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Was Chelsea’s Champions League Win A Fluke?

cwick (Chadwick Matlin, deputy editor): Tony, Grace, Ryan — thanks for joining me for our final soccer chat of the season, a season that somehow ends with Chelsea as the best team in Europe?? When we talked after the semifinals you all thought Chelsea had a real shot to win the Champions League Final versus Manchester City, and they did it convincingly. So, let’s start with what you learned from that one match (and also discuss whether there’s anything to learn from just one match).

tchow (Tony Chow, video producer): The thing I learned from this game, and from Chelsea all season, I guess, is to never let its former coach Frank Lampard convince me of anything. I was really high on Chelsea at the beginning of the season and said as much in our league preview podcast episode for Hot Takedown, but its mid-season struggles did convince me that this team might need some more time even though it was clearly talented. I was wrong!

grace (Grace Robertson, FiveThirtyEight contributor and author of the Grace on Football newsletter): I think the story for me was how effective Chelsea can be at just shutting down a team that relies on possession. We’ve seen Chelsea use defensive possession effectively ever since Thomas Tuchel arrived as head coach. In the final the team used a more traditional style of defending, and it was every bit as good at it.

cwick: Grace, can you say more about the difference between defensive possession and more traditional defense?

grace: More traditional defense is getting players behind the ball, putting tackles in, that sort of thing — rather than keeping hold of the ball and moving it very slowly to stop the opponent from getting it.

ryan (Ryan O’Hanlon, FiveThirtyEight contributor and author of the No Grass in the Clouds newsletter): I see this Chelsea team as one of the best defensive sides of the modern era of the sport. As Grace said, it’s equally adept at defending with the ball or without it. It limits shots, and it also concedes only terrible shots. It’s amazing, and teams like this aren’t supposed to win the Champions League.

grace: Tuchel teams aren’t supposed to win like this! He’s supposed to be the idealistic attacking guy, yet here he is.

ryan: That’s a scary thought for the rest of the Premier League.

tchow: This Chelsea squad is not your typical Tuchel team, but that’s to be expected given that he came in mid-season and hasn’t had a lot of training time or a full transfer window with this squad. A lot of credit goes to him, though, for figuring out a way to make it work with this side. 

cwick: Tony, were you that wrong about Chelsea? This is the same team that sputtered down the stretch and was at risk of not finishing in the top four in the Premier League. This is the same team whose star striker acquisition could barely find the net all season long. This is the same team that had the easier path to the final and won only 1-0. In other words, how much can one game really tell us about a team? Chelsea was favored to win 42 percent of the time against Manchester City. Do we really think Chelsea is better? Does it even matter??

grace: To put some numbers on it, when Tuchel took over, FiveThirtyEight had Chelsea’s SPI at 85.7, and now it’s at 90.5, third-best in Europe behind City and Bayern Munich (with Bayern only a tiny bit ahead). Tuchel really did improve this team, but it was never broken.

ryan: Per Stats Perform, Chelsea had the best non-penalty xG differential among all teams in the Big Five Leagues and Champions League after Tuchel took over. The late-season sputter was the fluke, not this win.

tchow: This one game really encapsulated what Chelsea has been able to do for the latter part of this season, though. As Ryan said, it is DOMINANT on defense. Outside of two league games, it’s kept opponents to a 1.0 xG or lower for the past two months. That is not easy to do!

ryan: City took seven shots, the second-fewest the team has attempted in a game since Pep Guardiola took over.

grace: Before the game, Guardiola actually explained what Tuchel’s system does so well. The wingbacks stretch the opponents wide, Timo Werner stretches them in behind, but Chelsea still has plenty of really good players around central midfield. It’s got the whole pitch covered.

ryan: Given that the team spent close to $200 million on ATTACKING players last summer, it’s really just a remarkable transformation.

cwick: Fair enough. Let’s talk then about one player in particular who is being held up as the key to Chelsea’s success: N’golo Kanté. The New York Times’s Rory Smith says the Champions League final should be remembered as “the Kanté final” because he was so present everywhere on the pitch. Rather than evaluate that claim, I’m interested if Kanté is a kind of proxy for Chelsea’s evolution over the past few years. He has been asked to play lots of different roles for lots of different managers. Has he finally found the coach who can use him best?

grace: I think he’s been fantastic under just about every manager he’s had for Chelsea, Leicester and France, to be honest. What gets me is how Tuchel is the first guy to realize that Kanté and Jorginho have complementary skill sets.

tchow: Yeah, Kanté seems like the kind of player who could fit into any system, but it does seem like he’s just perfect for this “double-six” role that Tuchel has talked so much about.

ryan: There’s something to the fact that Kanté has seemed best when he’s playing as part of a midfield two rather than a three — at Leicester, under Antonio Conte at Chelsea, and with Paul Pogba for France. That seems to give him the freedom to go make plays with and without the ball, and it also allows the team to fit in another attacker or defender.

grace: His best football has come in a double pivot, whether with Drinkwater for Leicester, Matić for Conte’s Chelsea, Pogba for France, or Jorginho now. 

