Chelsea's 1-0 win against Zenit is the first game to feature in our new 'In the Zone' series – UEFA's Technical Observer panel pores over the finer details.
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UEFA's Technical Observer panel reviews Chelsea’s 1-0 Group H victory at home to Zenit on Matchday 1 which marked a successful start to their UEFA Champions League title defence for Thomas Tuchel's team.
This was no early-autumn evening stroll in west London, however, despite Chelsea's eye-catching opening to the 2021/22 Premier League, in which they are the joint leaders. They were facing a quick and athletic Zenit outfit whose compact defensive set-up initially frustrated Chelsea's creative talents; an opposition team with a winning mentality borne of their continuing domestic dominance in Russia.
1-0: Romelu Lukaku (69)
Lukaku's match-winning strike came after the ball had been switched on two successive occasions from the European champions' left flank to their right. The sequence of passes culminated in central figure Jorginho circulating the ball back out to César Azpilicueta; with the Zenit back line forced to drop deep, and with Mason Mount and Hakim Ziyech occupying two defenders, the Blues captain had time to deliver a cross which Lukaku, pulling away from Zenit's middle centre-back Dmitrii Chistiakov, headed down to score.
Romelu Lukaku (Chelsea)
In the event, the game's crucial moment involved three key men from the Blues side. This should have come as no surprise given the ever-willing Azpilicueta's endeavours in committing opponents in the build-up phase; Jorginho's intelligence in creating space and circulating the ball; and Lukaku's threatening runs and link-up work.
The UEFA Champions League Player of the Match vote for this narrow Stamford Bridge victory went to the goalscorer and man of the moment Lukaku.
This was the 28-year-old Belgian's fourth strike since his recent club-record transfer return to Chelsea and yet, overall, it was a difficult game of few chances for the No9. When opportunity did knock, though, he took his goal very well, peeling on to the blind side between centre-back and wing-back to nod in.
Whether in their starting template of 3-4-2-1 or after Mount had made it two central attackers after the restart, one Chelsea constant was the quick switch of play to Azpilicueta (and to some extent Rüdiger too).
Zenit were never going to be a pushover, however, and Andreas Christensen – the man in the middle of Chelsea's back three – had to take the lead in preventing counterattacks by defending high against the rival forwards, notably Sardar Azmoun. Jorginho was also critical throughout, controlling his side's defensive and offensive balance.
The lively Azmoun was the player that the Russian top-flight pacesetters always looked to whenever they were on the front foot. Together with Malcom and Claudinho, the Iranian was part of Zenit's speedy transitions as Sergei Semak's well-organised team went on the attack; their 3-vs-3s did bring moments of promise, although better decision-making might have improved the end product.
There were certainly spaces for Zenit to exploit but overall the home team held sway and deservedly so.
In the final analysis, Chelsea's interval alteration enabled them to build up a head of steam after an opening period in which the continental title-holders had largely been contained.
The breakthrough rewarded the tactical tweak made by coach Tuchel after half-time. Chelsea had been finding it difficult to unpick the Russian champions' back five, relying on outside centre-backs Azpilicueta and Rüdiger to step up and create overloads as well as on the natural width of Reece James and Marcos Alonso.
Come the second half, however, Mount was moved forward to operate alongside Lukaku, battling against Zenit's central-defensive trident. This slight change to 3-4-1-2 left Semak's side more vulnerable, because until then their centre-halves had been stepping out with reasonable comfort to deal with players between the lines.
It then followed that Chelsea's momentum increased, and the Londoners' use of Azpilicueta's ability to beat the press finally bore fruit with the Spaniard's cross for the only goal.
The visitors' system resembled a 5-3-2, with the wing-backs going high against their Chelsea counterparts and with outside centre-backs Wilmar Barrios and Yaroslav Rakits'kyy checking Mount and Ziyech. However, when defending deeper or for counterattacking purposes, forward Daler Kuzyaev slipped back into midfield to make the guest set-up a 5-4-1.
Typically, Zenit turned to right and left wing-backs Aleksei Sutormin and Douglas Santos for the attacking width essential to their hopes; central midfielder Wendel sat tight – all of which put the creative onus on Azmoun and partners-in-crime Malcom and Claudinho. Malcom, a skilled technician, was excellent at escaping tight situations and similarly effective in transition.
Thomas Tuchel, Chelsea manager: "It was not frustrating. It was tough against very strong opponents. We had to work really hard. We struggled a bit to create chances and shots in the first half. In the second half it was a bit easier to find space and shoot. It was a deserved win. Hard earned. It took us a while to make them tired but I liked what I saw."
Sergei Semak, Zenit coach: "Chelsea were the better team and deserved to win. But overall we had a good game, especially defensively. It was a tough game for us, Chelsea had more of the ball and used it better. Nevertheless the final scoreline could have been different. We had a great chance at the end and didn't take it."