Champions League bold predictions: Manchester United waste their chances despite Atletico Madrid mistakes

The Champions League round of 16 wraps up this week on Paramount+ with four games on the calendar. Amid the off-field turbulence that is engulfing them, Chelsea travel to Lille on Wednesday but before that, there is perhaps the most exciting tie left to be completed as Manchester United host Atletico Madrid. Here’s what to look out for in those games:

1. Christian Pulisic gets another chance to shine for Chelsea

Quite unsurprisingly, the focus has been on other matters at Stamford Bridge of late, but recent weeks have seen Christian Pulisic emerge from the peripheries of the squad to play an increasingly important role in Thomas Tuchel’s tactical plans. After a season pockmarked by injuries, COVID-19 and stints at wing back, the American is finally getting a chance to show what he can do in his best positions. It’s not that the 23-year-old has entered first-name-on-the-team-sheet territory, if anything, he figures to start against Lille because he is a good fit next to those Tuchel will be building his team around. But he’s still getting consistent playing time where he wants it for the first time all season.

For the most part, Pulisic’s recent rise is not particularly a story about him. He is instead a supporting character, one through whose lens we can view the decline of Romelu Lukaku and the rise of Kai Havertz. Take that infamous game against Crystal Palace where the Belgian set a new Premier League record for the fewest touches in 90 minutes. Lukaku was thrust into a role that Chelsea needed him to play — the target man center forward around whom others could run — and it proved to be a fit no less awkward than this pass to Pulisic.

Lukaku passes the ball to Pulisic in Chelsea’s 1-0 win over Crystal Palace
USA Network

Enter Havertz, who is at ease as the fulcrum around which Chelsea build their attacks. He has a tendency to drop deep, though he showed against Newcastle that he is equally deadly running in behind. Mason Mount also tends to go toward the ball. With those two, the natural starters, Tuchel needs someone to run beyond it. That is a role to which Pulisic is ideally suited. Timo Werner is too, but his travails in front of goal have become almost unwatchable for his manager, who could scarcely hide his frustration on Sunday as the No. 11 oscillated between offside flags and missing chances when he was onside. 

He may only have been chucked on in the dying minutes as Chelsea chased an equalizer, but Pulisic’s case for regular minutes was boosted by Werner’s performance on Sunday just as much as by the American’s own displays. Pulisic seems to come into his own playing alongside Havertz in a way he does not when it is Lukaku leading the line, his recent impressive display in the EFL Cup final the best evidence so far of what he brings when played with the German.

Small sample sizes can muddy the water when assessing the data across the season so far but equally, it is not too hard to draw a conclusion from the following. In the five Premier League matches this season where Pulisic has shared the pitch solely with Lukaku, he has had one shot on goal, and even that is a generous definition of a last gasp header that got nowhere near the West Ham goal. In four games with Havertz, he has taken five shots, scoring twice. When Pulisic has played with the former, he has often found himself shunted out to the right wing. Pair the American with Havertz and Tuchel feels able to put the former in the spots where he is most effective, the inside left channel.

Like almost every other player in the team, Pulisic may not be at his best on Wednesday night if that role requires him to play without Reece James and Marcos Alonso. The presence of the former allows Chelsea to play with the wing-back system that stretches the field wider in attack, opening lanes for the front three to attack. Take those routes to goal away from Pulisic and it may be a frustrating night for him, but at least with Havertz in the team alongside him, he knows he has one forward with whom he clicks.

2. Atletico Madrid open the door for United …

On the surface, everything looks rather rosy at Atletico Madrid since that largely impressive 1-1 draw against a dreadful Manchester United side. That was a match where Diego Simeone’s side had their opponent cornered but failed to strike the decisive blow. Three games since have brought three wins and a spot in the top four; this has hardly been a La Liga title defense for the ages, but if it ends with Atleti safely ensconced in the Champions League places, then it is mission accomplished.

“The most important thing tonight is the result,” Simeone said after Saturday’s 2-1 win over Cadiz. “There is less and less time left in the season and it’s important to win these games.” He is, of course, correct, but a manager tends not to make these comments after their teams have put in stirring displays that have ended in convincing wins. When you have won against the run of play, that’s when it is all about the results. 

