Antonio Conte faces one of the most difficult decisions of his Chelsea tenure to date. On Wednesday night, his side travel to Camp Nou in need of at least one goal yet every instinct in the Italian’s body will gravitate towards playing with the same striker-less formation that nullified Barcelona so well in the first leg. His players, however, are less enamoured by an approach that leans too heavily on solidity rather than creativity, and it has presented a massive dilemma for the manager.
Chelsea defended impressively at Stamford Bridge and did a particularly good job of prioritising who to press and hound, and who to allow time on the ball. Lionel Messi and Luis Suarez, the danger men, were swarmed, while holding midfielders Sergio Busquets, Ivan Rakitic and right-back Sergio Roberto were deliberately afforded the most touches on the night. Conte knew those players could not hurt his side, so sat off and clogged the space between the lines instead.
But with Chelsea sitting so deep, it left Eden Hazard – used as a false nine – a rather isolated and frustrated presence up front. He complained afterwards: ‘In games like that against quality opposition like Barcelona, it’s difficult. You don’t get a lot of ball. I might have touched 25 balls that night and 15 of them were flying toward my head. That is not really playing to my qualities.’
In actual fact, Hazard had 54 touches of the ball against Barca – the third most in the Chelsea team – played the joint-second most passes and created three chances. Conte’s tactics, while ultimately reactive, created a lot of space on the counter-attack and the hosts were unlucky not to score more. When he brought Alvaro Morata back into the starting XI a few days later at Old Trafford, Hazard’s involvement actually dipped comparatively.
Chelsea touches against Barcelona (first leg)
Part of the reason for that was how little Morata could be relied upon as an out-ball – even goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois completed more passes against Manchester United – and his form at the moment is a major worry. The Spaniard has not scored since Boxing Day due to a combination of niggling injuries and just plain rank finishing. At the start of the season he looked ruthless, now he exudes only timidity in front of goal.
Were he in slightly better form, Conte’s line-up at Camp Nou would pick itself. Back in September, his side pulled off their best performance on the road this season – and an archetypal European away display – against Atletico Madrid. In the Spanish capital, Conte used a 3-5-2 formation which allowed Hazard and Morata to lead the line in tandem and terrorise Atleti’s defence.
But Morata lacks the ferocity or confidence to perform that role right now, while Olivier Giroud does not possess the requisite mobility and athleticism. That victory over Atletico was based on hard and fast transitions, springing into counter-attacks whenever the opportunity arose. You sense that Conte wants to do the same again at Camp Nou, and his admiration for Juventus’ approach against Tottenham hinted as much: ‘They showed great resilience, suffered a lot and, in the right minute, they killed Tottenham’.
That sense of coming to life in decisive moments is key to Conte’s approach. Chelsea will not have a lot of the ball, but when they do they need to kill Barca. Morata and Giroud – whose biggest night in the Champions League for Arsenal saw him miss countless sitters against Monaco – do not feel capable of doing that. Hazard and Willian, easily Chelsea’s best player since the turn of the year, do.
Cesc Fabregas on how Chelsea must approach Barca test
‘We must work together and take advantage of our opportunities, to play our game – I’ve trained tactically more at Chelsea more than anywhere else and you can see that on the pitch. We must start the match with a positive outlook because if we do not, then we will struggle. That has to be the mentality with which we go into this match. We can’t start at the Camp Nou with a negative mindset, it must be the opposite, we have to enjoy this big match.’
Conte’s priority, therefore, is how to get the best out of that duo. Both players would prefer to play either side of a target man, but that would prevent Conte from playing with the 3-5-2 that was so effective against Atletico. Would he be so bold to risk playing Willian and Hazard as his front two? They would still struggle to win long balls, but they would have more license to terrorise the gaps Barca leave at the back, especially if Cesc Fabregas is allowed to play slightly more advanced.
The question marks that surround Barca’s own formation could also see Conte leave his forwards in reserve. The potential absence of Andres Iniesta could define the contest. Ernesto Valverde is expected to switch to a more offensive 4-3-3 formation, with Ousmane Dembele on the wing, if the skipper is fit enough to play.
That would create entirely different problems for Chelsea to try and solve. Three weeks ago Barca played a narrow shape and only looked to exploit the flanks through their overlapping full-backs. But Dembele is capable of beating his man one-on-one with pace and trickery, while he would also allow Iniesta to play a deeper, more central role. Chelsea were happy to stand off Barca’s midfielders last time, but they would be punished if they did the same with the cerebral Catalan captain.
Chelsea’s task is not an easy one, then, and you feel it hinges on the effectiveness and dynamism of the attacking line-up Conte eventually settles on. Fabregas remarked that it would a ‘suicide mission’ to only try and defend for 90 minutes against Barcelona. The key for the Blues is that, on the rare occasions they do attack, they must do so quickly, in numbers and with extreme ruthlessness. With Morata so out of sorts and Giroud far from ideal, that leaves Hazard through the middle as Chelsea’s best weapon – even if he may not like it very much.