Advantage Chelsea thanks to 20 minutes of Tuchel supremacy

Kanté was brilliantly assertive in same spaces Liverpool lost their quarter-final

 Christian Pulisic celebrates with Chelsea manager Thomas Tuchel after scoring at Estadio Alfredo Di Stefano. Photograph: Getty Images

Christian Pulisic celebrates with Chelsea manager Thomas Tuchel after scoring at Estadio Alfredo Di Stefano. Photograph: Getty Images

 

As the rain fell on a wild night in Madrid’s northern suburbs, as the shapes and angles whirred past in front of him, Thomas Tuchel could be seen crouched on his touchline, overcoat gleaming wet, arms describing abstract shapes in the air.

How Tuchel enjoyed the opening hour of this game. But then this was a Champions League semi-final first leg so tight, so condensed with miniature drama, it seems possible even young people (demographic: 17-23) might have enjoyed watching it.

Although perhaps not as much as Tuchel, who showed once again how good he is at managing these one-off occasions, the tactic-offs where small feints and dodges decide the day.

Here that flexibility manifested itself in a weirdly open 20 minute spell as Chelsea found a tender point in Madrid’s shift of defensive shape and pummelled away while the door was still ajar.

Christian Pulisic was majestic during that spell, at the end of which, and with a proper goalscorer in the team, Chelsea might have been in charge of this tie. Timo Werner’s speed helped Chelsea spring that trap, a diagonal pass for the run down the side of the back three. But he also spurned an easy chance, made by that same movement.

It might end up a moment missed. Madrid won’t be as unbalanced again and they are nothing if not a ruthless winning team. For now Chelsea will focus on that spell, and the narrow advantage gained from a first half during which N’Golo Kanté was brilliantly assertive in the same spaces where Liverpool had lost their quarter-final.

Liverpool’s midfield was overwhelmed on this same ground by Madrid’s class, their A-list aggression. Here Tuchel came prepared, sending out a double pivot of Kanté-Jorginho, and a deep shield of seven defensive players.

The game was an act of shared suffocation in the opening exchanges, both teams flooding around the ball. It took nine minutes for Chelsea to break it open.

Before kick off Tuchel had talked blithely to the TV cameras about Madrid’s switch to a back three, a man whose brain was already fizzing away on counterthrust and countermeasure. One of these gambits was to look for that space down the outside, to exploit the fact most of those white-shirted defenders were slower across the ground than Chelsea’s attackers.

Tuchel loves this stuff. You get the feeling he’d be doing it even if he wasn’t a professional manager, just for his own obsessively-minded amusement, strapped into some executive gaming chair deep in his bunker, outwitting virtual Pep Guardiola.

In Madrid Mason Mount led the first break, surging away from Luka Modric into a sudden, startling green space, then finding Pulisic with a deflected cross. Werner’s finish should have taken Thibaut Courtois into the net. Instead he prodded awkwardly.

With 13 minutes gone the same startling holes appeared. From a standing start Pulisic produced a simple curving run through the defensive line. Madrid’s white shirts stood and watched, mildly concerned by this moving object. And in that moment Toni Rüdiger became Toni Kroos, producing the perfect floated pass.

Pulisic skittered around Courtois, steadied himself, then smashed the ball gleefully into the net. It was a lovely moment for a player who carries a certain burden in this team. Pulisic has the American footballing dream at his back. He’s also a Tuchel player, a point of first contact for the new manager.

Here he was electric in the first half, touching the ball 41 times, completing 91 per cent of his passes, and acting as the main attacking lever as Chelsea were surprisingly dominant.

Karim Benzema carried Madrid back into the game. First he spanked a shot on to the outside of the post with his left foot. Ten minutes later he volley-scissored into the Chelsea net with his right, his 28th goal of the season. Somehow France won a World Cup without this player. With him they would have won a Euros too.

It took Zidane 45 minutes to fix the leak. After half-time Madrid came out with the back five much tighter to Chelsea’s twirling attackers. The space had been closed. Before long Kroos was zipping the ball about, the white shirts asserting themselves in the challenges. Chelsea lost some vim. The limitation of playing César Azpilicueta at wing-back began to show, a Tuchel gambit that Marcelo will have enjoyed immensely.

Both teams will fancy their chances from here. Madrid retain that champion aura. Chelsea will hope slack finishing doesn’t betray those 20 minutes of Tuchel supremacy. - Guardian

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