Liverpool – Chelsea: Pressing-resistance beats pressing because of Hazard’s late stunner (1-2)
What happens when an unstoppable force meets an immovable object? In football terms, what happens when a great pressing side meets a great press-resistant side?
Liverpool made a record breaking start to their season, winning their first seven games of the season for the first time in their history. A particularly impressive feat, considering the run included fixtures such as a visit to Tottenham Hotspur and a Champions League encounter with French champions Paris Saint-Germain at Anfield.
Chelsea did not start too badly themselves, with new manager Maurizio Sarri leading them to five straight wins in the Premier League, before drawing to West Ham last weekend.
Liverpool’s build-up, the ball is displayed at Matip’s feet.
Both managers made eight chances to their last starting eleven, clearly prioritizing the clash with each other on Saturday in league play at Stamford Bridge.
Situation with Chelsea building up, the ball is displayed at Caballero’s feet.
Round 1: Press-resistance wins
Two similar 4-3-3 shapes – though Chelsea’s often looked like a 4-2-3-1 – both playing with inside forwards and offensive full backs. The main difference to be found between these two setups was the type of midfielders each team fielded. Liverpool with three tireless workhorses essential to their pressing style and Chelsea with three highly creative players comfortable with the ball at their feet and capable of resisting pressure.
Liverpool are known for pressing high, but against top sides we have seen them opting for a slightly more conservative approach. The counterpress is still essential to their strategy, but if possession is not won back immediately, the team drops deeper to a medium block and prefers to set pressing traps.
During most of the first half, however, none of that worked. Often, the defensive line was positioned on the edge of Liverpool’s defensive third, while Shaqiri and Sturridge, probably with the hunger for a good performance that is typical of non-starters getting a chance in the cups, pushed the line of confrontation further up the pitch.
This lack of compression meant Liverpool’s midfield trio had too much ground to cover and Chelsea enjoyed too much space between the lines. It is possible the problem would not be noticeable against a less capable side, as Keïta, Milner and Fabinho were still quick to pressure the player on the ball, but Chelsea moved quicker still and could play through the hosts’ midfield time and time again.
Fàbregas, playing deeper and more centrally in Chelsea’s midfield trio, almost made it look easy, with the fact that he made the most touches and passes out of anyone on the pitch being proof that neither Sturridge’s cover shadow When a player is positioning himself between the opponent that has possession of the ball and another opponent, he is blocking the passing lane. When applied the right way, his ‘shadow’ is effectively taking the opponent in his back out of the game, because the pass can not be played. nor Liverpool’s pressing were working properly. The Spaniard constantly found a line breaking pass towards Barkley, who would move forwards and receive between the lines, or Willian or Moses in the halfspaces.
Kovačić played a more hybrid role between Fàbregas and Barkley, dropping deep to form a double pivot with Fàbregas or positioning himself to receive the ball further forward, depending on what the situation demanded.
Up front, Álvaro Morata lacks the ball-holding capabilities of Olivier Giroud and was not as effective an outlet in that regard, but was a bigger threat than the Frenchman would be making runs behind the defense. This threat prevented Liverpool from setting the line of restraint higher and compress the vertical space. Twice within a span of three minutes were Liverpool reminded of that as Morata broke away for the best chances of the first half hour.
Liverpool, meanwhile, tried to play more direct and was not afraid to play direct balls hoping to explore Chelsea’s high line. Because even if Chelsea’s defense cleared the ball, Liverpool’s midfield had an advantage in the fight for the second ball because they were physically more dynamic than their opponent’s counterparts.
Round 2: Pressing wins
“You can not press like that for ninety minutes” is a commonly thrown around cliché. But have you ever heard “you can not resist pressure like that for ninety minutes”?
Probably not, and you probably never will. But as reductive as this cliché is, if pressing takes a toll physically, resisting pressure can take a toll mentally as any “fail once and it’s all doomed” kind of job.
The 35th minute serves as the first warning of this phenomenon, as a Milner pass was intercepted by Azpilicueta towards Moses, Liverpool’s counterpress kicked in and Keïta immediately moved forward to tackle the Nigerian. The ball fell back to the Spanish full back, but both Mané and Keïta pressured him to win the ball back. Liverpool’s attack eventually only resulted in an unfounded penalty claim, but it was a turning point. Chelsea became sloppy in possession and slower in the defensive transition, while Liverpool gained confidence.
As Liverpool started to create more chances, Chelsea only became sloppier in possession. Both Christiansen and Barkley made flagrant mistakes in the last few minutes of the first half, both giving the ball away in their defensive third and thanking their luck for not seeing a clear chance created in result.
It was difficult to believe this was the same team that played out of defense so competently in the first thirty minutes. Twenty seconds into the second half Sturridge was forgotten behind the defense and an oblivious Christensen passed backwards giving away a one-on-one. Sturridge avoided Caballero, but did not realise he had plenty of time, rushed his shot and missed the open goal. A few moments later, Barkley also almost gifted Liverpool the opening goal, after a ridiculous back header gave Mané another huge chance.
If felt like the opening goal was on the cards and it came in the 58th minute, thanks once again to Liverpool’s counterpress. Fàbregas intercepted a pass on the left of Liverpool’s attack, but was slow to get the ball out of there and invited pressure from Keïta and Milner. Azpilicueta, in support, received the ball but was immediately pressured too and passed the ball straight to Mané. With an instant overload created, Keïta was found free and took a dangerous shot. Caballero got a hand to it, but Sturridge volleyed the rebound home for the opening goal.
Round 3: Hazard!
Eden Hazard came on just before Liverpool’s goal for Willian. The last third of the game would become all about the skilful Belgian.
Chelsea’s equalizer came out of nowhere from a set piece, during a time Liverpool seemed to have the game under control, after Keïta needlessly fouled Moses. Hazard’s delivery was perfect towards the first post and the head of Barkley, Mignolet showed great reflexes to keep the ball out, but Emerson got to the rebound and tapped it in.
With the score tied, Sturridge hit the bar following a lost ball by Hazard in the center of the pitch. But it was the Belgian star who was destined to be the hero. Hazard set up his absolute wondergoal all by himself in the 85th minute.
Words will not do it justice, it has to be watched. Hazard received the ball in the center, accelerated forward and attracted pressure from Fabinho and Henderson, hit the breaks, passed to Azpilicueta on the right while nutmegging Firmino, went towards his teammate to receive the ball back, resisted the pressure of Keïta and left him behind, faced Moreno, threatened to cut inside before dribbling towards the byline and blasted a shot for the winner.
A lot of people will look at this game as nothing more than a rehearsal for Saturday, as a game with alternative lineups for the least important competition in both teams’ calendars. But despite the changes, both managers’ ideas were there and the clash was fascinating.
Both teams had periods in which their strengths allowed them to dominate and periods in which they suffered. It was a perfect appetizer for Saturday and the managers will have plenty to think about. Both have tactical aspects to correct, it would be a mistake to think bringing in the starters is enough. But that this next version of this game will feature Salah, Firmino, Liverpool’s fullbacks, Wijnaldum, Jorginho and Hazard from the start, will almost guarantee a very fun watch.
In the meantime, this game actually did count for an official competition. Chelsea advance to the next round of the League Cup, in contrast to the likes of Manchester United and Liverpool. The draw is on Saturday.