Chelsea – Liverpool: West End Thriller Calls the Curtains on the Title Race? (2-2)
When a winner was needed, neither contender could be split apart. Thomas Tuchel pushed the boat out to gain entry past the Liverpool defense, which left his Chelsea team open on the transition. After all, who needs midfielders anyway?
Tactical analysis and match report by Joel Parker.
Even in their most uncontrollable state, Manchester City was still able to stamp their oppressive boot further away from their competitors. Eleven points behind, stakes couldn’t be higher for Chelsea or Liverpool to salvage their title charges.
COVID cases and injuries mixed a perfect storm for Chelsea, nevertheless, their squad is still strong and results haven’t been desirable. Just four wins in their last ten have seen Tuchel’s team come unstuck when faced with a low block, but Brighton’s resilient performance proved you could press them off the ball too. Chelsea went into the festive period with an indestructible defense, now Tuchel has faced more problems than ever.
Liverpool themselves had looked immortal, having scored in every Premier League match before a 1-0 defeat to Leicester made themselves look much more human. Rodgers tinkers were enough, though the quality of Liverpool chances should have seen a more positive result. But brutal damage had been inflicted, and the cogs of the system may not be enough when their source of goals leave to AFCON after this game.
Five changes were made to the Chelsea team that had drawn to Brighton. The biggest exclusion was Romelu Lukaku, whilst Andreas Christensen and Reece James missed out due to injury. Kai Havertz was picked as the striker, whilst Trevoh Chalobah, Thiago Silva, Marcos Alonso and N’Golo Kanté all came back into the squad.
Positive cases resulted in changes to the Liverpool team, which included on the bench as Jürgen Klopp was self-isolating, Pepijn Lijnders took his place. Alisson Becker, Joël Matip and Roberto Firmino were all ruled out, Caoimhin Kelleher, Ibrahima Konaté and James Milner, who replaced Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, came into the team.
To match Liverpool’s intensity, one must either be courageous or in for the ride. Chelsea had elements of both, which set the tone for a truly bizarre but utterly entertaining game of football.
Tuchel’s approach had offensive incentives but defensive problems, which made them open on the transition as they were unable to counterpress effectively and were left vulnerable from one of Mohamed Salah or Sadio Mané’s runs in behind.
On the ball, Chelsea circulated the ball more towards the right, with Cesar Azpilicueta deeper than Marcos Alonso down the opposite flank. They aimed to draw James Milner towards this channel, to move the Liverpool block further towards the left and create a two-versus-one on the switch.
5th minute: Both Liverpool full-backs were switched in this phase, but a clear incisive in what Chelsea was trying to do. A deeper wingback ball side, with a higher wingback far side, created an overload on the Liverpool fullback, with all three forwards sitting in the last line. Azpilicueta’s pass doesn’t connect in this phase.
Liverpool benefitted from Trevoh Chalobah’s rocky start in the backline, with several early opportunities. Salah tested the gloves of the goalkeeper in the first few moments, having raced past Antonio Rüdiger. Yet Liverpool still grabbed an early lead. Diogo Jota moved into the open space, as Mateo Kovačić tracked Jordan Henderson and Thiago Silva did not step up. Chalobah failed to clear Jota’s pass and Mané reaped the reward, by turning past Edouard Mendy and putting the ball out of Azpilicueta’s reach on the line.
That being said, Liverpool themselves were not necessarily clean when building out of the back. Their backline was consistently flat on the goalkeeper and distances between the defense to midfield was too great for short verticals to bypass Chelsea pressure. Tuchel’s team found success when pressing higher up on the left, but didn’t make use of these moments by poorly executing passes ending the transition or reverting into circulating the ball. Chelsea had early flashes, but the best chances fell to Liverpool.
Klopp’s team bagged their second twenty-five minutes in. With Chelsea attempting to counterpress, against Liverpool circulating the ball on the halfway line, Alonso stepped up high on Trent Alexander-Arnold, with Rüdiger dragged towards the touchline by Salah. Alonso had not stepped back into the last line, once the ball had moved back from Salah, to Fabinho, then to Alexander-Arnold, which left the Egyptian behind the defenders on the right. Easy pickings for the top goalscorer in the league.
Chelsea’s aggressive game plan
The directness in the Chelsea approach was truly indicated when they had the ball within the middle third. Liverpool was more in their medium block by this point, with individual triggers and vertical coverage to stop Chelsea from short exchanges.
30th minute: Chelsea wing-backs push high up for more direct balls over the top from the center-backs. With three forwards pinning the Liverpool defensive line, the wing-backs created two-versus-one overloads on the Liverpool fullbacks.
In these situations, Chelsea moved into a 3-2-5 formation, with Havertz, Pulisic and Mason Mount all high up on the last line and supported by Azpilicueta and Alonso on the outside. They constantly created a two-versus-one on the fullbacks and hit Liverpool with switches to try to access these areas. This approach had seen relative success when they pinned their opponents to their right side and switched to the left from deep, but Chelsea attacks were very disconnected.
