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Dinamo Zagreb 1-0 Chelsea, Champions League: Tactical Analysis

That escalated quickly

Dinamo Zagreb v Chelsea FC: Group E - UEFA Champions League
That’s an odd way to point
Photo by Slavko Midzor/Pixsell/MB Media/Getty Images

I intend keep this one a bit lighthearted - after all, it will be my last analysis of Thomas Tuchel’s tenure. Like ExpectedChelsea, I am a fan of Tuchel’s, and especially considering the situation he’s had to unfortunately navigate, I think that the outside world affected in-house results. That’s not to say that I’ll avoid criticism where it need be placed, but, all things considered, I’m treading lighter than I might have otherwise.

What ended up being Thomas Tuchel’s last game in charge of Chelsea was certainly not the worst loss of this season, yet it was filled with similar mistakes: selections chosen for the starting formation, substitutions and tactical shifts made as the game wore on, and, inevitably, our tireless and elementary horizontal passing. That’s not to say all the blame is on Tuchel - performances and specifically decisions made by our players on the rare occasions the ball entered either final third were hugely influential. And yet, despite the damage in the manager-ownership relationship already being codified well before kickoff, this result threw the match in the powder barrel and ended the Tuchel era - an epoch, really, as it resulted in our second Champions League trophy. Alas, to reflect on the past.

Ante Čačić has a well-drilled squad and a visit to one of the more intimidating stadia in Europe was always going to be difficult, no matter its current (in)capacity due to disputes with ownership. I won’t claim to know much about the Croatian champions, but they’ve typically fielded a 4-4-2. They had tried a 4-2-3-1 twice in the qualifying stages of the Champions League, but have since abandoned that after both resulted in shutout losses. They’ve started their domestic season with 7 wins and a draw, scoring 27 while conceding 10. Point being, they can get goals, but they do also let them in. Similarly, in the 6 games they played to just qualify being in our Champions League group, they have scored 12 and conceded 7. Again, able to score, but also vulnerable at the back.

And then we came to town.

Starting XI’s

Here’s a common narrative: Chelsea played decent, possession-based football for a small portion of the game and then utterly fell apart. It’s the hope that kills, and our decent portion of the game came in the first ten minutes, with an honourable mention of the last ten upon realising the dire situation into which we had gotten ourselves. The first glaring chance of the day fell to us, but we did not capitalise.

Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang did not make a positive difference on the scoreboard, but had chances in his opening movements to do so. Offsides or not, this is the type of play we have seen too often - it has to be a shot. Instead, he lays it back across the penalty spot and into traffic only for the chance to be wasted. He must know why he is here, and to nab silky assists is not the reason - this chance is begging for a shot.

Not the right decision

Just a few minutes later we had a second golden opportunity through another one of the few chances where we made runs behind their back line - again, it begged for a striker’s finish. It was another beguiling display of how we could have a fluid attack if there were more cohesion and communication between our lines.

Sterling carries the ball forward and does pick the incisive pass to split their back line and connect to Havertz. Aubameyang was there to receive Havertz’s cross, but his run did not meet the ball, and the game turned into the favour of the opposition immediately thereafter.

This movement was promising, the finishing was not - nor was the rest of the game

And because it shifted for the worse, the starting defensive selection drew attention. How and why Tuchel would start Wesley Fofana, in his first ever Champions League match, in a position at the centre of a back three, notably where he has not played before, was odd. His miscommunication at directing that back line was the reason this didn’t end in a nil-all draw. Especially considering the amount of time Fofana has missed from injury last season, only coming back late last year while missing a few games this season while in a transfer saga, his game sharpness may have been dulled a bit. His familiarity with his counterparts was hypothetical after less than a week of training, and a back line miscommunication led to their early goal.

Robert Ljubičić intercepted a blind and benign pass from Raheem Sterling, who quite literally had zero passing options except in support, yet forced the issue anyway. And so began a complete defensive collapse. The long ball from Ljubičić is converged upon by both Koulibaly and Fofana, yet Fofana, as the deepest of a back three, should never be there. A simple flick on by Bruno Petković puts Fofana in a footrace with the onrushing Mislav Oršić, which he might have had a chance of winning by taking his run more central.

A defensive collapse like a house of cards

Fofana’s starting position leaves us vulnerable, but he was deeper than Oršić when their movement began. His failure to see the 20+ yard run Oršić is making yet failing to compensate for it is inexcusable. Even as he realises it, he has a chance to rectify, but he must track straight back to goal. Instead, he follows the direction of the ball and is beaten simply because he hasn’t angled his defensive run properly - that he doesn’t have the pace to fix it nor the cognisance to recognise it should be a concern.

Throwing Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang into the starting lineup was equally ponderous, with only a few training sessions and an injury that would certainly make him question any 50-50 challenges. This match was bound to be rampant with contested balls, and so it’s a shame we don’t have a tenacious and combative striker available in the squad (named Armando Broja) that could have offered something more belligerent...perhaps then we may have gotten something of a true xG or even a G itself.

Small polka dots aren’t good

We lacked discipline all over the pitch and while our midfield has been absent recently, it should be noted that between our double no. 6’s, Mateo Kovačić had more touches than any other player and Mason Mount was only third to Fofana. After noting that, we should then note that even to be labelled as unimaginative would be a glowing review of what they accomplished with those touches. Whether or not Dinamo Zagreb’s defense was firm, there was no aggressive endeavour from our midfielders.

The lack of aggression has become a major issue, especially as it had been a trademark of Tuchel’s style upon arrival. Even with our s l o w transitions, 41% of the game was played in their defensive third - and so a total of 3 registered shots on target is just unacceptable. An article by our friends nemeses at Bitter and Blue resoundingly points out this greatest of issues - the manager’s job is to get his team into the final third, the player’s job is to finish it. We’ve only scored 8 goals this season from 7 games.

Let me remind you that Dinamo Zagreb have now netted 40 times across all competitions (from 15 total matches). Disregard the discrepancy in the monetarily-fueled quality of our leagues for two reasons: one, they’re entirely relative - as they are one of the richest in their league, we are in ours, too. Two, they just dismantled us handily.

After Modrić’s brilliance in the Champions League last year and this defeat now, it’s safe to say that Thomas Tuchel won’t be taking holiday in Croatia any time soon. But seriously, not all of this falls onto Tuchel’s shoulders - he wanted to only affect the game from the touchline but was expected to do much more. Let’s hope Graham Potter comes in and, like Arnold Schwarzenegger in the link above, reminds everyone that it’s time to turn the mush into muscles. No more complaining. THERE IS NO BATHROOM!


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