In his column this week Chelsea great Pat Nevin explains why playing three at the back has produced mixed results in recent days, wonders what difference N’Golo Kante might have made against Bayern, and hopes for a weekend to break free and enjoy…
Tuesday night at Stamford Bridge was a tough watch for any Chelsea fan. Maybe it is worth underlining that it was the second half in particular that felt really quite uncomfortable. The German giants were the better team in the opening 45 minutes, but it certainly wasn’t one-way traffic at that point. They created chances and Willy Caballero was brilliant on at least three occasions to save us, but Mason Mount in particular was, for the second match in a row, making superb runs behind the opposition defence. Sadly, the blinding pace of Alphonso Davies always managed to get back in time in exactly the way Spurs didn’t.
Mason was in the thick of the important moments in the early part of the second period, too. He broke their backline again and had a decent chance, but minutes later Bayern had shown they are far more clinical in these situations and were 2-0 up. Frank Lampard has bemoaned our lack of killer instinct all season, and looking at Bayern the importance became clearer than ever.
One major discussion point was whether or not the decision to go with the 3-4-3 formation was the right one. It was brilliantly successful against Spurs home and away, but was much less so against Arsenal. Clearly our best formation depends totally on who we are playing against, but after playing so well that way on Saturday it seemed to me the most logical thing to try to do precisely the same thing again.
So why didn’t it work again? I think we all know that the biggest part of the answer lay in the simple truth that Bayern Munich are a far better team than Tottenham Hotspur. That is clearly the case as their 10-3 aggregate scoreline in the group stage suggests. Even so, we had some specific problems this time. We closed down Spurs at a brilliant tempo at the weekend but couldn’t get close to doing the same on Tuesday. I talked about this specifically with Michael Ballack before the game.
There were a few reasons why we couldn’t reproduce that outcome. The first is that this style is high-octane stuff and that amount of energy being used twice in four days seemed beyond us, understandably. Try watching Liverpool these days and remember their old heavy metal high-energy style. They don’t do it nearly as much now; it is too exhausting if done too often.
There was no lack of effort or desire from the team, but it proved beyond them which is why there weren’t too many complaints on the night from the Chelsea fans. The other important reason was, as Ballack suggested to me before the game, ‘Bayern are good enough to pass through the high press'. He was dead right! When they did pass through us, then the pacy and brilliant front players had fewer defenders to get past.
Jorginho and Mateo Kovacic were outnumbered in midfield, and because of that we saw Chelsea getting only a third of the total possession. That is very rare for Chelsea these days - we even beat Man City at the Etihad in possession statistics! For all the fact that we lost in almost every area of the game, I would love to see if Bayern could do the same if our midfield had N’Golo Kante in there alongside Jorginho and Kovacic. Even if Kante is fit for the second leg it will not happen, however, as Jorginho is now suspended.
In short it was a 45-minute set of lessons for everyone, and somewhere down the line we will enjoy the benefit of the learning from those lessons. In the meantime, it is heads down and concentrate on the domestic front. Will we suffer from the Bayern experience? I doubt it - just look at the run Spurs went on after their humiliation!
Bournemouth will be different in so many ways but it certainly will not be easy as Eddie Howe’s side are battling for every single precious point. They have had a lot more rest this week but I’m not sure how much effect that will have. I expect a few changes to our starting line-up to freshen things up.
Sometimes after a 3-0 home defeat you feel you have to cheer everyone up, but Chelsea fans were understanding as they filed out of the Bridge. I heard one wise old owl say: ‘The Spurs game was always more important for this season than the Bayern game, as well as being so much more fun.’ He was spot on, winning the Champions League is super unlikely but a top-four finish is still on the cards after overcoming Jose’s side.
With some our nearest challengers playing each other, a win at Bournemouth could actually give us some breathing space again. Having not been out of the top four since October and always being hunted down by the pack behind, that would be a lovely, relaxing feeling. It would also transform how we all feel about this week.