Liverpool – Chelsea: Chelsea’s Conservative Game Plan Cancelled Out By Salah’s Wonder Strike (2-0)
Chelsea were flat the entire match, in all phases of play. As Liverpool controlled the match through possession, some flashes of individual brilliance were enough to seal the deal, as both Sarri’s tactical rigidity and Eden Hazard’s missed chance denied Chelsea a genuine opportunity to get back into the game.
Tactical analysis and match report by Erik Elias.
There are two separate races occurring at the upper end of the Premier League table; one for the title, and one for the third and fourth places. This clash had a representative of each of these races, who both had their own interests to serve. Liverpool could reclaim the position of league leaders, while Chelsea could bolster their fourth place and increase the gap with chasing teams Manchester United and Arsenal.
The separate tiers in which these teams operate was also reflected in their midweek European endeavors, as Liverpool beat Porto on Tuesday in the Champions League, while Chelsea got the better of Slavia Prague in the Europa League on Thursday. Liverpool obviously enjoyed a healthy advantage from playing in Europe’s elite league, having 48 hours more to recover, as well as not having to travel abroad.
Against Chelsea, Liverpool manager Jürgen Klopp fielded the exact same starting eleven as he did against Porto, meaning Fabinho played as the number six, while Naby Keïta and Jordan Henderson performed the roles of the more advanced central midfielders. Liverpool’s attacking trio is so famous we don’t have to name it, while the nominal fullbacks Andrew Robertson and Trent Alexander-Arnold were fit to start. In defense, Joel Matip has been playing next to Virgil Van Dijk in recent months, even though Joe Gomez – who was preferred earlier in the season – is fit again.
Even though Maurizio Sarri always sets his Chelsea up in a rigid 4-3-3 formation, there are some variations he can apply by switching around personnel. One of the most common tweaks has been to play Eden Hazard as a striker, which was chosen again for this match. Either side of him, Willian and Callum Hudson-Odoi acted as the wingers. Also, Jorginho and N’Golo Kanté have been partnered by Ruben Loftus-Cheek in recent weeks, leaving Ross Barkley and Mateo Kovačić on the bench. Marcos Alonso is still injured, meaning Emerson Palmieri played as left back.
The difference between theory and reality
In theory, a match between teams coached by Sarri and Klopp turns into a fascinating affair. Sarri’s team elusively attempting to bring the ball out from the back through a combination of short and long passes, while Klopp’s men hunt for the ball and attempt to break on the counterattack off turnovers.
Alas, Chelsea’s personnel and recent form prevent a match like that from actually happening. Remember, this team was coached and put together by José Mourinho and Antonio Conte before Sarri got the job. All season long, Sarri has struggled to impose his style of play in key positions (most notably advanced midfielders and striker), meaning that the style change Chelsea’s board hoped to implement has not been carried out completely.
Therefore, Sarri adjusted against Liverpool, which resulted in very stale first half. Whenever Liverpool set up in their famous 4-3-3 medium block, A medium block refers to a team that retreats in their own half out of possession, generally only disrupting their opponents some way into their own half. Chelsea would seldom attempt to play through it in the middle of the field, instead preferring a flank-oriented approach, mimicking Bayern Munich in that regard. Since aerial balls are fruitless with Hazard as striker, the only long balls were played as cross-field passes to the wingers. Mixing up both these strategies was fruitless in the first half, as Chelsea had only 39 percent possession and three shots.
Of course, Chelsea did not stay off of Liverpool’s half the entire match. However, every time the blues got on the half of the reds, their conservative intentions were laid bare. Kanté and Loftus-Cheek were not allowed to venture into attack together. One of them and Jorginho often stayed behind the ball, to be better protected against Liverpool’s counterattack.
Chelsea’s conservative match plan results in goalless first half
Chelsea had one way of pressing against Liverpool in the first half. Whenever Matip had possession five to ten yards before the halfway line, Ruben Loftus-Cheek would step out of midfield and venture forward.
The way Chelsea attempted to press Liverpool in the first half.
In theory, this makes sense, as Matip is least comfortable with the ball at his feet. Once again, reality was quite different, as Liverpool easily beat the press via either Alexander-Arnold or Henderson.
The biggest chance for Liverpool in the opening stages actually originated from this, as Liverpool were able to play through the press on the right and played some passes to each other, lost the ball, regained it and found Sadio Mané on the other side. His cross was met by Mo Salah with his left foot from nine yards out, but easily saved by Kepa.
