After an amazing match against City at the Etihad stadium on Boxing Day, Liverpool headed over to London to square off with Chelsea in another heavyweight encounter. The clash was important for both sides as their rivals City, Arsenal, United all won this weekend, meaning that the loser of this clash was bound to fall behind a bit on the table. Spurs and Everton also won matches, compounding the misery for the side at the wrong end of the scoreline.
Chelsea 2-1 Liverpool
Chelsea: Cech; Ivanovic (A. Cole, 30); Cahill; Terry; Azpilicueta; D. Luiz; Lampard (Mikel, 45); Hazard; Oscar; Willian; Eto’o (Torres, 87).
Liverpool: Mignolet; Johnson (Aspas, 83); Skrtel; Sakho (K. Toure, 90); Agger; Lucas; Allen (Smith, 60); Henderson; Sterling; Suarez; Coutinho
We saw in the Manchester City game how the City defence first employed Kompany to mark Suarez, and later found it more defensively effective to place a midfielder (Toure) on him. It was effective but Liverpool still did manage to find a way past it, with Suarez & Sterling in particular, linking up decently in attacking positions.
Mourinho realised the threat of Liverpool’s front three (Suarez, Sterling & Coutinho), and how breaking up their interplay would prevent any sort of attacking threat from the away side. The likes of Henderson have contributed as well, while Sterling has been a bright spark in the last couple of weeks. But all the good passing, quick play, neat touches, movement & runs, every chance created and every bit of Liverpool play in the final third is directly or indirectly related to Luis Suarez. Whether that be his through balls, his pressing or just his movement to bring players into play. Cancel that out, and you shut out Liverpool’s team.
Chelsea did a remarkably wonderful and disciplined job against Suarez. When he was in the attacking third, the centre backs were quickly onto him. They tracked him when he dropped deep to collect the ball, and followed his run when he looked to get into space. The moment he was on the ball, a player was close to him. When Suarez dropped deeper than the attacking zone and into a more midfield territory, they had David Luiz on him but ensured he didn’t stick too close to the Uruguayan, and Mikel in the second half, further removing his relevance. And when the Uruguayan moved out wide to have a more telling contribution, Ivanovic & Azpilicueta were there to cover (this was when he moved to the left of attack and rarely did he float to the right side).
Thus he was marked out of the game, and Sterling & Coutinho had nothing to play to. Coutinho looked to move narrower and find the Liverpool #7, but his pass was either cut out, or a pass was just not on due to Chelsea’s close proximity to Suarez. Sterling tried to take matters into his own hands, good quick feet got him past 2-3 players on the flanks, but what then? No one’s in the box, Suarez is marked out, he can do nothing but lose possession.
As seen in the illustration above, Sterling has made a good run with the ball down the flanks, yet he is being tracked by three Chelsea players, there’s no one in the centre, or the box, but Coutinho and Suarez are making runs. They too, however, have two men on them to quickly close them down as soon as they receive the ball. Chelsea have thus crowded out Liverpool’s attacking force, especially Sterling in this case, and the young Englishman can do nothing but concede possession.
Here’s an instance from the second half, young Brad Smith ventured forward, took a neat first time touch and attempted to find a team-mate, but there was no one in the box. He doesn’t have the strength to hold up play, and can do nothing but concede possession. Just look at the number of Chelsea players covering their defensive done, they made it effectively impossible for Liverpool to pass it around how they usually do. And the Reds lack creativity from midfield as well, relying on the creative edge and speed provided by the front three. A masterclass from Mourinho!
A very effective aspect of Chelsea’s attack was the manner in which they constantly switched flanks. They didn’t necessarily play along the flanks, but their attacking midfielders, such as Hazard and Willian, were always making runs and stretching the play, offering themselves in wide areas. Liverpool’s defence found it hard to constantly track the positional shift of Chelsea’s attack. The lateral passing approach was extremely effective in Chelsea’s retaining possession and building patient attacks.
Another deviation from the trend this season for Chelsea was the behaviour of the full backs. So far, it has mostly seen them staying back with defensive roles. If anything, Ivanovic has been the only one charging forward, with Azpilicueta on the left hanging back. This game saw Mourinho throwing his full backs forward to assist the attack. The ploy worked as well, with Azpilicueta’s cross setting up the second goal. Ashley Cole too enjoyed a lot more freedom on the left hand side, and joined in the attack. They were higher up the pitch for another reason as well, that being to assist the midfield. Liverpool generally has a midfield overload to try and play through the middle of the pitch. In order to counter this overload, Chelsea needed bodies in the middle of the park, and needed to be aggressive as well. The aggression is well documented with all the tackling and fouling (17 in all) and the presence of the wing backs served to add numbers to this area of the pitch.
