Chelsea profligacy doesn’t matter at Malmo, but one day it will

MALMO, Sweden — Chelsea’s propensity of sharing goals around is a remarkable trait that is helping Thomas Tuchel cope with the loss of his principal forwards, but nights like this would be much easier if Kai Havertz could join the party more often. The Blues have had 17 different scorers this season — Manchester City are the next closest in England with 15, but Liverpool and Arsenal come next with 10 — yet no single player has registered more than four.

Tuesday’s 1-0 win in Malmo ensures Tuchel continues to keep Chelsea progressing nicely on all fronts this season despite only sporadically finding real fluidity in attack, a problem exacerbated at least in theory by losing primary strikers Romelu Lukaku and Timo Werner to injury.

Havertz has assumed responsibility for leading the attack but in the fortnight since Lukaku and Werner limped off in the reverse fixture at Stamford Bridge, the Blues have scored 12 times in four matches without defeat. Havertz was responsible for just one of those, a header from a corner in a Carabao Cup fourth-round tie against Southampton in which Chelsea still required penalties to advance to the quarterfinals.

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Such is the guile and creativity he offers in that position, Havertz is not a player judged on goals alone. This was exemplified by his role in Hakim Ziyech’s 56th-minute winner, the Morocco international’s first goal since August. Exchanging passes with Callum Hudson-Odoi, Havertz released the England international who then produced a sumptuous cross for Ziyech to convert from close range at the far post, breaking the home side’s resistance if not their support — 19,551 inside the compact Eleda Stadion defying a crisp November night with fervent backing throughout.

It is precisely the sort of link-up play Havertz can offer as a false nine, but the trade-off of profligacy was in evidence in what came before and after. Since scoring the goal that won last season’s Champions League final against Manchester City in May, the Germany international has netted on just three occasions, but he really should have added to that tally here.

During a first half in which Malmo used a tight pitch to their advantage to defend the width of their box and deny space in central areas with a five-man defence, Chelsea relied on several moments of quality from Ruben Loftus-Cheek — making his first Champions League start since 2015 — to beat a player and prise their opponents open.

Loftus-Cheek recovered from a nervous start to impose himself in midfield, and after 29 minutes he released Havertz for a clear sight of goal. The 22-year-old delayed his effort and allowed Malmo goalkeeper Johan Dahlin a chance to narrow down the angle and make a good block.

The same combination could have made the game safe with 12 minutes remaining. Loftus-Cheek played Havertz in again but once more, he could not beat Dahlin from close range.

“Unfortunately [Havertz missed a couple of chances] because I think he deserves [to score],” said Tuchel. “Very intense against the ball and off the ball bringing a huge effort, doing a lot of runs when we have the ball. I like what he plays at the moment. I can see and feel how hard he fights for the team and what an effort he puts into it.

“He is a bit unlucky at the moment. He won a penalty for us at Newcastle. He had today one maybe two chances to score. It would be the perfect scenario if it could happen for him but in the last games I’m actually very happy with his performance, the effort he puts into his games and also the quality.”

This was another occasion when Tuchel, serenaded by the travelling supporters, displayed his tactical nous, switching the flanks where Ziyech and Hudson-Odoi were operating at half-time. Within 11 minutes, they combined for the only goal.

This was an expected yet necessary win in the context of Group H after September’s defeat to Juventus put Chelsea on the back foot in securing top spot, yet it was harder than it needed to be. Chelsea dominated the ball, ending with 66% possession but completing more passes (743) than any other team in a Champions League game this season as they probed for openings they then struggled to take; 22 shots yielded 10 on target but Dahlin should not have been given a chance to make as many saves as he did.

“We wanted the result, we needed the result, we expected the result from us and we delivered,” said Tuchel. “We had a lot of shots and a lot of touches in the opponent’s half in the first half but we were not clinical enough and could not score.

“We wanted to increase the intensity level a bit in the second half to force a goal, and then in the moment of highest pressure in the beginning of the second half, we were able to use this one moment with precision and we were clinical enough to score.”

The game’s final act could hardly have made the point better. Christian Pulisic came on for the final 16 minutes in his first appearance for the club since Aug. 14, notably playing through the middle as Chelsea sought to kill off the game.

Deep into stoppage-time, the United States international bent his run to race clean through on goal. He rounded Dahlin only to turn his right-footed shot into the side netting as, off-balance, he fell to the floor. Pulisic was flagged offside so it didn’t matter.

One day it might.

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