Jorginho is basically the rich man’s Danny Drinkwater. Danilo Drinkwine.

ryan: We still don’t really know how to measure defensive value or even midfield play yet, but Kanté is clearly doing stuff that will eventually show up on the WAR leaderboards at whatever the soccer version of Fangraphs is. His teams just win.

grace: Guardiola’s tactical plan was obviously to get more passers into central areas and control the midfield, but Kanté just shut that down completely.

cwick: “Double-six,” “double pivot” — can we do a quick glossary definition? Are they the same? Six to one, half pivot to another?

ryan: Tactics are whatever you want them to be, Chad.

grace: Much as I believe that the six position is a “number four” in English rather than a six, a double-six is the same thing as a double pivot, yeah. It just means two central midfielders sitting in front of the defense.

ryan: As opposed to City, who played with one “holding” midfielder in İlkay Gündoğan, and then two other midfielders in front of him.

tchow: Specifically for Chelsea, the double-six means Tuchel often pairs Kanté with another holding midfielder like Jorginho or Mateo Kovačić.

cwick: Excellent, thank you. What does this final portend for City going forward? Sergio Agüero is already at Barcelona, but that doesn’t seem like that big of an issue for City next year. Is there any reason to think City won’t be right back near the top of Europe for years to come?

ryan: It’ll be fine. If anything, it seems like this might be the thing that makes the team finally break the bank for a top striker.

grace: City has really perfected Guardiola’s preferred style of midfield control this season, but maybe this game suggests it doesn’t quite have the flexibility of previous seasons.

tchow: City is not going anywhere. I think the big question is whether Guardiola thinks the team needs a true striker next season.

grace: Especially as Fernandinho ages, City can’t quite switch to a faster transition-based style for a one-off game the way it perhaps could in the past.

cwick: What striker on the market makes sense for them? (Bonus points for not saying Lionel Messi.)

tchow: Harry Kane? This chat’s favorite striker, Erling Haaland?

grace: My view is if you can get Haaland, you get Haaland for the long term. But if you’d rather someone who can go straight in and offer traditional striker qualities without costing anything in terms of the possession style, Kane can do that.

ryan: Haaland is the better move from a long-term team-building perspective. I’d also love to see Guardiola try to coach a guy who kind of still has only one move: “run into box, kick ball hard.” It’s a great move! But Guardiola usually likes his strikers — if he likes them at all — to contribute more in buildup play.

grace: The potential of Kane to City reminds me of Robin van Persie to Man United. A peak-age player with injury problems in the past to go straight in and win now.

tchow: Yeah, as I said, that’s the big question. Does Guardiola think he can continue doing what he has done this season and play false nines up top and continue to rotate players like Kevin De Bruyne, Bernardo Silva, etc., randomly into that role, or is a true striker going to be what gets City over the Champions League hump? The team is clearly good enough to win the Premier League — and it will be in contention again next season — but the big prize is what it’s after.

ryan: It’ll be fascinating to see what the Premier League looks like next season. Will it still be so slow because of the long summers most of these players are facing? If so, that’ll be conducive to City’s style from this season. Or will a more normal schedule of games, plus the return of fans, bring back the pressing of seasons past? In that case, this might’ve been a one-off from City in terms of how it tries to win.

cwick: Since this is our last chat for a while, I’d love to know what else you are watching out for in the offseason. Barcelona’s rebuild has already begun, the Euros are approaching — what should our readers keep an eye on?

grace: Whether players hit a wall in the Euros and Copa América. Because that would not bode well for the next two seasons and the 2022 World Cup.

tchow: I’m really keeping an eye on this transfer window and how the pandemic will affect transfer fees and player movements. And this might be the case every season, but the other thing to keep an eye on in the Premier League in particular is what the Big Four do this summer. Each team has its own unique questions to answer. We talked about where City goes. We also mentioned how dangerous Chelsea could be after some more time under Tuchel, but the squad has an aging defense and about a gazillion players coming back from loan. And then Liverpool needs to figure out what to do with Roberto Firmino.

ryan: One thing to keep an eye on that somehow isn’t a bigger story: Messi, the greatest soccer player of all time, is currently a free agent and can sign with any team he wants.

tchow: Maybe that isn’t a bigger story because there’s an understanding that Agüero wouldn’t have signed with Barcelona if there wasn’t some knowledge that his buddy/compatriot would still be there?

cwick: Where should Messi go??

grace: I think he’s going to stay at Barça. It doesn’t feel like anyone else quite wants to mortgage its future on him right now. Cristiano Ronaldo not quite setting the world alight at Juventus might have scared people off doing that.

ryan: I’m not sure Barcelona’s summer of “only signing players on free transfers” would be super-appealing to me if my one remaining goal as a player was to win the Champions League.

This will never happen, but Ronaldo and Messi should team up. See what happens.

grace: Ryan has entered the world of fanfic.

cwick: He’s always been in it. Now he’s just expanding beyond his Haaland canon.

Check out our latest soccer predictions.

Chadwick Matlin was a deputy managing editor at FiveThirtyEight.

Tony Chow is a video producer for FiveThirtyEight.

Grace Robertson is a soccer writer based in the United Kingdom. She writes for a number of sites including StatsBomb.

Ryan O’Hanlon is a writer and editor living in Los Angeles. He publishes a twice-a-week newsletter about soccer called No Grass in the Clouds.