Thus Chelsea dealt with Liverpool’s attack centrally, and created their own attacks out wide, using the attacking midfielders and wing backs. This prevented Agger and Johnson on either flank from venturing forward, restricting their contribution to attack. Thus Liverpool’s attacking trio was overpowered, and they had nothing in the form of support from their full-backs.
When the Liverpool full-backs did get forward, they risked leaving gaps at the back which Chelsea were more than willing to exploit, once again employing their wings-switching play.
Generally this season, Mourinho has kept Chelsea a little deep, trying to encourage opposition teams to fling their full backs forward, and then counter into the spaces vacated by these attacking full backs. The pressing from the forward players has been done in order to show opposition defenders into wide areas, to feed full backs and get teams playing here. The last couple of games though, have seen a different Chelsea. Against Swansea, and especially Liverpool, the team has changed its approach to pressing the opposition. This may have been because the two teams in question prefer to pass the ball through the middle, or it may represent a more permanent shift in the team’s tactics, but there is no doubt that the attitude to pressing was different.
In this encounter, Chelsea pressed Liverpool hard high up the pitch. The centre backs weren’t allowed the luxury of dallying on the ball as the Blues closed them down repeatedly. Eto’o, as Mourinho later stated, upped the intensity and aggression in his defensive approach quite controversially. Over the game, the two Chelsea players completing the highest number of tackles were Oscar and Willian, two Brazilian attacking midfielders, with 4 each.
As can be seen above, both centre backs are being closed down by Chelsea players, and Willian, on the right wing, is very close to Agger who is about to receive the pass. Oscar (circled) too, is in the frame, and was seen closing down the right full back just prior to this shot. This happened throughout the first half, and Liverpool couldn’t really generate any rhythm to their passing, and as a consequence failed to keep the ball. They attempted around 100 passes fewer than Chelsea in the half, and the dominance showed as Chelsea scored twice to win the game.
Another method Chelsea employed to make this pressing effective, and something that we haven’t seen very often from the Blues this season, was pushing their midfielders and defenders forward to join in the fun. So far this season, we’ve seen the midfield and defence trying to win the ball aggressively, while the front 4 simply set up and facilitate this by showing opposition players into given areas. The game against Liverpool was very different though, and the entire team was encouraged to push forward and try to win the ball.
As can be seen in the image above, David Luiz and Cesar Azpilicueta were pretty high up the pitch. Azpilicueta is retreating, but David Luiz is charging aggressively towards the man on the ball with a view to winning it.
In the second half however, we saw a very different approach from Chelsea. If the first half saw a lot of pressing, the second half saw a more defensive outlook from the Blues. Mikel came on for Lampard, necessitated by injury, and sat a lot deeper than the Englishman. Chelsea too, sat off a little more and played deeper. The first half saw them trying cut off supply to the isolated Suarez by playing slightly higher up the pitch and making interceptions, trying to win the ball off Liverpool quickly. In terms of action, the second half saw 8.31% action in the penalty area, as opposed to 6.21% in the first half. The first half saw 8 interceptions and 18 tackles (attempted), symbols of aggressive defending, and only 10 clearances. The second half was a little different, seeing 15 tackles and 4 interceptions (halved), and 16 clearances, a dramatic increase from the first half.
Chelsea haven’t necessarily been at their best this campaign, but this was arguably Chelsea’s most professional performance. They are well within reach of the top (just two points) and are well set-up to maintain their title change. The league is too close to call, but Chelsea’s (and City’s) squad depth will be a major factor in deciding how this title race concludes.
Liverpool were top at Christmas and out of the Champions League spots in four days. Their lack of squad depth compiled with their injury pile up could really hurt Rodgers’ men. They are still within reach of the top, but a small gap is opening up between the three and the rest of the sides. If this gap is retained, the Premier League title race may end up being a three-man race with the rest of the sides chasing 4th.
What did you think of the game? Did you notice anything else tactically? Have we missed out on something? If so, do leave a comment below.