This is another of the many tasty clashes in this year’s Champions League. Chelsea’s young and hungry side under Frank Lampard, against a weaker, yet still deadly Bayern Munich team under Hansi Flick. The last time these two met in Europe’s premium competition was back in 2012; a game where Bayern was outdone by an extremely defensive Chelsea. Will the result be the same; or will Bayern get their payback? Let’s find out.
This season for Chelsea was arguably their biggest since Roman Abramovich acquired the club at the turn of the millennium. The Blues were under a transfer ban for breaching UEFA’s rules of signing players under eighteen. It meant they couldn’t offer the near-unlimited pot of cash they’ve been able to offer every season. What made matters worse for Chelsea was the expected departure of Belgian superstar Eden Hazard, which left a massive creative void in their team from the get-go. The team already had apparent issues under Sarri. They only way to address their problems in defence, full-back and striker was from within.
It’s why Frank Lampard’s appointment was genius in a way. It had nothing to do with the football (which was far from perfect at Derby), but the effect it would have for the players, and especially the fans. Chelsea has always come across as having one of the most impatient sets of fans in the league. They weren’t willing to give Conte or Sarri the time needed to improve a group of players that weren’t nearly good enough to win a title. Lampard is a legend at that club, who would at least keep the fans on his side, no matter how bad the performances got. He also seemed willing to play the young players who were desperate to show they had something to offer. Chelsea’s academy had been seen as an afterthought for years, only there to make a profit on homegrown players. The higher-ups at the club always said they wanted to see the youngsters given a chance; which made the appointments of Sarri and Conte baffling. Both coaches who demanded support in the transfer market and who stuck to a small core of players. I just wanted to see Reece James, Mason Mount, Fikayo Tomori and especially Tammy Abraham, given a chance in the first team. They all showed how they were good enough to play a full season in the Championship, and in Tammy and James’ case, be the best player on their team.Embed from Getty Images
The young players have been the story of the season and for good reason, but some of last season’s underperformers have really turned it around. At the beginning of the 18/19 season, a midfield three of Kante, Kovacic and Jorginho looked unstoppable. However, in practice, it didn’t live up the high expectations set by people like me. Originally it was about Kante. Many fans still saw Kante as that midfield destroyer which helped Leicester win the league in 2016. Kante proved he was an exceptional passer, with a high level of match intelligence in making runs into the penalty area. Sarri realised this and turned Kante into the player he was always meant to be. The problem was Jorginho, and especially Kovacic.
Jorginho was criticised for not getting enough goals and assists by many pundits, but that’s not what he does. Jorginho is one of the best in starting attacks. His xGBuildup has always been great, with the Italian top of the Chelsea squad with 11.15. The defensive side of the game was his issue. A lot of teams (Arsenal being the best example) aggressively marked him out of the game, and Jorginho just seemed to lack the ability to change his game and adjust, similar to what the likes of Thiago Alcantara or Kevin De Bruyne would do. Kovacic under Sarri can best be described as restricted; stuck in a system that didn’t allow him to show the best parts of his game. Kovacic is one of the best dribblers in the league but looked uncertain of what he was actually supposed to be doing in Sarri’s system. Lampard has reinvigorated both of these players; justifying the combined £100 million spent on the pair. They’re both playing to their strengths. Jorginho is still starting attacks, as well as putting in a lot of defensive work. Kovacic has looked the player we’ve all wanted to see in England, putting up an insane amount of dribbling and off the ball work. A real asset to the team.Embed from Getty Images
I’d say Chelsea have performed how I thought they would. They’re in the top four race; given a lot of their younger players minutes and been a joy to watch, especially during the first half of the season. This is where the problems lie for them now. The blues’ overall performances have dropped off a lot since their 2-1 defeat to Manchester City. Since then, the results have stopped coming, and their firm grip on fourth place has loosened. If it wasn’t for Tottenham and Manchester United underperforming, I doubt Chelsea would still be in the Champions League spots. Why exactly have they been a lot worse? Chelsea has had defensive issues all season, but a lot of that is down to the open style they play and Kepa Arrizabalaga being the worst goalkeeper in the league. These issues have been present since the first game of the season. The reason why Chelsea’s form has dropped off is down to their attack, or lack of it. Lampard has managed this team rather poorly in terms of the minutes being shared. It’s the same issue present under Sarri, but a lot worse. Abraham, Hudson-Odoi and Mount have been heavily relied upon through vast stretches of the season. These guys are still really young, and Lampard has looked close to burning them out. Abraham has struggled with slight knocks, which has made his level of performances drop as the match-days pass. Mason Mount started the season in fine form, but he’s looked exhausted over the last couple of months. I don’t want any of them to suffer the same fate as Rashford; a young player relied upon so heavily that his manager will do anything to have him on the pitch, even to jeopardise his future.
