Chelsea welcome Atletico Madrid to Stamford Bridge with a small but solid lead in their Champions League tie after the first leg, a 1-0 victory earned for them by Olivier Giroud’s bicycle kick in Bucharest.
In each of the last seven matchups in which Atletico Madrid have lost the first game they have lost the tie as well. To change that they will have to do something that no team has against Thomas Tuchel’s Chelsea: win. Let’s assess how the game might play out.
Giroud returns to the Chelsea side
Will Giroud be able to retire before every major manager in Europe has gone through a spell of waffling over whether the Frenchman is indispensable in their side? By the standards of many of his predecessors Thomas Tuchel’s three game dalliance without his target man is the briefest of spells and it is one that is unlikely to be extended. For while Chelsea are blessed with attacking talent in abundance there is no-one who can accentuate the strengths of those around him quite like Giroud.
For Timo Werner he is the man who can draw defenders’ attention and make the quick flick in behind to release him. Hakim Ziyech has a target man to aim his crosses towards. Mason Mount, or whoever takes the suspended midfielder’s role for the second leg, has a finisher of remarkable inventiveness and quality even if the striker does have the odd game where it looks like he would need a dozen tries just to hit the target.
Craving even more coverage of the world’s game? Listen below and subscribe to ¡Qué Golazo! A Daily CBS Soccer Podcast where we take you beyond the pitch and around the globe for commentary, previews, recaps and more.
This season has seen Giroud, 34, improving as a complimentary part to others. In the Premier League he is creating more chances per 90 than a year ago, attempting and completing more passes in the final third and finding himself involved in more sequences that end in a shot. His goals per 90 have dropped off in domestic games at least although it has been the case throughout recent seasons that the relative infrequency of his minutes open him up to statistical variance.
Notably, while his goal output has gone from 0.72 per 90 to a still eminently respectable 0.51 in the domestic game he is the second highest scorer in the Champions League with six, four of which came against Sevilla.
Giroud coming up clutchRennes (h)
Aston Villa (h)
Atletico Madrid (a)
*Giroud scored all four in this match
That he is finding the net so frequently on the biggest stage reflects a welcome trait in Giroud’s scoring, with the obvious exception of his subsequent goals against Sevilla every time he has found the net this season Chelsea have even been drawing or losing.
He may not be Tuchel’s vision of a forward — it was notable after Saturday’s 0-0 draw with Leeds that the manager spoke of his attackers being so tired after all the pressing they had been doing that they were not always “in the freshest moments” to score — but Giroud is proving to be a player who makes clutch contributions for his team.
Trippier offers Chelsea a new challenge
What was remarkable about Atletico’s insubstantial attack in the first leg was their curious reluctance to cross and inefficiency at doing so. A team that averages 16.6 crosses per game according to Opta this season attempted just nine in the first leg, despite some good strength down the right channel and a fine low cutback from Luis Suarez creating the Spanish side’s only chance of the first leg as Thomas Lemar nearly poked the ball in at the back post.
As we’ll discuss later, Chelsea are a team who are very capable of stopping you from driving into their penalty area, as such on occasion the best approach might be to test the aerial qualities of their central defenders. Indeed Diego Simeone would do well to note that the last time the Blues consistently used a back three under Antonio Conte, the cheat code that Tottenham and others discovered was crosses from the right to the back post, where many forwards could get the jump on Cesar Azpilicueta.
Happily for Atletico, they have one weapon to exploit that particular vulnerability in the Chelsea side that they did not in the first leg. Kieran Trippier’s return offers Los Rojiblancos a crucial attacking weapon that they did not have in Bucharest, when the England international was serving his 10 week ban for sharing inside information with friends who bet on his transfer to Madrid.
Trippier has been a crucial attacking component for Atletico this season. With him in the team Simeone’s side provided 25 intentional assists in 23 games, without him that number fell to nine in 11 and their expected goals (xG) and the number of shots they take decrease by a notable margin. According to fbref the former Burnley and Tottenham defender ranks in the top one percent of full-backs in Europe’s big five leagues for progressive passing and averages an impressive 2.69 shot-creating actions per 90. For a team that looked unable to craft a shot on goal in the first leg their right-back could be a crucial addition.
Kieran Trippier’s passes into the penalty area in La Liga and Champions League matches this season
It should be noted that the crosses and passes he delivers into the opponents’ area this season have not generally been hung up to the back stick but if anyone on this Atletico Madrid knows that its a tactic that can work it is Trippier, part of the Tottenham squad that so exploited Azpilicueta’s weakness four years ago.
Chelsea reach the last eight
Having said that it would be a bold man indeed who predicted this Chelsea side conceding a goal. They have been outstanding under Tuchel in their ability, not so much to repel pressure in defense, as to ensure it never comes their way. Since the new manager’s appointment on January 26 Premier League opponents have had shots worth 0.46 xG per game, a laughably low number when compared even to top four Premier League rivals such as Liverpool (1.39xG per game), Leicester City (1.28xG) and even Manchester City (0.98xG).
Curiously they are not particularly remarkable at keeping opponents out of their final third. What they are exceptional at, however, is keeping them away from their box. Premier League teams average just 12 touches per game in Chelsea’s penalty area, once more a record that is unmatched in the English top flight.
Opponent actions in the Chelsea penalty area since Thomas Tuchel’s appointment
The edge of the Chelsea area is a relative hive of activity compared to what goes on inside. Tuchel’s side have allowed just one goal to be scored in their box and in 11 league and European games have allowed 10 shots on goal. Under Lampard, 25 games in those competitions brought 58 efforts on target.
This is something Tuchel is evidently cognizant of, though he usually talks of touches in the box in an attacking sense. “We create enough touches in the box, chances and half chances to win the game,” he said in his pre-match press conference. He is right.
One might have assumed that the cost of tightening the defense might be a loss of attacking momentum post-Lampard and in raw terms one would be right. Having scored 44 in 25 with the previous regime it is 11 from 11 in the Premier League and Champions League with the new boss. Crucially, Tuchel will also be without two players in Mason Mount and Jorginho who have provided six of those. But he is right to point out that Chelsea are still getting into the box: 27 times per game in his tenure as opposed to 25 times per game before he arrived.
Having created 10 chances per game under Lampard they now create 12 for Tuchel, their expected goals have trickled down but that is rather because often the final passes that aren’t made are for what would be the highest probability shots.
In short, Chelsea are defending well enough to suggest they won’t concede too many and attacking in a more effective way than their goal return suggests.