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How to take down a team that is shaping up to be a 6-3-1 formation without possession?
It’s a question Chelsea were forced to try to find an answer to when they traveled to Bucharest to face Atletico Madrid on Tuesday night.
Even with Diego Simeone’s obsessively high standards of defensive solidity, his team was in a particularly stingy mood in Romania. That initial tactic is not a misprint. Every time Atlético lost the ball, a blast from Rojiblancos’ jersey retreated to their own 18-yard line.
Centrals Mario Hermosa, Stefan Savic and Felipe, full-backs Thomas Lemar and Marcos Llorente, and right forward Ángel Correa would respond to El Cholo’s raspy yells, teaming up to create one of the most imposing low blocks in world football.
Taken together, the system would pose problems for any set of attackers. However, the remarkable talent of each of its composite parts, even with the absences of Kieran Trippier and José Giménez, made Chelsea’s task even more difficult. Every member of this seemingly impregnable defensive wall has contributed significantly to an Atleti team that has conceded just 16 goals in La Liga this season and sent just eight in a Champions League group that contains the irrepressible Bayern Munich.
Despite all this, the Blues managed to escape the contest with a victory and, perhaps most importantly, a crucial away goal. They had Olivier Giroud to thank for this, a player who has apparently been on the verge of being sent off from Stamford Bridge for the past two years.
The once unwanted Frenchman scored one of Chelsea’s great European goals. Clinging to Marcos Alonso’s deflected center, he delivered an overhead kick that was almost as beautiful as his chiseled jaw.
Looking at things more broadly, Thomas Tuchel can take many positives from the performance of his team as a whole.
Before Giroud’s insanely brilliant attack settled the game in the second half, there were plenty of signs that Chelsea was slowly putting together the right combinations to take down their joy-draining rivals.
Many teams have recorded monstrous amounts of possession when they faced Atlético in a European tie, but Chelsea were among a few who actually managed to threaten their opponents.
The key to this was the demonstrations of support forwards Timo Werner and Mason Mount. Their approaches to breaking through the home team defense varied, but both were effective on points. Werner opted for lightning-fast exchanges at the edge of the area with Giroud. This tactic also paid off on a number of occasions, with the German looking like the most astute player on the field from a distance.
Mount, meanwhile, was wandering the middle spaces, looking to change the play quickly with a deep cross or free his teammates with an incisive pass. This pair of young upstarts were supported by Chelsea wingers, whose careers helped force overloads in wide areas. Jorginho’s long and cross passes were also important.
This contest was billed as a litmus test for Tuchel’s new look and the results were extremely positive. Taking down Atlético is one of the most difficult tasks any European team can face, but the Blues rose to the challenge, showing inventiveness in the final third to establish themselves as favorites to progress when the pair meet for the second leg on March 17.