Let’s move onto Bayern Munich, who look unshackled under new manager Hansi Flick. The former Germany national team assistant has got this Bayern team pressing again, and the players look a lot happier than under Kovac. There have been some results where Bayern have been unlucky, their draw to Leipzig and defeats to Leverkusen Monchengladbach were games where Bayern had the better chances. It was a classic case where, on another day, Bayern would have left with the three points. Since November 9th, Flick’s first game, Bayern have undoubtedly been the best team in Germany. They’ve achieved the most points, have the best xG difference and are matching their xPTS. Their results are back to matching their high level of performances not seen since Heynckes’ final season.
Besides their increased intensity (they only allow 6.35 passes per defensive action), Flick has transformed some of the players in this squad; either back to or into world-beaters. Let’s start with Muller. The World Cup winner epitomised a great German attacker. He might not be as silky on the ball as Brandt; or as fun and dynamic as Leroy Sane, but it’s hard to argue against Muller being Germany’s most intelligent attacker. The way he finds perfect shooting opportunities in the box or picks his other attackers with a fantastic pass is nearly unrivalled. Muller has always performed, but previous managers simply didn’t know what to do with him. Muller doesn’t have the pace or trickery to play as a traditional winger but doesn’t play like a regular number ten. Flick simply solved this problem by playing him as a winger and a midfielder, depending on the opposition. Coutinho might be better than Muller at many things. But Muller’s pressing and work-rate, combined with his efficiency, making him a favourite of Flick’s. He’s already racked up 14 assists in the league this season and tops the team for shot assists.Embed from Getty Images
Alphonso Davies has arguably been the breakout star of the Bundesliga. There was an amount of uncertainty surrounding this move. It was interesting to see a prospect from MLS join one of Europe’s elite, in a squad severely lacking in wide talent. But funnily enough, Davies has mostly played as a left-back, allowing David Alaba to cover at centre-back. From performances alone, you couldn’t tell Davies was playing out of position. He’s putting in a lot of defensive work (over 6 tackles and interceptions) while still being a lot of fun in the final third. The Canadian international’s speed and skill have practically given Bayern another winger. Since he regularly starts Bayern’s attacks further away from the opposition half, his involvement in ball progression is apparent. He tops the team for xGBuildup with 13.03 (since Flick’s first game) and tops the team for completed crosses. I don’t think anyone expected Davies to look this good at only 19.
I struggle to see Chelsea advancing to the quarter-finals. Bayern is playing their best football since not seen since before Kovac, and Lewandowski has looked unstoppable. Lewandowski has unarguably been the best forward (that isn’t called Messi or Ronaldo) in the last 5 years. Lewandowski does everything you want from your striker. He takes a large number of shots, with many inside the penalty area, while holding the ball up well in the box. My favourite part of Pole’s game is how he has this art of playing the defensive line to perfection. Lewandowski has scored a lot of goals where you just have to question if he’s even onside; only to watch the replay and see his sharpness shine, always that extra yard faster than his opponents. There have been apparent comparisons between Lewandowski and Timo Werner; the two leading scorers in the Bundesliga. The big difference for me is Lewandowski makes the players around him better. Even when Lewandowski is having an off-day, you can trust him to drag defenders to open up space for his teammates.
If these teams were drawn together during the group stage, I think the match would have been a lot closer. However, Chelsea has gotten a lot worse in attack, while their defensive issues have remained ever-present. Bayern looks miles ahead of their last round of 16 game, being their spineless defeat to eventual champions Liverpool. I have no idea if Flick will remain at the club after this season, but he is an option that is at least worth considering.