Even a tactician as smart as Thomas Tuchel needs a bit of help sometimes. He does not have the solution to every structural issue and it helped that he was prepared to listen when his assistant, Arno Michels, laid out the plan that lifted a stuttering display from Chelsea, who were far more incisive after moving Hakim Ziyech to the left and sending Callum Hudson-Odoi to the right with instructions to break Malmo’s stubborn resistance by putting his speedy dribbling to good use.
Michel’s ploy soon worked. The right-footed Hudson-Odoi had produced little on the left during the first half, slowing Chelsea’s momentum by cutting inside too much, but he was liberated after moving to the opposite flank. The winger was far too quick for Søren Rieks and Franz Brorsson on the left side of Malmö’s defence and he played a prominent role when the breakthrough arrived early in the second half, flying down the right wing and crossing for Ziyech to settle Chelsea’s nerves on a night when they were regularly pushed out of their comfort zone by limited but spirited opposition.
“We got the job done,” Tuchel said. “I think maybe now we get judged by results, but who doesn’t? We needed the result, we expected the result, and we delivered. We had a lot of shots in the first half but it was not clinical enough. We wanted to increase the intensity level in the second half to force a goal. In the moment of the highest pressure we were able to use this moment with precision. It was a deserved win.”
Ultimately one moment of class was enough for Chelsea, who remain hopeful of finishing top of Group H, although they will need to be sharper when they host Juventus later this month. This was a laboured performance from the European champions, who travelled to Sweden without N’Golo Kanté, Mateo Kovacic, Romelu Lukaku, Mason Mount and Timo Werner, and they were uncharacteristically slack at times. Malmö, beaten 4-0 at Stamford Bridge last month, put up a good fight.
Chelsea, who have won their last seven games in all competitions, did not make life easy for themselves. They seemed surprised when Malmö pressed them during the early stages, a boisterous crowd roaring the Swedish champions forward, and Tuchel had reasons to be concerned as half-time approached. There was a carelessness to his team’s passing at times and there was even a chance for Malmö to go ahead after 11 minutes, a sloppy error from Ruben Loftus-Cheek forcing Andreas Christensen to mop up as Sebastian Nanasi threatened to break through on the left.
Loftus-Cheek, who had not started in the Champions League since 2015, was not the only player in blue who erred during an absorbing opening period. Ziyech and Hudson-Odoi made a complete mess of a short corner routine on the left and Malmö grew bolder as the half wore on, Antonio Colak going close to shocking Chelsea when he met Sergio Peña’s pass with a volley inches wide.
Nonetheless there was always a sense that Chelsea’s quality would make the difference. Loftus-Cheek offered some classy touches in midfield after getting that early error out of his system and Malmö were clinging on at times, their defending increasingly frantic as the visitors began to dominate.
Chelsea, who were pleased to see Christian Pulisic come off the bench to make his first appearance since August after shaking off a persistent ankle injury, should have led at the break. César Azpilicueta threatened from the edge of the area, Ziyech had a shot smothered after bursting through on goal and Kai Havertz was wasteful after being played through by Loftus-Cheek, a heavy touch giving Johan Dahlin the chance to block.
The goal eventually arrived. Tuchel had switched his wingers at the break, shifting Ziyech to the left and moving Hudson-Odoi to the right, and the change soon paid off. After 56 minutes Havertz dropped deep and slipped a clever pass through to Hudson-Odoi, who charged down the wing before producing a moment of decisiveness, whipping a bending cross to the far post for Ziyech to clip past Dahlin from close range.
“All credit to my assistant,” Tuchel said. “He had the idea. We liked it. Malmö were defending in a low block. We lost some moments if Callum or Hakim had to switch back.”
Malmö, rooted to the bottom of the group after losing their first four games, were unable to respond. Jon Dahl Tomasson’s side tired as the game wore on and the only disappointment for Tuchel was that Chelsea failed to extend their lead, Dahlin denying Havertz.
It made no difference in the end. Chelsea were too strong. Their tactical intelligence continues to set them apart.