On Tuesday night, Thomas Tuchel overcame his biggest test as Chelsea manager as his side beat Atletico Madrid 1-0 in the first leg of the round of 16 in the Champions League.
Although the game lacked cutting edge from both sides and wasn’t the best watch from a neutrals perspective, Tuchel's team selection was perfect and his tactical know how gave his team the upper hand over their opponents.
This has allowed the Blues to take an away goal and a clean sheet to Stamford Bridge for the return leg on March 17 where Chelsea look to advance to the quarter finals of the competition for the first time since 2014.
Eyebrows were raised before kick off when Callum Hudson-Odoi featured in the lineup despite being substituted after being brought on versus Southampton. Critics identified that due to Atletico’s proven attacking pedigree and threat to a Chelsea defence absent of Thiago Silva that Reece James was a more adequate option to play as a Right wing back due to his more developed defensive skillset.
The decision to play 20-year-old Hudson-Odoi over James prevailed as his pace and one on one ability was necessary to combat and break down a stubborn Atletico defence. The England u21 was substituted in the 80th minute after making an impressive account of himself on the European stage.
Tuchel, who has never lost to a Spanish team in the Champions League before also selected Striker Olivier Giroud over the likes of Tammy Abraham. The French veteran enjoyed a physical battle with the low defensive block of the Spanish leaders and was lively throughout the game linking up with teammates frequently before his 68th minute strike put the Blues ahead.
Giroud seems to be suited to Tuchel’s pressing system which was integral for his side to regain as well as retain possession throughout the 90 minutes. The Blues had 63% of the ball on the night and forced consistent errors out of Simeone’s side, limiting them to a pass accuracy of 75%. Manager, Tuchel credited Giroud’s physical ability despite his age.
“His physicality is on a top level and mentally I have the feeling he enjoys every day. This is the level he needs to be. He trains like a 20 year old, he is a guy who is serious and a mix of joy. He is always positive and a big factor for the group.”
The experienced and often animated Simeone tried his best to stifle a Chelsea attack which has lacked cutting edge in recent times due to the absence of a reliable goalscorer at the club. The pre-match analysis of Atletico by Thomas Tuchel suggested that playing both Kovacic and Jorginho was necessary despite both being one yellow card away from suspension. Tuchel was prepared for possession based football which is evident in the 680 passes made by his Chelsea team.
Jorginho was accountable of 103 of these passes and accumulated the joint most made by any player on the pitch alongside Azpilicueta. His composure on the ball was invaluable to Chelsea when recycling possession in midfield despite growing frustrations over the Italians final pass in the oppositions third.
Tuchel was persistent with the successful 3-4-2-1 on the evening which offered an answer for any Atletico threat during the game. The numbers in defensive transition stifled any serious Atletico attack from prolific striker Luis Suarez and €126 million wonder kid Joao Felix. The width of both Hudson-Odoi and Alonso stretched the compact block of Atletico and allowed fluid combinations to take place across the pitch.
Tuesday night's game is a huge step in the right direction for Chelsea and highlighted the ongoing improvements Tuchel has integrated into the side in the past month.
Chelsea resume their league campaign this weekend versus fellow top four contenders Manchester United at Stamford Bridge as Tuchel will look to extend his unbeaten run as Chelsea manager.