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Ken Early: Covid, maths and luck help Chelsea triumph in Europe

Tuchel’s champions showed how best teams have integrated set-pieces into open play

In the 17th minute of the Champions League final, we caught our first glimpse of a move that Chelsea fans will remember for the rest of their lives.

A Manchester City attack had broken down with Kevin de Bruyne losing possession to Reece James, and the ball had been worked back to Thiago Silva at the edge of Chelsea's box. The Brazilian looked up and saw Ben Chilwell out by the left touchline, calling for the ball in acres of space. As Silva's 40-yard pass arced towards Chilwell, Kyle Walker dashed from midfield to close him down. Chilwell took Walker out of the game with a first-time flick to Mason Mount, whose presence attracted John Stones across to cover.

As Walker chased back to pressurise Mount, the Chelsea player doubled back and turned inside, where he could see Kai Havertz and Timo Werner were now two-on-two with Ruben Dias and Oleksandr Zinchenko. Mount passed over the top for Werner's run in behind, and though the striker could not find space to shoot at goal, he gave it to the supporting Chilwell, whose cross was headed over at the far post by Kanté. A good chance.

On 32 minutes Chelsea seemed to try to recreate the move. This time it started as a counter-attack when Chilwell tackled Walker and quickly fed Mount as Werner took off on his run, but Bernardo Silva was close enough to Mount to prevent him picking out a dangerous pass.


Déjà vu

One minute after that, Chelsea ran the same pattern. Rüdiger clipped it to Chilwell who again played it quickly to Mount, but this time, as the Chelsea forwards took off on their runs, Gundogan chopped Mount down with a foul and was booked.

On 40 minutes it was déjà vu all over again. Mendy chipped a 30-yard pass left to Chilwell, whose first time flick to Mount took Walker out of the game, leaving Mount up against Stones, with Werner running forward against Dias and Havertz marked by Zinchenko. This time Stones was close enough to Mount to prevent him turning inside and picking a pass with his right foot, so Werner and Havertz’s runs were in vain.

But Chelsea kept the ball for the next two minutes, passing it around, seeming to probe for an opening without trying anything too risky. Bernardo Silva, pressing tenaciously, forced the ball out for a Chelsea throw. As though reluctant to face up to the City press, Chelsea retreated – back to Christensen, back again to goalkeeper Mendy, who swapped passes with his defenders, apparently unsure what to do next. City pushed forward fearlessly into the Chelsea half.

You’ll never guess what happened next. Mendy chipped it left to Chilwell, whose first-time flick bypassed Walker, leaving John Stones as the closest defender to Mount. This time Stones was not close enough. Mount turned inside into a pocket of space, looked up and saw his two forwards already making their diagonal runs, as he already knew they would be – Werner against Dias, Havertz against Zinchenko. His pass was perfectly weighted to tempt Ederson into a doomed rush and Havertz finished it beautifully.

We’re used to thinking of set-pieces as the moves that happen when the ball goes dead. On Saturday night, Tuchel’s European champions showed how the best teams have integrated set-pieces into open play. Chelsea’s plan to break through City’s defence did not depend on any individual coming up with a flash of creative genius. Each of the players involved in the pattern just had to be competent enough to do their little bit, and the rest follows inevitably: if we can tempt Walker up the line and draw in Stones and drag Dias across, then Zinchenko will be the only one left to guard the centre: no magic, just maths.

The scripted move that generated the final-winning goal is, of course, only a small detail in the story of this stunning Chelsea triumph. It's a saga that begins with Covid-19 running rampant across Europe, cratering the European football economy and leaving Roman Abramovich's team perfectly positioned to exploit a buyer's market. Chelsea were Europe's biggest spenders in 2020, and it's unlikely they could have signed Havertz and Werner if the pandemic had not derailed other clubs' transfer plans.

Horribly exposed

Even after that influx of top talent, they could not have succeeded had Abramovich not wisely decided to dispense with Frank Lampard, whose inability to conceive of an effective team structure was horribly exposed by Tuchel's instant success. Few teams have been so massively improved by a mid-season change of management. The transformation was tactical – they switched to 3-4-3 and cut their rate of goals conceded by more than half – but it was also emotional. Maybe the Chelsea job meant too much to Lampard: it was too personal, the fear of failure was too great. Either way, his furrows of worry were sapping morale.

Tuchel, by contrast, seems to be having the time of his life – when you’ve coached PSG, Chelsea must seem like a sensible, normal, stable, rewarding work environment. He came in on an unusually-short 18-month contract, which he immediately addressed with disarming directness. The contract could say 4½ years, he said, but if I don’t win they will sack me anyway. Of course Abramovich will sack me one day, that’s not in question. So rather than worry about that, let’s focus on the things we can control, starting with the defensive structure. And once we have figured that out, we can get working on some ideas for breaking down defences.

Of course the secret ingredient in any Champions League win is luck. Pep Guardiola’s decision to play without a specialist holding midfielder was presumably designed to surprise Tuchel, but the ploy seemed a bigger surprise for Pep’s own players. Rüdiger got away with a yellow card for breaking Kevin de Bruyne’s face with his shoulder. And Chilwell, Rüdiger and Azpilicueta all had to produce last-ditch blocks and clearances to prevent City tap-ins. But these are the things that no team can control. The good teams are usually lucky, and the more tricks they learn to tilt the odds in their favour, the luckier they get.