It is still early days. It was only one game, and there is a second leg still to come. But a 1-0 win away (in Bucharest) to Atletico Madrid represents Thomas Tuchel’s best result as Chelsea manager so far and the most clear sense that something very impressive could be building at Stamford Bridge. The win was secured by Olivier Giroud’s 68th-minute overhead kick, but it was earned by a performance of real intelligence and quality.
The most encouraging aspect for Chelsea since Tuchel took over is the sense of progress. From the goalless draw against Wolves, there has been clear development–at least until the disappointing 1-1 draw against Southampton at the weekend. He has restored the 3-4-2-1 shape that was so successful for Chelsea under Antonio Conte, and this squad suddenly has begun to look what it is: one of the best in world football.
Chelsea has dominated the ball in every game since. The goal conceded against Southampton was only the second it had conceded in six games–and the first scored by a player on the opposing side. The one criticism would be that for all the domination of possession, Tuchel’s Chelsea has not looked especially dangerous, with just 10 goals in his first eight games.
The overriding caveat was the sense that the fixture list has not been especially challenging–which of course was how Frank Lampard was able to put together that 17-game unbeaten run earlier in the season when he played the reverse fixtures. That was one of the fascinations of Tuesday's Atletico game: a serious test against arguably the most awkward possible opponent.
Atletico Madrid has been more progressive domestically this season than the stereotypical Diego Simeone team, prioritizing the talents of Joao Felix and a rejuvenated Luis Suarez, but on Tuesday it reverted to its classic type, sitting deep and playing on the break. There had been a slight tightening up since the defeat to Real Madrid in December, and recent form has been disappointing with back-to-back games against Levante yielding a single point, but this was another level of caution, a proper old-school European performance–perhaps prompted, in part, by a number of injuries and the suspension of Kieran Trippier.
At times out of possession, which was most of the time given Chelsea had 70% of the ball, Atletico played what was effectively a back six, presumably to negate Chelsea’s wingbacks when they pushed forward to create what was often a front five, alongside Giroud and the two inside forwards, Mason Mount and Timo Werner.
Callum Hudson-Odoi started on the right for Chelsea, despite being taken off half an hour after being brought on as a substitute against Southampton, with Tuchel saying he “was not happy with his attitude against the ball, he forgot the counter-pressing situation sometimes.” Predictably, that led to a frenzy of speculation that Tuchel was in danger of alienating the dressing room. Tuchel insisted it was not a major issue and nor does it need to be; although public criticism of players always carries an element of danger, it can equally be useful to remind everybody that standards must be maintained at all times.
For a long time this was threatening to be a frustrating game for Chelsea. For all that it dominated the ball, it created very little. Too often passes were misplaced or the wrong option was taken. But finally, midway through the second half, the attrition of Chelsea’s pressure told, thanks to a combination of brilliance from Giroud and good fortune. A cross seemed once again to have bounced unkindly for Chelsea when Mario Hermoso, under pressure from Mount, scooped the ball back into the danger area. Giroud tumbled back into an overhead kick, and made perfect contact to send his shot bouncing into the corner, beyond the dive of Jan Oblak. (A lengthy VAR review confirmed that Giroud's goal was good).
It wasn’t just a winner but, vitally, an away goal, which offers Chelsea some protection for the second leg at Stamford Bridge. It also meant that Atletico has conceded in eight successive games–its worst run under Simeone, and one that coincides with the absence of Tripper.
No game is ever safe against Atletico, as Liverpool discovered last season, and Mount and Jorginho being suspended for the second leg offers a new challenge for Tuchel to confront. But this was a thoroughly professional performance from Chelsea and, perhaps most encouragingly, it was able to control possession, and keep the ball away from Atletico. That’s three defeats out of three for Spanish sides so far in the Champions League last 16, and there is every reason for Chelsea to feel confident of progressing–and avoiding a fifth consecutive last-16 ouster of its own–now.