Impatient Bayern find keys to unlock Chelsea as Hansi Flick restores old fire


Bayern Munich may not have all the answers, but they know all the right questions. They can finish you in more ways than almost any other team on the planet. You play through the press and they smother you with possession. You lock the front gate and they find a way around the side. You sit deep and they weave their dainty triangles around you. You commit high and they make you turn and run. Thwart their slick passing game for one half, and they simply take you to pieces in the next.

This, essentially, is what happened to Chelsea here: after maintaining a stony silence for 50 minutes in the face of a relentless interrogation, they eventually squealed like piglets. If Serge Gnabry’s two goals in three minutes did not quite settle matters, Robert Lewandowski’s third goal probably did, even if Marcos Alonso’s late red card and consequent suspension offered Chelsea a glimmer of hope going into the second leg.

The word it is tempting to deploy here is “patience”: stoic Teutonic forbearance ultimately earning its reward. Here, though, Bayern were anything but. They were irascibly, irritably impatient: gradually quickening their pace, thumbing through their moves like a burglar rifling through a ring of keys, searching for the one that unlocks the safe. Eventually Gnabry found it: a short but devastating chain of passing and movement that allowed Lewandowski to evade his marker, receive the ball, and return it for Gnabry’s delectation.

The second goal was simpler still: Gnabry to Lewandowski to Gnabry again, but this time a sweeping vertical move that had begun with the goalkeeper Manuel Neuer just seconds earlier. It was a very Bayern goal: intuitive, clinical and yet giving the strong impression that it had been mapped out weeks in advance. Mate in two against any defence. These are the characteristics of great teams: that essential tension between spontaneity and choreography, a mesmeric game of perpetual fission where every pass seems to detonate two rehearsed runs.

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Watch the way Bayern press, for example. It’s not just the speed but the suddenness: trigger the trip-wire and there they are, closing you down, cutting off your angles, hunting you down like prey. One of Hansi Flick’s first priorities on assuming temporary charge of Bayern after Niko Kovac’s sacking in November was in restoring the famous Bayern press to its bloodthirsty best: high-tempo, high-aggression, high up the pitch.

This, as much as Lewandowski’s goals or Gnabry’s hot streak or the return to form of Thomas Müller, is what has restored them to their familiar place at the top of the Bundesliga.

In his press conference, the Chelsea manager Frank Lampard offered up a radically different perspective. For him, Chelsea’s failure had not been collective but individual, and it was now individuals who needed to take responsibility. “Who was I up against?” he wanted his players to ask themselves. “Who was my direct competitor? How do I feel I’ve played against them? It’s about match-ups.”

This was a telling comment, because it revealed not just how Lampard saw the previous 90 minutes, but how he sees the game in general: a series of individual battles, as 11 micro-clashes of personality. Win your battles, lads, and we win the match.

It is a philosophy that in many ways underpins the club’s entire identity in the trophy-rich Abramovich era: sign the best players, send them out with the best coach, and let the gravity of football do the rest. Perhaps, too, it explains the desperate clamour to sign a big-name striker in the January transfer window: the ironed-on attacking solution that will make all their dreams come true.

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Perhaps Chelsea do need a striker. But the relative failures of Álvaro Morata and Gonzalo Higuaín and Olivier Giroud and Michy Batshuayi – high-quality strikers all – suggests the problem goes deeper than personnel. Not since their title-winning season three years ago, arguably, have Chelsea enjoyed an attacking system worthy of the name.

The individual brilliance of Eden Hazard, and latterly the sparkling improvement of Tammy Abraham, have partially papered over the cracks. But in their more listless moments, there remains a feverish, on-the-hoof improvisation to their decision-making in the final third that here contrasted strongly with Bayern’s sharply-honed automations.

What does a typical Chelsea attacking move look like? Who will score their goals if Abraham is injured or marked out of the game?

These are questions that are answered not just by individuals but by systems: the systems that Lampard should be trying to build at Chelsea, that Flick has managed to rebuild in just a few short weeks at Bayern.

Of course, it helps when the core of your team has been together for the best part of a decade, when you have players of the quality of Müller and Gnabry and Kingsley Coman at your disposal.

But the basic ideas are universal. Drilled and grooved patterns. Dizzying angles. A hungry press. Learned complexity. Runs begetting passes begetting runs. This is the sort of attacking play that elite European football demands as a bare minimum, and on this evidence Chelsea have a sizeable gulf to bridge.



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