Chelsea Just Did the Impossible: They Won the Champions League With Their Defense

Despite being hired by a club that spent hundreds of millions of dollars on attacking talent, Thomas Tuchel looked at the roster and saw the best defense in the world. He was right.

Pretend it’s late August, or maybe mid-September, of 2020. Try to think back to what life was like back then. Not great, I know, but just bear with me. Are you there? OK. Now imagine that I told you all of these things:

-Timo Werner will score 12 goals in 52 matches.
-Kai Havertz will score nine goals in 45 matches.
-Christian will would score six goals in 43 matches.
-Hakim Ziyech will score six goals in 39 matches.

OK, so big seasons from Mason Mount, or Tammy Abraham, or Olivier Giroud?

Nope:

-Tammy Abraham will score 12 goals in 32 matches.
-Olivier Giroud will score 11 goals in 31 matches.
-Mason Mount will score nine goals in 54 matches.

Yikes, so ... Frank Lampard loses his job, then?

Correct. He will get fired on January 25th, 2021.

And Chelsea were in danger of missing out on a top-four spot all season long?

Yep. They will lose, 3-1, to Aston Villa on the final day but snuck into fourth after another Matchweek-38 loss by Leicester City.

Back to the drawing board, huh?

Nope. Despite getting pretty much everything wrong this season, Chelsea will also go on to win the Champions League -- and do so in convincing fashion. The club spent a combined $190 million on the attacking trio of Werner, Havertz, and Ziyech last summer. Add that to Mount, Pulisic, and Abraham, and this was supposed to be England’s next great attacking juggernaut -- depth all across the front line, a diversity of skill-sets, and so much speed. Instead, the three summer arrivals combined for 27 goals across a combined 136 matches. The plan blew up in their faces, and now they’re champions of Europe. As Manchester City found out in Saturday’s 1-0 loss, Thomas Tuchel, who was fired by PSG in late December and replaced Lampard a month late, didn’t even need an offseason to build one of the best defensive teams of the 21st century.

Let’s start with Saturday. Yes, Pep Guardiola tinkered again in Europe. He just can’t help himself; it’s obvious at this point. I thought that he got all of his tinkering out back home in the Premier League; he settled on a strikerless formation that also benched the team’s most dynamic attacker, Raheem Sterling, and most complete defender, Aymeric Laporte. The weird “not all your best players are out there” lineup that Pep had a habit of selecting for the Champions League simply just became the team he used all season in the Premier League. He didn’t switch things up much against PSG in the semis -- and if he wasn’t willing to change against Kylian Mbappe and Neymar, he sure as hell wasn’t gonna do it against Timo Werner and Kai Havertz. Until then he did: Sterling started his first Champions League game since February, and City’s lineup didn’t include one of Rodri or Fernandinho, the team’s two defensive midfielders, for the first time since October and for only the second time in 60 games this season. Except, I’m not sure it mattered. Yes, one of Rodri or Fernandinho might have been occupying the gaping hole in the center of the field that Kai Havertz ran through to score the winner. But the bigger problem for City is that they didn’t create anything, and I don’t see how replacing Sterling, probably City’s most dangerous player in Porto, with a defensive midfielder would’ve helped that at all. No, they just ran into an absolute brick wall.

Since Guardiola took over at the Etihad, Manchester City have averaged 17 shots per game across the Premier League and Champions League and 2.1 expected goals per match. Per Stats Perform, they took seven shots and created 0.45 xG against Chelsea. Across 242 games in those competitions with Pep in charge, they’ve taken fewer than seven shots twice -- six in a 3-1 loss to Monaco in the 2017 Champions League and six in a 0-0 draw with Liverpool at Anfield in the fall of 2018. Except, that might undersell just how contained they were: They’ve created fewer than 0.45 xG across a match just once -- 0.42 in a 1-0 loss to Liverpool on New Years Eve, 2016. Over the totality of the past four years, City have pretty easily been the best team in the world, and then in the biggest game in the history of the current best club on the planet, Chelsea made them look like West Brom.

Defensive teams aren’t supposed to win games like this anymore. Bayern Munich played a near-suicidal defensive line last season en route to a title. Liverpool weren’t anyone’s idea of an impenetrable back line, and neither were Real Madrid in their four titles in five years. Same goes for the Messi-Suarez-Neymar Barcelona team that won in 2015. To win enough games to qualify for the Champions League and then to win enough knockout rounds in a row to win the trophy, you need to be able to score enough goals to cancel out the randomness inherent with converting a small number of low-probability chances across 90 minutes. Sitting back and defending in a compact block could lead to upsets and would definitely make you a pain in the ass to play against, but ceding control of the ball just isn’t supposed to work across 38 games or in four straight knockout-matches against a handful of the best teams in the world, almost all of whom are trying to press high up the pitch and score as many goals as they can.

