In his prematch press conference Monday, Chelsea manager Frank Lampard called his side “underdogs” ahead of their Champions League last 16 tie which begins Tuesday evening at Stamford Bridge against Bayern Munich.
When you look all around the pitch, Lampard hit the nail on the head. Bayern boast the prolific Robert Lewandowski up front, who’s having an excellent season. At the back, they have the original sweeper-keeper and World Cup winner Manuel Neuer. Everywhere in between, Bayern lay claim to having the superior players.
Without the talent to match, although not far off according to Chelsea’s Mateo Kovacic, the Blues must rely on an astute tactical plan to outsmart and ultimately beat the Bavarians, and that liability is at the back for Chelsea to exploit.
Vulnerable Defenses Key to Chelsea v Bayern Munich in Champions League
Bayern’s Surprise Back Three
On Friday night at home, Bayern shocked everyone by deploying a back three of Joshua Kimmich, David Alaba and Lucas Hernandez from right to left. Now, if they plan to play it against Chelsea, it makes sense to get a game under their belt in the system.
Well, maybe not. Bayern had not once played with three central defenders all year in 32 competitive games across all competitions managed by two different men at times.
The verdict after those 90 minutes Friday? A discouraging so-so. Not sunshine and rainbows like manager Hansi Flick imagined before sending his side out. Plus, the manager gave up the element of surprise he might have been better served saving for Chelsea.
To make matters worse, Bayern looked average and surrendered two goals at home to last place Paderborn. Paderborn, the side that have played more games than points won, and Bayern only escaped with all three points thanks to a Lewandowski goal with two minutes of regular time remaining.
The 30-point gap between Bayern and Paderborn before the match looked nothing of the sort during it, instead resembling two evenly matched teams looking at a six-pointer.
Joshua Kimmich is a natural defender and can play anywhere along the backline as well as a number six. But at right centre-back in a three? That’s a new challenge for him.
David Alaba is a great left-back but as a centre-back? Not world-class, even though he’s played there regularly this year.
And with Lucas Hernandez just coming back to full fitness after a long injury spell, keeping up with the youth in Chelsea’s attack could catch up to him in the second half.
Flick’s gamble of sending out a back three seems ingenious, but could also prove counterproductive, especially if it struggles like against Paderborn. If Bayern are the better team, they should dictate the game from the beginning. They must be proactive, not reactive, and that includes formations and tactics.
Chelsea’s Back Three Hopes
In Chelsea’s win over Tottenham Hotspur on Saturday, Lampard pulled three rabbits out of his hat. First, Olivier Giroud started for the first time since November in the Premier League and scored. Second, Ross Barkley played in attack and looked lively all day, recorded an assist, and rattled the bar.
Finally, and most importantly, the back three, or back three plus two wing-backs, worked wonders as well.
Marcos Alonso started on the left and scored the winner with a brilliant strike in the second half with license to get forward and minimal defensive responsibilities. Reece James pinged in crosses from the right wing-back position as always and paired with Cesar Azpilicueta at right centre-back, the two interchanged positions when necessary and complimented each other well.
In the other two centre-back positions, Andreas Christensen and Antonio Rudiger played centre and left centre-back respectively and stifled Tottenham’s attack for the most part.
Seven times this year Chelsea have played with a back three. Five times they’ve won and twice they’ve lost, once to Valencia in the group stage and once to Southampton in December.
Tuesday, stifling Bayern for “the most part” with a back three won’t suffice, though. Two of either Serge Gnabry, Thomas Mueller, Phillipe Coutinho, or Kingsley Coman will partner Lewandowski up front, creating havoc for the Blues.
With three German attackers against likely three English defenders, Chelsea’s backline cannot afford to switch off. Not even for a moment. Ask Tottenham, who know all too well after a 7-2 group stage loss at home in Autumn.
Tactical Masterclass Needed
Chelsea have a tall order on their hands, facing a tough Bayern Munich side. A plethora of things must come together for the Blues to take a lead back to Germany in a few weeks’ time.
Bayern lead the Bundesliga for a reason, but they aren’t without flaws. Both teams have defensive vulnerabilities, evidenced by both changing formations with an epic clash on the horizon. With someone as good at Lewandoski up front, the Bavarians will most certainly take away goals back home.
Whether or not Chelsea can take advantage of an ailing backline with players out of position is the true test. Tammy Abraham, Christian Pulisic, and Callum Hudson-Odoi will all miss out with injuries, making it that much more difficult for the hosts to score.
Therefore, Lampard must get his tactics spot on if he has any hopes of celebrating on the pitch at the Allianz Arena in a few weeks, only this time as a manager and in the last 16 of the Champions League instead of as captain in the final of 2012.