Tactics Watch: Chelsea vs Liverpool

ESPNSTAR.com looks at the reasons behind a cagey affair between Chelsea and Liverpool at Stamford Bridge which ended in a 1-1 draw.

Football News: Chelsea vs Liverpool
Kelvin Yap

By Kelvin Yap

Chelsea started the game with the same plan up front, sticking to their trio of Eden Hazard, Oscar and Juan Mata behind striker Fernando Torres. 

It was at the full back positions where Roberto Di Matteo made changes, playing Ryan Bertrand at left back instead of the injured Ashley Cole and Cesar Azpilicueta at right back instead of Branislav Ivanovic, who was shifted to partner the returning John Terry in the middle.

Brendan Rodgers became the third manager in the Premier League to start with a back three this season (after Roberto Martinez's Wigan and Roberto Mancini's Manchester City) but was denied of his first choice defensive partnership as Martin Skrtel was ruled out due to illness. Jamie Carragher started in the middle of defence with Andre Wisdom to his right, Daniel Agger to his right while Jose Enrique and Glen Johnson pushed up as wing backs.

Joe Allen was the deepest in their midfield trio, playing behind Steven Gerrard and Nuri Sahin while Raheem Sterling and Luis Suarez reprised their role as free-roaming forwards.

Deep Chelsea flanks frustrate Liverpool plan 

Coming into the match, Liverpool had a tactical advantage - their strength in attack lies in Suso, Sterling and Suarez's ability to work the flanks, cut in and create chances from there. 

This matched Chelsea's weakness, which was pointed out on a few occasions previously as their full backs being exposed when going up on the overlap, leaving the space behind for wingers to run into.

Rodgers clearly focused going down Liverpool's left flank, which is expected as Azpilicueta is considered to be the more attacking of the two full backs.

This resulted in Enrique having a starring role in the match - he was the player with the most passes received (73) and the Liverpool player with the most dribbles attempted (9). In comparison, Suarez (who is usually Liverpool's central figure) received only 55 passes and attempted only 7 dribbles.

The plan may have been to catch everyone off-guard (which it did), but it was inefficient when implemented because Di Matteo fielded a different duo at the full back positions.

While Chelsea's changes may have been enforced by injury or fatigue, but it worked for Chelsea as Azpilicueta and Bertrand were disciplined and held their defensive line well and where helped by the defensive midfielders pushing out wide to contain Liverpool.

The match turned out to be a scrappy battle down the left flank because of that - there were frequently up to eight players from both sides in that area of the pitch, which made things too cramped up to be productive.

Isolated Joe Allen

The solution for Liverpool would be to switch flanks quickly through the middle, but their transition play was slow and sloppy mainly due to Allen being isolated playing in a deeper role behind the midfield line

Allen has played well in this role many times for Liverpool before, but he had a poor game in this match - partly due to Chelsea sitting deep in their half when defending and exposing his weakness.
This was smart play by Chelsea - there's no point using four men (their three attacking midfielders and Torres) to pressure Liverpool's five defenders and expose their back line. It was smarter to sit deep against Liverpool and wait for them to give the ball away.

Because of Rodgers' desire to keep the ball, Allen could not risk losing possession by pinging the ball across the field like Xabi Alonso or Andrea Pirlo would in the same situation. He took too much time on the ball trying to pick out an unmarked team mate nearby, which left Chelsea players an easy task to steal the ball from him by coming in from his blind side. 

Oscar almost opened the scoring in the fifth minute after an Allen mistake (he fired over the goal) and Allen went into the book minutes into the second half after Torres managed to steal the ball off him.

In the end, most of Liverpool's passes were around and behind the halfway line. The only time they showed penetration was when Gerrard, Sterling or Suarez dropped deep to bring the ball up by beating Chelsea players - even then, there were too many blue shirts for them to properly create space for chances.

The passing statistics in the table shows that Liverpool had most of the ball, but had little thrust given that Chelsea managed to outpass them in the final third - in essence, the formation offered false dominance rather than outright superiority; they stifled Chelsea's creativity but also harmed their own.

Liverpool went into the break with a whopping 64% of the possession but had zero shots on target while Chelsea had seven shots, two of which on target.

Liverpool switch fails to make impact

In the end, Rodgers changed Liverpool's shape to a 4-4-1-1 by bringing on Suso for Sahin on the hour mark. It was surprising that he took so long to make a decision given that Liverpool never looked like creating chances throughout the match despite trailing by a goal.

Liverpool's shape changed, but their intent did not - they still concentrated on going down the left flank via Johnson, who is now left back, and Enrique, only to be met with the same road blocks.

Ending the Zonal/Man-marking debate

In the end, both goals in the match came from poor defending in set pieces, which is becoming an increasingly common feature in the Premier League.

There has been an extended criticism of the zonal marking system for set pieces but the recent flood of errors have shown that both zonal and man-marking systems have its own benefits (that's another story for another day) but are susceptible to human errors.

The goals scored by Terry and Suarez are prime examples of it - both sides were more intent on defending than creating but were undone by a momentary lapse during a set piece (Agger for Liverpool, Ramires for Chelsea).

Conclusion

Chelsea should be happy with the way their side has defended - the fact that they managed to kink out their vulnerability to counter-attacks against Liverpool should be a good starting point to rebuild from the back especially after the 3-2 defeat against United.

Di Matteo's next step should be to keep the same discipline in defence and balance that out with the attacking verve which they showed earlier in the season.

As for Liverpool, Rodgers' use of a 3-man defence here was well-justified as it stifled Chelsea's creativity up front, even though it sacrificed the thrust in the middle. They are the happier side with the 1-1 draw given that Stamford Bridge is never an easy ground to visit, so the manager can claim that he has achieved his objective in the match.

However, Rodgers also has to realise that while having a "moral victory" is important (Liverpool recorded the highest possession figure - 57% - for an away side at Stamford Bridge since February 2010), he has a side which has the potential to easily achieve more if he takes a wee little bit of risk.

*Formation graphics are from www.sportsdood.com's 'Football Dood' app on Android


Kelvin will be analysing a Premier League match every Monday in Tactics Watch. You can reach him by following his twitter account @plevyakin for more tactical insights and football updates.



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