Chelsea has finally overcome the demons of its past. The Blues are poised to make a deep Champions League run after their latest victory over Atletico Madrid has them into the quarterfinals. This is the first time the English club has reached this stage of the UCL since the 2013/14 season, when none other than Diego Simeone’s Spaniards eliminated Chelsea in the semifinals.
This tie was one of the more balanced across the competition—probably falling into second behind Porto and Juventus—but that was always going to be the case. The Blues got the short end of the stick when they were drawn the so-called ‘best of the rest’ in the Round of 16. The La Liga leaders have always been known as a team that thrives when its back is against the wall, so there were a lot of nerves heading into the second leg in London. Understandably, as Chelsea clung onto a slim 1-0 lead from the away fixture. Nevertheless, the masterclass of the Blues’ midfield went a long way in subduing that nervous feeling before Emerson emphatically eliminated Los Rojoblancos from the European competition with a 94′ goal.
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There have been a lot of question marks surrounding the Chelsea squad this season—especially the midfield. Frank Lampard struggled to figure out the perfect threesome to fit his 4-3-3 and individual struggles made a tall task even more difficult. Despite the Blues spending £250 million in the summer, there was hardly any attacking output from the midfielders. Kai Havertz was struggling to find his best position and adapt to the English game; Mason Mount wasn’t scoring as frequently as many would like him to and N’Golo Kante and Mateo Kovacic have no shooting boots. Jorginho was leading the way with his goals from the penalty spot.
Things changed when Thomas Tuchel was appointed though.
What did Tuchel do to turn things around in the heart of the formation?
The German didn’t do anything revolutionary either. A simple switch to the 3-4-3 has Chelsea playing balanced football once again. The midfield still lacks a goalscoring threat with Mount and Havertz playing more attacking roles at the moment, but that’s OK. The middle of the park is covered by a pivot under Tuchel. Therefore, the midfielders are allowed to sit deeper and focus solely on running the show. This strict positional instruction has made room for the Blues to dictate matches and how they are played.
Chelsea’s midfield controlled the first leg against Atletico, there’s no doubt about that. However, there were still some individuals who were cautious in their praise post-match because of Simeone’s confusing set-up. The Spanish side wasn’t comfortable with its tactics, so naturally, Blues fans reserved judgement until the second time around. Despite the absences of Mason Mount and Jorginho in the second leg, Chelsea dominated the contest thanks to superb performances from Kante and Kovacic.
Both the Frenchman and the Croatian put in career-defining shifts, eliminating all attacking threat Atletico possessed. Kante turned back the clock to 2017 with his showing. He made 13 loose-ball recoveries, two interceptions, completed 87.7 percent of his passes and had 97 touches overall. To put it simply, Kante was everywhere. Following the match, Tuchel claimed that playing with Kante was like playing with half a man—if not a full man—more than the opposition. The CBS commentary team of Clive Tyldesley and Rob Green described his performance best, at one point stating that Atletico’s plan was thwarted once it crossed the halfway line thanks to the presence of the Frenchman. Kante’s actions were breathtaking, ranking up there with his very best.
Amongst all of this praise it is easy to forget his other half. Kovacic put in a Man of the Match worthy performance, as well. The 26-year-old was impossible to dispossess on the night. Only a few Atletico players managed to take Kovacic off the ball, and they consequently received yellow cards. His ability to dribble out of tight areas, keep possession and move the ball quickly was instrumental in Chelsea’s gameplan. It ensured that no matter how many men Simeone threw at the Blues, the home side would break out of the press. Kovacic didn’t play a direct role in either goal on the night, but the frustration caused by his inclusion in the starting XI forced Atletico to throw men forward—thus leaving the Spaniards vulnerable to counterattacks.
Chelsea’s midfield isn’t flashy; it doesn’t end up on highlight reels and surely doesn’t score stunning goals like others. However, what the Blues have is silent assassins. Players like Kante and Kovacic are happy to work their shifts in the shadows. They do the dirty work and make it possible for teammates to have moments of brilliance. Most importantly though, they do what is necessary to win. When the lights shine brightest, when the stage is biggest and when it’s do or die for Chelsea, that’s when Kante and Kovacic thrive.
The odds were stacked against the Blues in this tie, but they managed to progress further in Europe’s biggest competition due to the superb play of the midfield pivot. When reminiscing on this match and remembering the flawless first strike or the celebrations in the stand, don’t forget to acknowledge the world class performances of the two men in the middle of the park.