LONDON — Thomas Tuchel last week described a squad Frank Lampard often lamented for being too big as of “perfect size,” and here Chelsea proved why his opinion carries more weight. The Blues are through to their first Champions League quarterfinal since 2014 with a 2-0 win (3-0 on aggregate) over Atletico Madrid on Wednesday, the product of a second leg that matched the first for blending expert man-management with tactical nous.
Tuchel will ultimately be judged on the silverware he delivers at Stamford Bridge and so it is too early to declare his appointment an unmitigated success, but dispatching a European heavyweight with such conviction so early in his reign is arguably more than they could have hoped for. There is admittedly a debate to be had about the strength of La Liga these days, but Atletico Madrid are the best team in Spain at present, led by a manager in Diego Simeone who is adept at moulding a team greater than the sum of its parts. But he was outmanoeuvred in both legs, with Tuchel reaping the rewards of the buy-in he has seemingly engendered from the entire first-team group.
Olivier Giroud was used in the first game to try to disrupt Atletico’s notoriously rigid defence, scoring a brilliant away goal that forced Atletico into a more offensive approach here to try to rescue the tie. Tuchel consequently opted to start Timo Werner through the middle with Kai Havertz and Hakim Ziyech in close support, aiming to exploit Atletico on the break in anticipation of this change in style. The plan worked perfectly.
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Werner’s travails in front of goal are well documented but his application under Tuchel cannot be questioned. He has responded to Tuchel’s regular public defences of his goal record — two in his past 27 games now — by showing great diligence to press from the front in relentless fashion, chasing back to deflect Kieran Trippier’s 34th-minute cross and win possession for the opening goal.
N’Golo Kante headed the looping ball to Kai Havertz who released Werner, now sprinting the other way. He timed his cross superbly for Ziyech to score his first goal in 19 games, low past Atletico goalkeeper Jan Oblak.
It felt significant that this was the first time Havertz, Werner and Ziyech started a game under Tuchel. The situation in the tie may have dictated their selections to some extent, but Giroud, Christian Pulisic and Callum Hudson-Odoi were all available and it will earn Tuchel considerable credit with the Chelsea hierarchy to find a home for all three of the club’s attacking signings from last summer’s £220 million spending spree.
Mason Mount and Jorginho were both suspended but Kante proved why he deserves to be in any starting lineup with a quietly devastating display, tirelessly chasing to turn the midfield battle in the home side’s favour.
At the back, Andreas Christensen failed to recover from illness in time but Kurt Zouma stepped in with a commanding display alongside Antonio Rudiger and Cesar Azpilicueta. It is a testament to the defensive resilience Tuchel has introduced — another notable contrast from Lampard’s regime — that their solidity seems to endure regardless of personnel: chalk up a staggering 11th clean sheet from his 13 unbeaten games in charge.
The sense that Tuchel had managed his squad expertly had the perfect coda. The Blues head coach has regularly cited the impact Pulisic can have off the bench and in stoppage time, and the United States international raced forward on the break before executing a perfectly timed pass to fellow substitute Emerson Palmieri, who scored only his second goal for the club and his first since September 2018.
Mount, Thiago Silva and Jorginho did their best to replicate the reaction of absent fans by celebrating in the stands with a three-way embrace, further exemplifying the unity Tuchel has engendered.
“The amount of effort, intensity and teamwork in both legs was absolutely incredible, outstanding,” Tuchel said after the match. “We missed four or five key players today and everybody else stepped up with huge support from the bench, huge support from the stands, the guys who were injured. This is what I feel. The guys are totally reliable. The effort and intensity is incredible. It is hard, hard teamwork.
“From the very first moment, I felt like part of a family and a well-, well-structured club.”
Chelsea had luck on their side, it must be said. Azpilicueta appeared to pull at Yannick Carrasco’s shirt after under-hitting a back-pass to goalkeeper Edouard Mendy with the score at 0-0 on the night. Carrasco was looking for the foul but Azpilicueta took an unnecessary risk and was fortunate that VAR appeared in an unforgiving mood.
It remains to be seen how far Tuchel can take Chelsea; the high turnover of managers at this club makes it difficult to suspend cynicism for too long. But for now he appears to be getting the best out of the squad at his disposal, one that he had no say in its composition.
And nobody could ask for more than that.