This was due to no particular trigger being set for organized runs in behind or any of the Chelsea attackers providing alternative moves to disrupt the defensive line. Havertz, Mount and Pulisic constantly offered double movements when in the center, but only made runs when they were on the outside of the Liverpool fullbacks.
35th minute: From Henderson’s tackle on Pulisic, Alexander-Arnold was able to instantly hit a direct pass into the three-versus-two overload in favor of the Liverpool attackers.
During this period, with Chelsea’s wingbacks being super aggressive, Liverpool still offered huge threat on the transition by their opponents’ structure leaving them open in the middle and the three forwards isolated with the center-backs. In a game that didn’t pause for breath, the more calming moments came when a Chelsea center-back or midfielder would carry the ball into the opposition half and more usual passes around the attack would take place.
Up to this point, the hosts hadn’t threaded much to match an attack as convincing as Liverpool’s, although an opening for Mount early on and a poor attempt from Alonso, where one of these two-versus-one situations worked effectively, should have been better executed.
Nevertheless, Chelsea mounted a late comeback before the first half was up and had done so by a screamer from Mateo Kovačić. A cleared set-piece dropped from the heavens and the Croatian unleashed a shot that the football gods would have been impressed by.
Tuchel’s team completed the comeback a few moments later, with a phase that looked a lot more productive and exploitative on transitions. A Liverpool center-midfielder was often relied upon to make carries out wide, which on the counter, could leave them heavily pulled to one side. In this case, Milner lost possession and three midfielders were engaged on the left side of the field before a direct Chelsea ball put Liverpool under pressure. Kanté was found outside and fed Pulisic’s inside run for an excellent finish.
Henderson and Milner in midfield, and Liverpool embracing total chaos with zero control. It’s not 2022, it’s 2017.
— Josh Williams (@DistanceCovered) January 2, 2022
Best of both attacks
One would expect the tempo to mellow going into the second period, but this would not be the case as both Chelsea and Liverpool worked through their offensive strategies efficiently.
Liverpool made more use of Chelsea’s counterpressing structure being non-existent once they got between the lines, particularly targetting the left side of the field with Mané dropping into the blindside of Chabolah. Jota himself could be utilized as a more direct approach, making runs behind as he rotated positions with Mané. Though shots were well executed and saved by Mendy, the timings of such runs into space were not and Chelsea was fortunate not to be caught out on at least one occasion.
Meanwhile, the onus of Chelsea attacks had changed, though the concept of two-versus-one overloads was still in place. They relied less on the long ball, and more midfield carries to open up such spaces further afield. These carries often came on the right, but it was the movements of Havertz on the left side of the field which opened up space.
Excellent agility from Kanté bypassed both Fabinho and Henderson, whilst out wide, Havertz lateral run pinned Alexander-Arnold more centrally whilst Konaté stepped up to try and block the passing lane. This left space for Alonso to take the ball into the box, but his decision to shoot was perhaps the incorrect one with Pulisic free at the back post, especially with his attempt being blasted well wide.
Havertz’s next move came in the halfspace, with a more curved run in front of Konaté to bypass the center-back and open the lane towards the box. His run created space out wide for Alonso to receive from the German, his cross to Pulisic was met on the edge of the six-yard box, but straight into Kelleher’s path.
The finish no one wanted
After an hour of football chaotics, both attacks fizzled out as a presence of an actual midfield was put in place. This was highlighted in two of the rotations that Tuchel and Lijnders had made: Jota and Milner were replaced by Oxlade-Chamberlain and Naby Keïta, whilst Jorginho came on for Chalobah, which saw Chelsea change into a 3-5-2/5-3-2 system.
72nd minute: Having forced their opponents back, Chelsea’s switch to a 5-3-2 shape was better equipped in dealing with Liverpool’s ball circulation late on, as they were able to match their midfielders and stop transitions through their lines.
From this point, Liverpool only registered one more shot in the final twenty-five minutes. The addition of Keïta and Oxlade-Chamberlain gained more possession control for Liverpool, to aid their shorter passing moves down the right side of the field. However, they did not find the openings that they had been gifted by Chelsea’s structureless press earlier on, whilst their 5-3-2 medium block was much better suited when Liverpool was exchanging.
Tuchel’s substitution may have had attacking connotations, with Pulisic now at right wing-back, but Chelsea had no solution to breaking the code, despite having more attempts towards the end of the game. They remained right side orientated and couldn’t connect to Callum Hudson-Odoi, who came on up front. Perhaps the very expensive striker should have been made available in what was one of the most important fixtures left in the calendar.
Not the first time this season that Liverpool have travelled to London, to draw 2-2 in hectic circumstances, but this has more concrete conclusions than the previous. Both Chelsea and Liverpool have displayed incredible numbers in their campaigns – Chelsea had a defense that barely conceded, whilst Liverpool was outdoing their offensive work in their title-winning campaign.
Despite it all, it would take either one to display even greater records in the second half of the campaign and get the results too: even then it may not be enough. Of course, both have trips to the Ethiad remaining, but it would take something monumental to clip the heels of the sky blue juggernaut.
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