Lessons Learned: Chelsea in the Champions League
May 19th, 2012 will go down as one of, if not the, greatest moments in Chelsea’s history. Didier Drogba walked off the pitch a hero, his last kick of the ball in blue winning his club the European Cup. The fans and team left Munich having invaded enemy territory, claiming what should have been Bayern’s cup in Bayern’s stadium.
But since that magical May night, Chelsea has failed to rediscover the factors that created the history and success. The next year, they went out in the group stage, becoming the first defending champions to do so. The year after, Mourinho found some of his own magic, inspiring the Blues to make a run to the semis. But there, they fell to Atletico Madrid, after a poor performance across the two legs.
Last season was the worst of all. Chelsea went into the second, home, leg of their Round of 16 match against PSG confident. The 1-1 draw in Paris had given them an away goals advantage. Zlatan Ibrahimovich was sent off after 30 minutes, leaving Chelsea a man up and in complete control.
Somehow, the Blues botched it. After Ibrahimovich was sent off, PSG undoubtedly looked the better side. While PSG had every right to lose their minds (Ibrahimovich’s red card was questionable), they remained calm. Meanwhile, numerous Chelsea players, namely Oscar and Diego Costa, lost their minds. The game grew more and more physical, and as it did more and more Chelsea players cut themselves out of the game by acting stupidly. On top of that, Eden Hazard was hacked down every time he got within ten feet of the ball, neutralizing Chelsea’s only offense.
Chelsea should have had complete control over the game, yet it was PSG’s midfield that bossed the match. Mourinho didn’t instruct his team to press the Parisians, and instead told them to sit back, waiting for PSG to make the moves. Chelsea twice took the lead, and each time allowed PSG to equalize. Both goals came off corners, making the backline even more responsible.
The tie ended 3-3 on aggregate, but instead of away goals pushing Chelsea through, away goals sent the Blues out. Mourinho immediately complained about the “dark arts” used against Hazard, but Chelsea had no excuse for their performance. It was undisciplined. The defense was faulty. The attack was blunt. It was the direct antithesis of how Mourinho teams should play.
Contrasted with last season’s domestic domination, the feeble Champions League campaign was startling. But Chelsea can grow from the disgrace. Failure is a catalyst for change and improvement. The Blues have learned several important lessons from the last few Champions League campaigns. If they want to fulfill Mourinho’s predictions of a “new generation of winners” at Chelsea, they must apply those lessons to future campaigns.
- Find someone to share Hazard’s burden
The reason that the “dark arts” strategy both Simeone and Blanc used on Eden Hazard was effective is that simply, Chelsea’s offense breathes and dies with Hazard. While Cesc Fabregas is the chief playmaker, and Diego Costa is the main goalscorer, Hazard is the go-between. Fabregas needs to give the ball to someone to be effective, while Costa needs someone to give him the ball to be effective.
Hazard connects the two. It is his runs, both with and without the ball, which attracts the defense’s attention. He is the only player on the team who can score goals without any help. He is the only player who can create on the move.
Both Atleti and PSG saw that when Hazard is on the ground, he isn’t attacking the defense. Both teams saw that without him, Chelsea was blunt. Both chose to hack him, much like how many teams deal with Messi, at every turn.
One of Mourinho’s priorities for the offseason must be the acquisition of another scorer-creator like Hazard. Antoine Griezmann, Gareth Bale or Mario Götze, all linked to Chelsea, would provide the answer.
These players, like Hazard, can take the ball and make plays. They can set up teammates or score themselves. They can create quick counters, or break down compact defenses.
If Hazard can get some help, then Chelsea would go from being the dominant English team to being one of the lead contenders for the Champions League. Teams wouldn’t be able to shut down Chelsea’s offense easily anymore. The Blues could finally rival Real, Barca and Bayern for the top spot in Europe.
- Take the game to opponents
One of the biggest mistakes Chelsea made against PSG was sitting back. The Blues should have pressed the Parisians, and made the rest of the match uncomfortable.
Instead, the visitors were allowed to settle into a rhythm, and then control the game. That lost the tie for Chelsea.
Mourinho’s primary strategy, particularly in cup ties, is to sit back and force opponents to make a mistake. Often, this works, particularly when the other team is desperate and chasing a goal. They are likely to make a mistake and open themselves up to the counter.
But what Jose has to understand is that that scenario will be a rare occurrence now. Chelsea is quickly entering the top echelon of European soccer. That strategy works against Barca, Real, Bayern and desperate home sides.
It would have worked against PSG as well, but only in a limited sense. Had Chelsea pressured PSG for the last 15 minutes of the half, and the start of the second, the Parisians would have only grown comfortable as the game ended.
With a squad that is as offensively talented as the one Jose has, a mixed strategy needs to be adopted. Certainly, with as solid of a backline and keeper Chelsea has, playing a first and foremost defensive strategy makes sense. But at times, Mourinho needs to be prepared to let his players off the leash.
This team put five past Schalke, six past Everton and four past Swansea. Chelsea is capable of some attacking fireworks.
- Stay calm and in control
What really lost the PSG match for Chelsea was their inability to stay calm. Most of the time, it is the Blues physicality that gets under opponents skins. But instead, PSG threw Diego Costa and Oscar off with strong tackles and intimidating stare downs.
The atmosphere at Stamford Bridge grew tenser as the evening went on. It played directly into PSG’s hands. Even though they needed a goal, for most of the game it looked like they were going through. Chelsea looked desperate for a goal, and gave off an air of frustration and anger.
Mourinho needed to do a better job of calming his team down. Instead, he let the atmosphere get out of control. Costa was lucky to escape without a red card, after nearly fighting with several PSG’s players on multiple occasions.
If Chelsea intends to make deep runs into the Champions League, they are going to need to be prepared to walk into the Nou Camp and the Bernabeu, facing hostile crowds. They are going to need to be able to stay calm.
That underdog Chelsea side which won the Champions League came from behind often. Against Barcelona, they faced the defending European Champions, needing a goal, without their captain. Still, they pulled out the win.
As Chelsea’s players grow more experienced and used to playing with each other, this will come along. But Mourinho needs to make sure that in the meantime, he uses everything in his power to keep Chelsea in games, and not out of their minds.
Mourinho has won two European Cups (2003 with Porto, 2010 with Inter), but this Chelsea team presents a different challenge. Whereas both of his first European Cup teams were underdogs in most fixtures, Chelsea is entering a point where less and less teams are considered better than them.
Jose needs to combine what he has learned in his prior coaching experience and combine it with the lessons provided by the last two seasons. This Chelsea team has the potential to win a European Cup, but not unless it adapts and grows stronger.
The PSG and Atleti losses were tough to deal with, but in the long run, they will benefit Chelsea greatly. The Blues now know what to do to succeed in Europe.
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