The Debrief: Patience and finding the right combinations key to winning Champions League start

We opened our defence of the Champions League trophy with a victory over Zenit St Petersburg, but we were made to work hard for the win by our Russian opponents.

Despite dominating much of the game, we found it difficult to carve out chances in front of a vocal Stamford Bridge crowd, having to wait until well into the second half before Romelu Lukaku’s fine header gave us a narrow 1-0 victory.

It was the striker’s first Champions League goal for Chelsea and was no less than we or the Man of the Match deserved for our efforts, although the win also owed much to our defensive resilience as we secured our 23rd clean sheet in all competitions under Thomas Tuchel, five more than any other club in Europe’s top five leagues has managed during that time.

Hunting for the breakthrough

Despite being in control for most of the fixture, having 66 per cent of the possession and the ever-influential Jorginho accounting for 10 per cent of that figure all on his own, Zenit made it very difficult for us to convert our dominance into clear chances. In a sign of what we were up against, the Russian side made a massive 27 clearances, all but two of them in their penalty area.

The difficulty we were presented with was further shown by the fact that of our 11 shots, with seven of them coming inside the box, only two were on target, and almost half (five) were blocked by opposition defenders as we tried to force the issue without a clear sight of goal.

As is to be expected, scorer Lukaku was our biggest goal threat throughout, accounting for four of those 11 shots, and it was clear we were trying to use his physical presence and ability to unsettle defenders to our advantage in pursuit of the winner. Half of his shots, including his goal, came from headers as, despite our patient build-up into the final third, we delivered 22 crosses into the penalty area, compared to just four by Zenit.

Those crosses weren’t the only way we tried to look for different solutions to breach the defensive wall put up in front of us. We attempted 23 dribbles compared to Zenit’s 15 as players tried to beat their man to break through the lines and create space in the opposition half, with Mateo Kovacic’s six dribbles the highest number of any player on the pitch, Mason Mount and Hakim Ziyech producing the next highest for Chelsea with four each.

The right combination

When the breakthrough did arrive it came via a trademark Cesar Azpilicueta cross to the back post from deep and that should have been no surprise as, along with Lukaku, it was the combination of the Spanish defender with Reece James and Mount down our right side which had looked like our most promising route to goal for much of the game.

In addition to Mount’s high number of dribbles, which unsurprisingly all came in the opposition half, James also beat his man twice in dangerous positions in the final third, and of our 22 crosses into the box, that trio accounted for 12 of them (Mount five, James four, Azpilicueta three).

Only Jorginho (128) played more than Azpilicueta’s 114 passes during the 90 minutes too, showing that we favoured that right side when building out from the back through our three defenders.

There was plenty of penetration from that trio on the right, too. Mount and James made more key passes than anyone else, with three each, which when combined with Azpilicueta’s for the goal, means they produced seven of Chelsea’s 10 key passes in total.

Alert at the back

Despite dominating possession, we didn’t have things all our own way, and our defenders and goalkeeper had to stay on their toes to deal with some dangerous Zenit counter-attacks.

Edouard Mendy showed why he was presented with the Champions League Goalkeeper of the Year award before kick-off with his two saves. The fact that number was one more than Zenit’s keeper demonstrates how effective their counters could be on the few occasions they got forward on the ball.

Our Senegalese goalkeeper has now managed 10 clean sheets in his first 13 Champions League appearances. Only Keylor Navas managed to reach that milestone in less games (11).

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