On Tuesday, April 27, 2021, Real Madrid will face Chelsea in the UEFA Champions League semi-finals first leg. To get a better understanding of what we’ll be up against, I talked to Chelsea superfan and tactics expert Kieran Doyle (@KierDoyle).
Kieran is an assistant coach for the University of Toronto Women’s Soccer program and an occasional contributor to the football statistics website American Soccer Analysis.
Om Arvind: Give Madridistas a picture of what Chelsea’s recent form has been like. How happy are you with performances over the last couple of weeks?
Kieran Doyle: Chelsea have done well in terms of results in the Thomas Tuchel era, cutting into the nine-point gap to fourth to currently sit three points above fifth-placed West Ham (and four points up on Liverpool). Recently, performances have faded a little bit. A really poor display at home to West Brom — where Chelsea conceded five of the nine total goals they’ve allowed under Tuchel — was followed up by a really poor performance in the 0-0 draw to Brighton.
There is a little bit of growing unrest in the fanbase, who fear that Tuchel has been “found out” and that breaking down deep blocks is a problem.
Om: What tactical system has Tuchel instituted at Chelsea? A lot of people have characterized it as a rough cut version of Pep Guardiola’s “defensive possession” model. Is that accurate?
Kieran: Kind of? I think Tuchel’s actually been a lot more varied than people have given him credit for. The first few games were certainly defined by a lot of very slow, very defensive possession (four of his first seven Chelsea matches had 70%+ possession), but he’s mixed it up a lot since then.
Against Liverpool, Chelsea were very much about sitting deeper and engaging in direct transition play to find Timo Werner and Mason Mount in the channels. Tuchel took the same approach vs. Manchester City (and in the second leg vs. Porto, weirdly). He has very much tweaked his game plan to the opposition’s setup.
Om: Who have been Chelsea’s key players this season?
Kieran: The most obvious one has been Mason Mount, who has been Chelsea’s player of the season by my money and was again outrageous against West Ham. Operating as a tweener winger/attacking midfielder/auxiliary third midfielder, he has been the key to Chelsea’s ball progression and ability to sustain pressure in the final third. Add in his almost demonic willingness to press, harry, and chase, and he’s a very difficult player to prepare for.
I’d also say that Havertz and his ability to drop deeper from striker spots and knit things together are really important for Chelsea. Of course, the Blues go where N’Golo goes as well.
Om: There has been much discussion for years about how Real Madrid look better against high lines rather than low blocks. Nevertheless, as Ajax and Manchester City showed in successive Champions League campaigns, Madrid do have some press resistance weaknesses. With that in mind, how do you think Tuchel should approach this game defensively?
Kieran: It’s a conundrum. I think Chelsea will have to pick their moments. The reality is that they have been playing twice a week for six weeks, and will play twice a week for another month. It’s irresponsible to think you can press as much as you’d maybe like to, and Tuchel has had a very good handle of that so far. Chelsea have had a few specific pressing triggers, especially with Mount stepping out from a midfield trio to press as part of a front three, where he looks to pickpocket midfielders receiving with their back to him.
However, I imagine that Chelsea will look to defend more with the ball instead of allowing the game to turn into a track meet. Out of possession, I would personally defend a lot deeper and choose to let Madrid push their wing-backs forward before trying to get at the back three (assuming that’s how Zidane goes) in transition moments, but I’m not sure what Tuchel will do.
Om: What about Real Madrid stands out to you as something that Chelsea can and should exploit?
Kieran: Depending on how Real line up, which is gigantic shrug energy, I think Chelsea have to press the fitness advantage in the first leg. Ferland is questionable/lacking fitness. No Ramos. No Valverde. Kroos is doubtful. If we can push the tempo early, especially with a fairly cozy fixture in Fulham at the weekend, I think we should.
On the flip side, my limited viewing of Real has seen a team who struggles to break teams down when they see more of the ball. I think there is a lot of room to counter into if you can get the wing-backs to commit forward. I’m not sure they’ll commit, but that’s a big big hole to try and exploit if they do.
Om: What about Real Madrid scares you?
Kieran: It sounds dumb, but experience. Modrić, Kroos, Casemiro — they’ve been in huge ties like this. For most of Chelsea’s squad (everyone bar Thiago Silva and N’Golo Kanté?), this is comfortably the biggest match they’ll have ever played in. I don’t think experience can run ten yards for you or make a key tackle, but if you told me that a few Chelsea players would look super rattled within the first 15 minutes, I’d be 0% surprised.
On the more tactical side of things, I think Chelsea have struggled a little bit defending in transition in recent weeks. Losing Mateo Kovačić to injury means missing his ability to just run much faster than Jorginho, which is big. In truth, what scares me the most is the thought of Vinícius running unimpeded at Azpilicueta.
Om: How do you think Zidane should approach things and does his propensity for launching surprises make you uneasy at all?
Kieran: See above. Get Vini 1v1 with Azpilicueta and let him run — rinse and repeat. I think this is one of those weird ties where both teams will actually be quite happy to take what the other side gives them. I expect Zidane will want to defend deeper and try and get at the wide center-backs in transition, and I think that’s a really smart way to approach it. But I also think that Tuchel will be okay with having most of the ball and trying to counterpress and manage those moments. It might be a really really boring tie.
I’m not super worried about surprises because I think a departure away from the game plan I just described suits Chelsea a lot more. If Madrid try to be a more ball-dominant team, I just don’t see them being able to exercise enough control to get the outcomes they want.
Om: What are the collective confidence levels of Chelsea fans going into this one?
Kieran: I think Chelsea fans as a whole are pessimistic, but there are some fun narrative bits in Europe. Barcelona could be the best team in the world and they still would be just a little bit more human to us because of our history with them. Chelsea haven’t played Real Madrid since the Supercup in 1998, so there isn’t really anything like that — there’s a bit of an aura about Los Blancos. It seems like non-Chelsea fans seem to heavily favor Tuchel’s men, though.
Om: Predictions for the first leg and the tie as a whole?
Kieran: If Chelsea don’t get a favorable result in the first leg, I don’t think they take the tie. Tuchel has done an excellent job of managing situations so far, constantly tweaking ideas to game state and the outlook of the whole tie. If they get a result they can take back and build upon, I would be surprised if it didn’t work out.
At the same time, Chelsea haven’t really had to chase anyone under Tuchel. They’ve conceded first twice: the 1-1 draw to Southampton and the 1-0 loss to Porto. If Chelsea head back to England behind on the score, I don’t think anyone has a good handle on how they’ll attempt to claw their way back. That being said, I’ve got Chelsea 1-0 on Tuesday, with them hanging on to that advantage in some way, shape, or form in the second leg.