Chelsea legend Pat Nevin looks back at the weekend defeat and ahead to the big Champions League group-stage match midweek, and explains why it is worth having patience with a tactical plan…
One of the most tempting things to do after watching a football game is to make a snap judgement on what you have just watched. Against Manchester City at the weekend, we started with the 3-5-2 formation that had proved so successful against Spurs in the second half rout up at White Hart Lane.By the time I popped on to the tube at Fulham Broadway after the game on Saturday, on my way to Heathrow (off to Belfast to take part in Mastermind - boy I would rather take a penalty in a shoot-out than sit in that black chair again!), some of our fans were decrying the system. They were openly wondering why we had moved away from the 3-4-2-1 that had brought us Champions League glory last season against the same opposition. ‘In Thomas we trust’ was still the mantra, but the question was being asked.
Even in some of the match reports, the new system has already been judged an evolutionary blind alley by a few, but I would say we should not get carried away just yet.
Man to man
Man City were the better side on the day and Pep finally got this one right against Thomas, but he had to take some big risks. Fortunately for him they paid off this time. This is only an early skirmish this season. By the time we meet City again we may have changed tactics, but we also might well have learned how to work this system better.
What was very noticeable on Saturday is that City went man to man at the back, leaving Ruben Dias and Aymeric Laporte to mark Romelu Lukaku and Timo Werner. This led to them outnumbering us in a crowded midfield, but very few teams, if any, will be brave enough to go man to man, with no cover, against the quality of Romelu and the pace of Timo. Or indeed anyone we put up there alongside Romelu, be it Kai Havertz, Christian Pulisic or whoever.Had Pep dropped another man in there to help the two centre-backs, as most managers would have, it might have equalised the battle in midfield and the game would have been very different.
There was also the fact that, let us be honest with ourselves, a number of our lads didn’t play at their very best. N’Golo Kante rarely dips below a 9.5/10, but he was not himself, and I was already thinking during the first half, ‘if he is 100% fit, then I am an Englishman.’After the game, Thomas revealed Kante had been ill for several days in the build-up.
It can work well away
We also need to work with the new system a bit and get to know just when to go long. We also need to let the understanding grow with whichever two end up playing together as striking partners.
It didn’t work perfectly with Timo and Romelu first time, but that shouldn’t be too surprising. It is a new system for both, although when you have a quick look at the average positions taken up by the two then complaints about them not being close enough together, or not trying to work as a duo, might be a little bit off the mark.
A look at the average positions of the Man City centre-backs underlines my point about them going man for man. It was brave of Pep and this time it worked, but it will not always be the case and both he and Thomas know it.
It certainly isn’t time to panic and with Juventus to be faced tomorrow, a decent dose of common sense is called for, as well as considered thinking. All eyes will be on the team sheet and the initial line-up because Juve often play with just the two centre-backs as well. Two up top for Chelsea, even away from home in the Allianz Stadium in Turin, might still be a temptation. It would certainly be brave but with enough energy and belief this can work incredibly well away from home.The personnel might have been slightly different, but in the Champions League semi-final away from home against Real Madrid, Thomas put out a 3-5-2 and it was one of my favourite performances from the team last season.You need energy in that engine room, so it may depend on having a fully fit N’Golo Kante or Mason Mount in there to close down space so that quality opponents can’t get their heads up and pick out passes.So you do not have to look it up, the three in midfield that night were Kante, Mason and Jorginho. The two up front terrorising Varane and co. were Pulisic and Werner. I like this system and it can be used in a number of ways, but most importantly it is just another weapon in the armoury for Thomas Tuchel.
Another thing that becomes clear now is that the recruitment of Saul also makes more sense when you want to play three in the central midfield area and they have to play at a ruinously high tempo. They must get rest games in this style, so another midfielder is good planning.I think the slight doubt over the weekend’s tactics was a bit early. This could be the direction we take longer term, and certainly in at least some games going forward. Against Zenit already it took bringing on Kai Havertz up top in the second half to draw some defenders away from the isolated Romelu, providing the breakthrough. Even if it was only a couple of yards of space for a couple of seconds, that is all the big man needed.
Moving on from Ronaldo
Whoever starts it should be an intriguing match in Turin. The Italian giants haven’t had the best start to their season, the Pirlo managerial experiment didn’t work in the last campaign and of course the goals, the brilliance and indeed the circus that is Cristiano Ronaldo has moved on. The club wants to start afresh but it is far from being a new dawn. The backline still has a very familiar look to it, and age has not exactly diminished Bonucci and Chiellini quite yet.
I recently went to see AC Milan on their visit to Liverpool and to be brutally honest, they looked a long way from the quality they have had in the past. I will be interested to see if the Old Lady still has her class or have times moved on and she is living off past glories, much like Milan?