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Of late, that has perhaps been an all too familiar tune for Atletico. Points are being picked up three at a time and that matters an awful lot. Equally, there is still a lot of work to be done to finetune a defense that looks like it might leave the door open for Manchester United. Indeed, Ralf Rangnick’s side are the only one of Los Rojiblancos’ last five opponents not to reach double figures for shots, all in games where they have had significantly less possession to create their chances. In expected goals (xG) terms, Cadiz had comfortably the better opportunities, Celta Vigo had slightly the better of the game, and even a struggling Real Betis side had a decent shot profile. 

Recent years have seen a steady decline in the underlying defensive numbers of this team, whose bedrock was once its formidable rearguard. This team can still tighten up shop — and across the course of this La Liga season, it is allowing fewer shots per game than it has in any of the past five years — but the aura seems to have gone. Atletico seem to feel that truth as much as their opponents. Without Koke on the pitch (he played 45 minutes against Cadiz but may not be at full tilt against United), opponents find it much easier to get into the penalty area, averaging 10 percent more touches per game in that area of the pitch.

Meanwhile, Atletico’s approach to defending crosses and deliveries into the box is far from convincing, as evidenced in that narrow win over Cadiz. Alvaro Negredo got his goal when he found a chasm between Jose Maria Gimenez and Renan Lodi. He might also have scored from a long throw that a panicking Antoine Griezmann headed up in the air as Stefan Savic hurried out to meet the danger. Victor Chust and Anthony Lozano both had chances that largely stemmed from the opposition’s inability to organize themselves for crosses and dead balls.

Negredo heads in Cadiz’s equaliser against Atletico Madrid
Sport 3

Friday’s game was no aberration either. Atleti have conceded seven goals from crosses in La Liga this season, only one fewer than their worst ever tally in the past five years, and had all sorts of difficulties in the group stages, where Junior Messias exploited that same game between Lodi and Gimenez that Negredo did a few days ago. If you can get your crosses right, then there are chances to be earned against Atletico. 

3. … but Red Devils can’t exploit their chances

All it takes then, is an opponent to get their crosses right. It is a blessed relief for Atletico that they face a team who scored their second Premier League goal off a cross this season last weekend, leaving with a goal return from aerial deliveries that is still the worst in England’s top flight. Both of those goals have been corners, both have come in the last month but a return of two from 177 ought to offer some solace to Jan Oblak and company.

For the most part this season, the issue has been clear: United have struggled to hit their targets. From those numerous deliveries, Harry Maguire, who scored their first goal from a corner against Leeds last month, has managed seven shots. Cristiano Ronaldo has had three. It is not that they are not being targeted — most of United’s successful set pieces go to those two or Raphael Varane — but that the deliveries are rather underwhelming. 

For the most part, that is particularly true of Alex Telles, even if he did assist Ronaldo over the weekend (though that was a goal based as much on the striker’s will to win the ball and score his hat trick as it was the delivery). The Brazilian completes 23.1 percent of his crosses from corners, the average Premier League player is at 28.2 percent. It may not augur well for United that Luke Shaw, one of their other regular set-piece takers, is a fitness doubt while Bruno Fernandes, so poor in the first leg, has just returned to practice after a battle with COVID.

Of course, this is not just about delivery. When United shoot from crosses, they do so badly. Among Premier League teams, they rank bottom in terms of shooting goals added (a metric that compares post-shot and pre-shot xG) from crosses. Indeed, rather than add xG from the shots off of their crosses, the Red Devils are actually 4.64 xG worse off than the average team. The chief offender is Ronaldo, who ranks third from bottom in the league, behind Shane Duffy and Chris Wood. His 21 shots off crosses have brought United one goal and -1.18 shooting goals added.

That might seem strange for a player who is arguably the greatest aerial threat of his generation. But, of course, opposition defenses know that and will not be afraid to double- or triple-team him when the ball comes into the box. No less pertinently, Ronaldo is well aware of his greatness. That is perhaps why positions like this end up in ambitious shots that have precious little chance of ending with the ball in the net. Alternatively, it is possible that Ronaldo is getting his head, albeit futilely, to balls which lesser players would not, but that just returns United to their earlier problem, the inaccuracy of those deliveries. 

Ronaldo sets up for an ambitious overhead kick against Arsenal
Premier Sport

Of course, Atletico know better than anyone that Ronaldo’s underlying metrics can count for very little when he comes up against them. Indeed, they’re well aware that spectacular shot attempts like that above sometimes go in when they come off the boots of this particular player. But right now, the player who is nowhere to be seen one game and a hat-trick hero the next may not be in the sort of consistent form that can punish flaws like those Atleti have.

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