With 33 minutes gone at Stamford Bridge something startling happened. There are moments in the life of a successful team that come to be seen as transformative. It might be pushing it to see outright ignition, a lightning bolt, the man of many parts creaking up from his trolley, neck bolts whirring, in a breakaway goal from an attacking trio with a combined record of five goals in their past 66 Chelsea games before this second leg.
But then, it really was a brilliant goal. And something did seem to stir here, enough to drive Chelsea on to an increasingly fluent 2-0 defeat of Atlético Madrid and a place in the quarter-finals of the Champions League.
It was above all an unexpected goal, jarring in its clarity. For the attack that couldn’t attack this is how it works in napkin sketches, data simulations, the fevered, whirring dreams of Thomas Tuchel, waking at dawn murmuring about rejigs and combinations, the launch codes for an attack assembled last summer in the way you might sluice together a hopeful late-night omelette.
Tuchel has succeed in creating a knot of defensive strength at the heart of this Chelsea team. Here, though, they found something else – an edge and a sense of rhythm that will be hugely exciting for this hugely excitable footballing obsessive.
It isn’t Tuchel’s fault that Chelsea bought £220m of fine young attacking talent because it was £220m of fine young attacking talent, rather than anything resembling a coherent plan. Chelsea are good at this, not so much building a team as investing in the talent futures market. But it is his job to make it work. This has been a rare puzzle, too. The law of chance suggests at least one of these Chelsea attackers should have forgotten himself and slotted a few in by now. But no. We are legion, we are one. Chuck in Christian Pulisic (two goals in 26) and Chelsea can boast not one, not three, but four high-end attackers engaged for much of the season in doing no actual, tangible attacking.
Tuchel reverted to a back three at Stamford Bridge. It was at times a back five with full-backs as wing‑backs plus a two-man pivot of N’Golo Kanté and Mateo Kovacic with zero goals in all competitions this season. Someone, somewhere was going to have to do something different here.
From the start Chelsea did have a clear attacking plan. Kai Havertz was the most vital cog, his ability to drop deep and carry the ball forward at speed the best way to break through a high Atlético Madrid press. Three times in the opening 10 minutes he turned in the centre circle to drive at the red and white shirts, the last time playing an excellent diagonal pass for Marcos Alonso. The Spaniard is a fine ball player, but asked to sprint from the halfway line he has the elite-level running power of a mahogany hatstand.
Atlético had started aggressively, pouring forward in a series of red and white waves. Chelsea settled steadily, dominating the possession. It was Havertz who began to affect the game.
Havertz has shown so little of himself at Chelsea until now. At Bayer Leverkusen he played as a creator, a ball-carrier, a roving attacker. He was compared to Johan Cruyff. He scored 18 goals last season, aged 20, and 21 the year before.
In the Premier League he has been a peripheral figure, a mild, elegant-looking young man enjoying a series of gentle cross‑country runs in the middle of a professional football match.
But it was his drive that made the opening goal as Chelsea broke out of deep defence. Timo Werner made a tackle and started running. Havertz took the ball, galloped over the halfway line, and played the perfect driving pass back into Werner’s path.
From there Werner hit the gas, feet pounding the turf, a surge that made time for a lovely square pass into Hakim Ziyech’s run. Ziyech finished with his right foot, a slight scuff but enough to send the ball skidding under Jan Oblak.
From there Chelsea just kept going, Havertz might have had a penalty before half‑time, sent tumbling close to goal (Atlético should have had one too at 0-0). James provided thrust on the right. Kanté was magnificently urgent in central midfield. Emerson Palmieri added the second goal late on. But it is that moment of attacking clarity that will resonate most with Tuchel, the geometry of those three parts intersecting, the feeling of strength in reserve.
Part of the task for any foreign manager in England is evasion. It is very important not to be The Thing They Say You Will Be. Maurizio Sarri arrived as a technocrat scruff-bag, and also departed as a technocrat scruff-bag. It really shouldn’t matter. But it does.
It is already clear that the chief task this season for Tuchel is finding that stifled attacking thrust, thereby escaping the German‑nihilist schtick: the numbers man, the square head hoist by his own passing stats. Chelsea took a significant step forward in this game, and not just in this competition. If they can get Havertz working, if they can retain that solidity they will be dangerous – and here, oddly liberated – opponents.
Source: the guardian