Yeah, about that ... Chelsea scored 58 goals in the Premier League this past season. Since the 2014 World Cup, these are the domestic-goal totals for the other European champs, in reverse chronological order:

-Bayern Munich: 100
-Liverpool: 97
-Real Madrid: 94
-Real Madrid: 106
-Real Madrid: 110
-Barcelona: 110

How the hell did Chelsea do it? The pace of the season surely helped; with a late start date, an abbreviated offseason, and compact schedule of the same number of games as ever, teams simply weren’t able to play the kind of high-flying, high-pressing styles that produced those gaudy goal totals. That likely opened the door for a team for Chelsea to thrive. But as we saw against Manchester City, this is a unique defensive juggernaut. Most teams that concede few goals either dominate possession and give up a tiny number of high-quality chances or they focus less on controlling the ball and more on maintaining shape and limiting the quality of chances. Chelsea, though, could do both.

In the first half of the final, Tuchel’s team actually completed more final-third passes and took more touches in the penalty area than City did. They took three shots to City’s five and created 1.00 xG to City’s 0.23. Then, after halftime, they played like your stereotypical “staunch defense”. City controlled territory in the second 45 and took 19 penalty-area touches to Chelsea’s three. Except, even as Chelsea bent, they didn’t break. Despite allowing City to come on to them more aggressively, they allowed just one more shot than they did in the first half and basically the same collection of chances (by xG).

That’s the story of Chelsea’s season under Tuchel. Since he took over, in domestic play and the Champions League, only six other teams averaged more possession (59 percent), only two teams conceded fewer shots (7.9), and only one team allowed worse shots (0.082 xG per shot). All in all it added up to a measly 0.6 xG allowed per match -- the best mark of any team in Europe. Chelsea defend as well as anyone -- with and without the ball.  

Tuchel immediately identified “goal suppression” as the area of improvement that would yield immediate results for the club, and damn was he right. He switched to a three-at-the-back structure right from his first game in charge against Wolverhampton. He mixed and matched lineups -- first focusing on more one-dimensional players like Callum Hudson-Odoi and Olivier Giroud who would quickly occupy a more simplified role in the lineup, before settling on a number of players (Werner, Havertz, and Pulisic) with less-traditional skillsets or playing players in less-traditional roles (Cesar Azpilicueta, a center back, at wing back and Reece James, a wing back, at center back).

Playing with three center backs and a pair of wing backs also seemed to free up N’Golo Kante to roam the field and just generally wreak havoc with or without the ball. We still don’t really understand how to measure midfielders or defensive value on a soccer field, but Kante’s contributions are undeniable at this point. Everywhere he goes -- first Leicester then Chelsea in the Premier League, then France in the World Cup, and now Chelsea in the Champions League -- his teams win. Whatever he’s doing, it adds up to winning.

Now, I used to have this idea that most of the best defenders in the world aren’t that good at defending anymore because the top teams are so possession-dominant that the defenders now needed to contribute to attacking more than they did defending. But Chelsea are making me rethink that. Within a solid structure, the likes of Thiago Silva, Antonio Rudiger, Azpilucueta (OK, this one’s not a surprise), Ben Chilwell, Andreas Christensen, and James all thrived without the ball. James, in particular, looked like Luke Kuechly in his prime against Sterling on Saturday -- mirroring his every move, throwing his body around, and recovering every time it seemed like he got beat.

Tuchel’s previous teams at PSG and Borussia Dortmund weren’t defensive sides; no their stylistic trademark was complex, barely comprehensible-to-the-naked-eye possession structures that would somehow lead to a completely unmarked winger or fullback bearing down on goal out of nowhere. This Chelsea team didn’t have that; not at all. They often played pretty slowly and pretty predictably, but most of their best attacking moments came from direct, fast-paced play without too much complication. Although none of Chelsea’s attackers really came close to living up to their transfer fees this season, they did raise the ceiling of a team that played this style and allowed them to sacrifice the quantity of shots you might expect from a Champions League champ. Counter-attacks, after all, tend to work out a lot better when you’ve got $200 million worth of players leading the break.