Michy Batshuayi came off the bench to score with the last kick of the game in Madrid last night as Chelsea ran out 2-1 winners over Atletico Madrid in their second group game of this year’s Champions League campaign.
In the first ever European game to be held at Atletico’s magnificent new Wanda Metropolitano, Conte’s side came from behind after Antoine Greizmann converted a penalty after 40 minutes. It was Alvaro Morata who scored his seventh goal of the season to equalise, before the Belgian stole all three points for the Blues.
With this being one of the single best all-round team performances that I can remember from a Chelsea side, it would be unfair of me to pull out any specific particular players for analysis on this occasion, therefore a team and tactical analysis seems more fitting.
The raw stats from the game make for very interesting reading as remarkably, the two sides match-up more or less exactly the same. With 499 passes, Atletico made just two more than Chelsea, and with 704, the Blues had just three more touches. Three very important ones however, as that was the clinical total that Batshuayi amassed during his time on the pitch.
Possession was shared 50-50, but despite all those figures suggesting it was an even encounter, the reality was that it was anything but. Right from the very outset it was the visitors who were playing all the football and creating chances. Morata saw shots miss narrowly, and Eden Hazard had a brilliant attempt deflected onto the post on his return to the starting line-up. Conte’s men created chances and put pressure on Atletico throughout the game, forcing Diego Simeone into several tactical and personnel changes to try and alter the momentum of the match. In the end, his side probably got the result they deserved, having not responded with any sort of sustained pressure of their own, throughout the 90.
What impressed me most about this victory wasn’t necessarily the determination or the concentration, but the set-up and organisation Conte orchestrated before kick-off. Having played Stoke City off the park at the weekend, a lot of managers would have automatically thrust their side back into action playing in the same shape. Conte, however, had other ideas.
Knowing that Atletico’s supposed threat should be coming through their central channels, he changed from his beloved 3-4- 3 formation, to much more of a flexible 3-5- 2, with Hazard in behind Morata. Playing Cesc Fabregas in central midfield, instead of an extra forward in perhaps Willian or Pedro, instantly gave Chelsea the extra body they needed through the middle, meaning the hosts struggled to have any time on the ball as they love to do with the likes of Koké, Greizmann, and Saul Ñiguez. It was an uncharacteristic, more defensive, kind of performance from Fabregas, but the fact that he didn’t conceded a single foul, and completed 100% of his tackles suggests his place in the side was absolutely vindicated.
Another inspired change in set-up that Conte employed in this game was playing N’Golo Kanté further forward. Rarely have we seen him play as much football in and around the opposition penalty area as he did last night. If you compare his heat map from the away league match against Leicester this season, when he scored the winner, compared to this
game, the difference is clear to see. I think it was a very clever and bold decision from Conte to use him differently in such a big game.
However, Conte has clearly identified Kante as his best ball-winner, and used him to deliberately disturb Atletico’s ball-playing central defenders, closing them down in attacking areas of the pitch for Chelsea. Unsurprisingly, just like every other tactic we tried last night, it worked perfectly. The Frenchman made nine tackles, four more than any other Chelsea player, and was superb in bringing the likes of Hazard and Fabregas into the game. If there was ever any criticism of Kante since he’s moved to this club, then it’s probably that he can struggle playing too deep against top quality midfielders. Admitting that, what better way to avoid the same thing happening again than to push him further forward and give him a free reign to cause the opposition problems in the ways he knows best. He seemed to revel in the role, and went past players with the ball on numerous occasions. Brilliant from Conte.
If there was ever any passage of play that best optimised the positive effect that Antonio Conte has had on this team, then it was the one that won us the game right at the end. When Willian was stood over the free-kick, standing directly opposite me from my seat up in the top tier, I, and every other Chelsea fan, were licking our lips at the prospect of him crossing a whipping ball across the keeper and into the far corner. He had other ideas.
Every single pass in that build-up, from himself to Kanté, to Moses, to Alonso, back to Kanté
who found Bakayoko brilliantly, who’s lay-off around the corner back to Alonso was delicately perfect, and the Spaniard’s ball that ultimately found Batshuayi was nothing short of superb. After 93 minutes of gruelling European football, I think it’s mightily impressive to have that many players deonstrate such a cool, composed, head in that situation, passing through Atletico as if they were a Sunday league side. The longer Conte stays at this club, the less and less instances such as that one will surprise me. He is an absolute master in making sure his players have simple and clear instructions that they can then execute clinically and confidently right until the end of the game. Long may it continue.
— Breathe Chelsea (@BreatheChels) September 27, 2017
HAZARD AND MORATA
Lastly, I can’t conclude without a word for the communication and understanding that Eden Hazard and Alvaro Morata had last night. They hadn’t played much together in Chelsea shirts, but they proved in this game that top players don’t need time to settle with each other. Right from the opening exchanges, they were finding each other with impeccable passes, and the trust they seemed to put in one another was great to see. It brought an authority and pace to our attacking play that would have troubled any defence in the world. They got their reward in teaming up for the equaliser, and it was the least that they both deserved.
They’ll be alongside each other once again this weekend when we host Manchester City in another huge game, perhaps in this formation, perhaps not. Either way, Chelsea fans can be assured that Conte will have something up his sleeve for Guardiola’s men.