An early scare for Chelsea, but one that got little succession. In their 4-1-4-1 / 4-5-1 shape, they controlled Liverpool surprisingly well on their own half. Since Liverpool followed the same game plan as they always do in possession – look for the dropping Firmino and let the wingers fill in spaces behind them – the entire first half was played more or less in the same pattern. Liverpool had over sixty percent of possession, but created only four shots. Their biggest chance came in the 37th minute, after a rare counterattack. Chelsea’s biggest chance had been in the 30th minute, when Willian shot inches wide from outside the penalty area, also after a counterattack.
Game set on fire shortly after the break
After another five minutes that looked like the first half, this game was unlocked by Liverpool. Having received the ball on the right, Salah play a one-two with Firmino, one that seemed to fail. As Emerson failed to clear the ball, Henderson got possession, dribbled diagonally and brilliantly crossed for Mané, who headed the ball into an empty net.
Two minutes later, Van Dijk played a cross-field pass towards Salah. He controlled it, made use of the space that Henderson’s vertical run granted him and ruthlessly shot the ball into the top corner. The written word as a medium always fails to effectively convey how enormously impressive a thunderbolt from outside the box can be. It was wonderful, and maybe even more important, it put Liverpool up by two goals.
Mo Salah scores an absolute screamer to make it 2-0 for Liverpool at Anfield against Chelsea. 🔥🔥🔥🔥— First 11 (@first11football) April 14, 2019
Salah is now level with Sergio Aguero on the scoring charts with 19 goals this season.
There was no slip this time as Liverpool keeps their title hopes alive.#LIVCHE #Salah pic.twitter.com/VUi9VhA72p
Only six minutes after Salah’s goal, Chelsea created their biggest chance of getting one back. After a set piece, a perfectly placed pass by Christensen was taken brilliantly by Hazard. The Belgian number ten beat Alisson with a low effort, but could not score, as he only hit the post.
Uninspired Chelsea cannot force anything
As quick as this game was set on fire, it cooled down again after the two goals and Hazard’s big chance. Once again, Liverpool had the ball, and Chelsea sat back, as if they had not conceded two goals. Sarri did not have a plan B in store for us, a plan to bring his team back into the game with a different approach. He brought on Higuaín for the anonymous Hudson-Odoi, moving Willian right and Hazard to the left. Klopp introduced Wijnaldum for Keïta, meaning both teams kept their formations intact.
In the 65th minute, Hazard got another big chance after a nice Willian cross, but apart from some incidental high pressing and a late offensive surge in which they threw some players forward, they could not genuinely trouble Liverpool. Deep into stoppage time, a header by Kanté following a Hazard cross counted as the last shot of the mach, while Liverpool could have done more damage on the break earlier, collecting a set of shots, half-chances and preemptively broken up counterattacks.
Chelsea’s offensive impotence should be considered a big deal, as it has happened often, with and without Hazard on the team, and with anyone of Morata, Giroud, Higuaín or Hazard filling the striker spot. Their rotations on either flank looked predictable the entire match, and could not worry Liverpool one bit. Their biggest offensive ‘strategy’ was simply to give Hazard the ball and see if he could create offense out of thin air, like the Belgian had done so magically against West Ham United. Unsurprisingly, this was fruitless against a title contender, meaning Liverpool collected an easy win after a tough first half.
In Klopp’s first season as manager – in which he took over in October – Liverpool finished eighth. Compared to his predecessor Brendan Rodgers, Klopp is a different manager and implementing such a radical style change simply takes time. The Chelsea board would be wise to consider that bit of history before they make any rash decisions on Sarri’s job, even in the face of a transfer ban.
Which is not to say Sarri should get unlimited time. Keeping Hazard will be nearly impossible, and even though he had an off day in this particular match at Anfield, it is a shame to see such a great player spend his prime years in a team in full rebuild mode. Therefore, what Chelsea probably should do is sell Hazard, buy some players that fit Sarri’s style better – or sit out the transfer ban and prepare for a splash afterwards. Then give him another half season and properly evaluate the process and judge if things are working out.
Loads of talk about Chelsea in the takeaway section, but the big news here is that Liverpool have won this game, thereby beating the toughest remaining opponent on their schedule. They now have no top six teams left to play. If you compare their schedule with Manchester City’s, who have Tottenham Hotspur and Manchester United left as opponents… It might be happening this season, guys.
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