Chelsea boss Thomas Tuchel opted to make eight changes against Zenit St Petersburg, with players in unfamiliar positions, and his decisions did not pay off in a potentially damaging 3-3 draw
Chelsea needed to beat Zenit St Petersburg to guarantee top spot in their Champions League group on Wednesday night, but you might not have known it from Thomas Tuchel’s team sheet.
Tuchel opted to make eight changes to his side, despite the Blues going head-to-head with Juventus for Group H’s top spot.
And while Timo Werner and Kepa Arrizabalaga shone, they were most definitely in the minority as a seesawing game ended 3-3.
All of the hallmarks of Tuchel’s Chelsea were missing in Russia as the Blues shipped three goals to end the night second and potentially facing a tough draw in the last-16.
Werner put them ahead after just two minutes with a tap-in from a corner, but Zenit roared back to lead 2-1 at half-time thanks to Claudinho’s header and Sardar Azmoun’s finish one-on-one.
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Romelu Lukaku ended a 10-game dry spell in front of goal with a simple finish following some slick build-up play by Werner and the German appeared to have won it when he smashed in a low finish in the 85th minute.
But Chelsea’s soft underbelly came back to haunt them in injury-time as Magomed Ozdoev hammered home a volley.
After keeping clean sheet after clean sheet at the start of the season, Chelsea have now conceded six times in four days.
Here are the three most glaring experiments that undermined Chelsea’s efforts on a bitter night in St Petersburg.
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“I think that he could play in the wing-back role for us,” Tuchel said last week when discussing the problem created by an injury to Ben Chiwell.
“Even if we play a dominant game and an offensive game because he’s very strong in arriving in the opponent’s box, very strong in finishing and has good timing to arrive on the second post with his head.”
Saul showed those qualities straight from the off, pressing high up to nick the ball, drive into the box and force a corner with a shot on the stretch. It was that positive play which allowed Chelsea to score their earliest ever goal in the Champions League through Werner.
That glimpse of potential showed the benefits of playing a midfielder on the flank, but unfortunately for Tuchel, the pitfalls of the decision were far more frequent.
After 11 minutes the Spaniard’s wayward first-time cross on the overlap went straight out of play to kill dead a promising counter-attack involving Lukaku and Mason Mount.
The camera panned to Tuchel on the touchline who did not try to contain his irritation.
The broadcaster did not capture the German’s reaction to Zenit’s opening goal, but you can guarantee he noted that it was Saul’s sliced attempted clearance which led to Claudinho’s free header on the second phase.
Saul was positioned very high up the pitch in the first half, yet this caused more problems than benefits for Chelsea, as Malcom ran into the space left in behind.
The on-loan Atletico Madrid man did manage to fire off four shots before he was substituted for Marcos Alonso in the 75th minute, but none really threatened.
Chelsea have the option to make Saul’s loan deal permanent at the end of the season. We are yet to see any real evidence as to why they should do so.
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Looking at Chelsea’s squad, how many midfield partnerships would you get through before you arrived at James and Ross Barkley?
Like many talented young players, James has been known to play in other positions. But much like the tired debate around Liverpool ’s Trent Alexander-Arnold, just because he can, doesn’t mean he should.
Things started brightly enough, with James receiving possession in pressure situations and distributing it safely to team-mates.
Yet, as the game opened up after 20 minutes, things began to go wrong. Chelsea, a team whose 2021 has been defined by a rock-solid and organised defence, were wide open – and a lot of that was down to the midfield.
With no Jorginho, N’Golo Kante or Mateo Kovacic, Chelsea had a soft centre which was ruthlessly exposed by Zenit.
It was Barkley who lost the ball in the build-up to the second goal, but James could easily have suffered the same fate two minutes later, had Azmoun’s chip not been parried by the overworked Kepa.
After no doubt receiving a rocket from Tuchel in the break, things calmed down for James in the second half, yet he was in nomansland on the edge of the box when Ozdoev rifled in past Kepa.
Tuchel resisted the urge to move James to his more familiar right wing-back role, but don’t expect to see the experiment turn into a regular tactic.
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Unlike the other two players, Hudson-Odoi has played at right wing-back under Tuchel before, but not with much success.
The presence of Cesar Azpilicueta behind him, on the right side of the three-man defence, certainly helped, yet there wasn’t much credit in Hudson-Odoi’s bank by the time he was substituted in the 65th minute.
Hudson-Odoi was the first player into the referee’s notebook after scything down his man needlessly.
The game transformed to resemble a basketball match in the closing stages of the first half and you might think this would suit a player of Hudson-Odoi’s pace and skill.
But there was none of the 21-year-old’s flying wing play. On a night of experimentation, he was replaced by Christian Pulisic for the last 25 minutes having failed to push his case forward.