the six to a trio of onrushing Chelsea players. The pace on the ball carries it to the far post, and Azpilicueta knees it into the net for the lead and a comfortable cushion on aggregate.
Immediately after the goal, Tuchel would bring on Ruben Loftus-Cheek for Jorginho and Romelu Lukaku for Pulisic, but the game had already been won and neither made much of an impact. Hakim Ziyech made a late appearance for Havertz as well.
What was a bit of a nervy start settled and we can take comfort again in the fact that Tuchel recognises switches that need to be made and implements the change without hesitation. Our defense has an absolutely ridiculous stat (below) that shows that there have been times where blips have occured, as happened today, but we are genuinely as stout as ever.
Lille 1-2 Chelsea: Lille scored with their only shot on target, before Chelsea came back to win.— The Analyst (@OptaAnalyst) March 16, 2022
Chelsea have faced just 15 shots on target in eight #UCL matches this season - 7 of those came in the final group game vs Zenit. pic.twitter.com/j6h8XvhTwm
Regardless, we are onto the quarterfinals and have the chance to knock out Real Madrid one round sooner this year. We should do that.