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UEFA Champions League - FC Barcelona - Chelsea: Tactical Review

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A pretty even contest

Chelsea FC v FC Barcelona - UEFA Champions League Round of 16: First Leg Photo by Mike Hewitt/Getty Images

FC Barcelona and Chelsea played a tight match in which neither team got much in the way of splitting defenses, but each was able to score a goal to go 1-1 into the second leg of this UEFA Champions League tie.

After the match I was slightly surprised that people thought Barcelona were lucky to come away with a 1-1. This idea has some merit, Barcelona’s equalizer comes from a really poor mistake by a defender. Meanwhile, Chelsea hit the post twice in the first half.

But if we are willing to write the equalizer off as luck, based on a poor individual decision or poor technique, why do we not write off Chelsea’s goal on the same basis - that Willian’s great individual technique was just “bad luck” for Barcelona?

Willian not only scored, but he was the one to hit the post twice. All three shots were from outside the box. You wouldn’t necessarily expect a player to have such accuracy from that spot, even one who is a known long shot specialist. Had Willian actually scored 3 goals like that, it would legitimately be one of the all time greatest long range shooting performances. The fact that that didn’t happen isn’t surprising.

True, Ernesto Valverde should have perhaps warned his team to close the Brazilian down sooner considering he had already warned them by hitting each post, but we are still talking about an individual moment more than anything. Valverde’s men did leave Willian free during a short corner which led to the goal, and perhaps the coach will be looking to correct that for the next game.

Still, Barcelona took more shots inside the Chelsea box than Chelsea in Barcelona’s box, 4 to 1. Chelsea did take more shots overall, but the majority came from a difficult position to score from (not even edge of the box, but further.) Both teams had two shots on target, except both of Barça’s were from inside the box and both of Chelsea’s from outside.

Valverde named no surprises in his starting XI, once again trusting Paulinho to start a big match. Antonio Conte went with a 3-4-2-1 formation. Eden Hazard was at the tip, with Pedro and Willian supporting him. The wingbacks - Marcos Alonso and Victor Moses - played more like fullbacks, so perhaps calling it a 5-2-2-1 is more accurate. Chelsea defended very deep, with the wingbacks mostly tracking Barça’s fullbacks.

Conte surely saw Jordi Alba and Sergi Roberto as sources of trouble and his team kept them almost entirely quiet. That left Luis Suárez and Lionel Messi isolated against the three central defenders, and Cesc Fàbregas and N’Golo Kanté did admirably to defend and defend. Pedro and Willian pressed and ran, giving the team an extra measure of protection.

But without a true striker, Chelsea didn’t really engineer chances. They would have been pretty toothless without Willian being absolutely on fire with long shots. One wonders if they think he can replicate it. They do at least need a goal at Camp Nou. Of course, bringing on Álvaro Morata didn’t produce brilliance either. Conte might repeat the same system.

Barcelona defended relatively well, and they recovered expertly from the few moments of panic they were in. Gerard Piqué, notably, made an excellent 1v1 challenge on Willian as the latter was through to play Kanté on for a very dangerous chance.

Unfortunately for Valverde, Paulinho didn’t offer much either on the ball or in transition. As usual though, he popped up in a couple key moments, notably when he headed a ball from close range for a goal kick that he either should have put on the frame of goal or played Suárez in. Still, he didn’t cement a spot in the XI for the return leg.

Aleix Vidal was hardly lighting it up either, but he was solid enough. I start to think maybe there’s a chance he’s played himself into the team. Ousmane Dembélé might be auditioning for a spot too, or at least a substitute appearance. It’s clear Valverde was concerned about conceding another goal, and isn’t quite comfortable with the Frenchman’s defensive contribution compared to that of Vidal.

Nélson Semedo returns for the match at Camp Nou, though he’s still unlikely to start. Still, I could see him getting a substitute appearance. Roberto could go to midfield or simply sub out.

Valverde only used two subs, and only bringing on André Gomes in stoppage time. Despite Barcelona having more depth than previous, arguably 10/11 players are so clearly superior to their bench counterparts (not counting Philippe Coutinho) that substitutions aren’t obvious.

Conte also only used two subs, bringing on Morata hoping to scrape a very important goal while still playing at the Bridge. Danny Drinkwater came on for Cesc, purely because the latter had ran himself into the ground covering more than he’s used to.

The tie is clearly in Barça’s favor now, but only just. The second leg is at home, which is a big boost, and the Catalans can go through with a 0-0 draw. However, Chelsea can also go through with a draw. And you can’t really write them off after that match.

That might affect the gameplan though, because this match could have ended 0-0. Will Chelsea set up the same way knowing they need at least a goal? And will that leave an exploitable gap for Barça?