If it is true that teams embody their manager’s personality, then perhaps it is no surprise that Chelsea exuded calm when their hopes of cruising into the last 16 of the Champions League were placed in doubt by a thrilling surge from RB Salzburg.
The fightback had come out of nowhere, Junior Adamu sending the Red Bull Arena wild by cancelling out Mateo Kovacic’s early strike, and for a fleeting moment it was tempting to wonder if Graham Potter would stand charged of overthinking his tactics. A free, fluid system with Raheem Sterling and Christian Pulisic as wing-backs suddenly felt a little too cavalier. Chelsea had called all the shots in the first half and now, with a buoyant crowd roaring Salzburg on, an upset was on the cards.
Yet Chelsea drowned out the noise. They regained their lead thanks to a magnificent goal from Kai Havertz and, while the second half was a bruising battle at times, could celebrate winning Group E with a game to spare in the end.
Potter had certainly made things interesting by responding to his team’s defensive injuries by picking a lineup that featured Jorginho screening the back three, Havertz supporting Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang up front, and Pulisic and Sterling in unfamiliar roles.
It felt as if it was a way of dealing with Chelsea’s creative issues – as Potter explained, the idea behind Sterling’s positioning was to exploit Salzburg’s narrow 4-3-2-1 system – and the early signs were promising. There was an immediate chance for Havertz, who was denied by Philipp Köhn after a poor backpass from Bernardo, and a wasteful touch from Aubameyang after a deft pass from Conor Gallagher.
There was Gallagher offering incision on his first start in Europe and a flexibility to the overall approach encapsulated by Marc Cucurella stepping up from left centre-back, as well as Havertz and Sterling taking the opportunity to swap positions at times.
Chelsea ran Salzburg ragged at times. The hosts struggled to break out of their half, with their threat limited to tame drives from long range, and it was not a surprise when they fell behind in the 23rd minute. A cross from Gallagher caused problems and Havertz forced a desperate tackle from Maximilian Wöber, whose clearance ran to Kovacic. The midfielder’s swiped finish, a left-footed drive that left Köhn rooted to the spot, swerved high into the net and was hardly that of a player who had not scored since 2 January.
But Potterball always throws up surprises. Chelsea soon opened Salzburg up again, Sterling drifting inside to start a one-touch sequence that led to Kovacic releasing Havertz. The only missing element was the finishing touch from Aubameyang, whose shot was blocked by Köhn.
The visitors were creating chances at will. Havertz and Aubameyang went close with headers and the only disappointment for Chelsea was that they had only scored once during an opening period of utter dominance.
It had ended with Sterling playing in Aubameyang, who was thwarted by Köhn again. Chelsea’s profligacy gave Salzburg hope. Matthias Jaissle’s side were far more aggressive in the second half, which finally gave them a platform to hurt a defence weakened by injuries to Reece James, Wesley Fofana and Kalidou Koulibaly.
The equaliser was a tactical disaster for Chelsea when it arrived in the 48th minute. Wober was able to surge down the left when Salzburg broke, capitalising on Pulisic’s lack of expertise at right wing-back, and the resulting cross exposed further cracks. It curved beyond Cucurella, who was outnumbered at the far post, and with Sterling nowhere to be seen on the cover Adamu was free to cushion his finish past Kepa Arrizabalaga.
To Chelsea’s credit, though, there was no panic. Aubamayeng sped through the middle, but was frustrated by Amar Dedic. Jorginho had a header hacked off the line. Eventually Havertz produced a moment of brilliance, collecting a pass on the edge of the area, shifting the ball on to his left foot and bending a superb shot in off the underside of the bar.
Job done? Not quite. Salzburg threatened another equaliser when Benjamin Sesko, who was on for Luka Susic, turned Trevoh Chalobah and tested Arrizabalaga with a rasping shot. Then Arrizabalaga was beaten to a long punt by Strahinja Pavlovic, whose header was shovelled away by Thiago Silva.
Recognising the need for more solidity, Potter introduced Ruben Loftus-Cheek for Kovacic, César Azpilicueta for Pulisic and Armando Broja for Aubameyang. It was just about enough to get Chelsea over the line.