So I was originally planning on making a huge, detailed dossier with videos, detailed diagrams and the like on every aspect of the upcoming match at Anfield, but alas, exams and travel plans got in the way. So the following will have to do
The loss at Sunderland, coupled with Chelsea's continued success in the Champion's League, has made this a much less important fixture than it could have been. However, Chelsea's title bid is not over just yet. We can win this match, firmly placing the pressure back on Liverpool's shoulders.
Below, I will be setting out my thoughts on what tactics Chelsea should employ. As well as Liverpool's strengths, I have taken into consideration our priorities in the Champion's League and have therefore focused on using players who will be unavailable next Wednesday. These players are cup-tied Nemanja Matic and Mo Salah, as well as suspended Frank Lampard and Jon Obi Mikel. I will start by looking at Liverpool and Chelsea's strengths and weaknesses. I will then state my strategy to winning this match and give my reasons, while also looking at some potential key individual battles. Finally, I will look at different phases of play and scenarios that may arise over the course of the match itself.
Firstly, let's take a look at Liverpool's Shape:
Liverpool's shape has changed several times this season, with Rodgers experimenting with everything from 443, three at the back, and most recently, a 442 midfield diamond. It is the latter option which has bore fruit most recently, most notably against Man City and, if I was a betting man, I’d say we are likely to see it again on 27th April. Though it might sacrifice width, this formation allows Liverpool to play both their strikers upfront together, as well as giving Sterling a free role at the tip of the diamond. In the diagram below (courtesy of the brilliant football tactics blog Zonal Marking-I encourage you to go over there and read their piece on the City-Liverpool match), you can see how Liverpool were able to overload City using Sterling in a free role. Henderson kept Toure occupied, leaving Fernandinho with the impossible job of marking both the highly mobile Coutinho AND Sterling. This resulted in a Liverpool overload, leaving Sterling relatively free to float into dangerous positions.
There is however one other hugely significant thing to notice from the diagram above: the mismatch between the immobile Gerrard and the highly mobile Silva. I will discuss this in more detail later on.
The personnel will also be difficult to predict. We know Henderson is suspended. But all their other key players, including, it seems, Daniel Sturridge, will be fit and ready. It is perhaps safe to predict that, barring any unforseen circumstances, Suarez and Sturridge (SAS) will start, as will Gerrard. The big question is whether Rodgers persists with Coutinho and Sterling BOTH in the midfield diamond or whether one will be dropped in favour of a stronger, more robust midfielder. Also, will Rodgers decide to keep Gerrard in the Pirlo role he's played this season and bring in one of Lucas or Allen to fill in for Henderson, or will he opt to start Lucas in a holding role, flanked by 2 of Coutinho, Gerrard and Allen? Liverpool's tactical versatility makes them much harder to predict than Man City were and will make preparing for this match harder than our one at the Etihad. If I was to hazard a guess though, I would say Rodgers is likely to persist with the midfield diamond 442 with Gerrard at the base and Sterling at the tip.
- Suarez and Sturridge: The SAS have been deadly this season and are a major reason why Liverpool find themselves in top spot.
- Sterling in the free role: See above
- Set-pieces: Skrtel has more premier league goals than Fernando Torres this season and set-pieces have been a major part of his and the team's success.
- Very shaky, leaky defence: Liverpool are on target to become the highest conceding Champions in Premier League history. Their centre backs have a habit of dropping deep when under attack and this has led to them conceding a huge amount of silly goals.
- Steven Gerrard in a disciplined role: Stevie G is not a natural holding midfielder and lacks the positional awareness to match other elite players in that role. This is due to him dropping back from his much more attacking role this season into a deeper, regista positon. Chelsea fans will be familiar with such a transition, as Lampard has made a similar move over the last few years. Chelsea must look to make the most of this, and only need to look back to how David Silva targeted the Liverpudlian during City's period of dominance for inspiration.
- SAS have struggled against narrow defences: Both Sturridge and Suarez had quiet games against City and this is mainly down to Pellegrini setting up his defence to stay narrow and prevent SAS from picking up the ball in dangerous positions centrally near the box.
So that's Liverpool done, what about Chelsea?
- The Counter-attack: On their day, Chelsea are one of the most lethal counter-attacking sides in world football and can turn an opposition's attack into a goal at the other end within seconds of a turnover.
- Hard-working attacking midfielders: In Willian, Schurrle and co, Chelsea have perhaps the hardest working group of attacking midfielders in world football. All are capable of doing a job on opposition player's deep midfielders and form a crucial part of Chelsea's high pressing system.
- Very disciplined defence: The loss of JT hurts Chelsea, but even without him, Chelsea still boast the likes of Azpilicueta, Gary Cahill and Branislav Ivanovic to call upon, as well as the one and only David Luiz. Azpilicueta's placement on the left has resulted in him playing very narrow and this will be vital in stopping the SAS.
- Physicality: Man for man, Chelsea possess a stronger, more physical team than Liverpool and we should look to make use of this.
- The attacker's tendency to slow the game down: Hazard and Willian in particular have a tendency to wait for the opposition team's defence to catch up instead of just driving on. A direct option like Salah or Schurrle would be most useful playing a team who leave such space behind their defence.
- Breaking down a parked bus: This season, Chelsea's results against open, attacking (naive) sides like Arsenal and Tottenham have been in direct juxtaposition with our results against supremely disciplined, parked buses like Pulis' Crystal Palace and Stoke. Luckily for us though, Liverpool will not employ this tactic against us.
- The strikers: The less said about this the better, but we all know the story. Summer can't come soon enough. Having said that, Ba and Torres in particular have all done a good job in defensive periods of play and this will be crucial at Anfield.
What we have to focus on:
- Stifling the Liverpool midfield: Cutting off service to their strikers and keeping Sterling shackled will be crucial
- Be clinical on the counter: We can't afford another wasteful performance if we want to take maximum points
- Defend set pieces well: Skrtel has been dangerous this season and Liverpool have been very good at leaving men in the box to collect any rebounds. Gerrard is also a significantly better set piece taker than anyone we have at our club
- Avoid sill errors: We MUST NOT concede silly free kicks near our box as Liverpool's free kick takers are brilliant. We all remember what happened when we conceded a dangerous free kick against PSG in the first leg when it was 1-1.
- Be patient: We cannot afford to get frustrated and become sloppy. Our chances will come. Liverpool WILL get shakier and more fragile as the game goes on
So, taking into account Liverpool's strengths and weaknesses, as well as keeping an eye on our upcoming match against Atletico, I would select the following:
- A 433, with Mikel at the base. He would be tasked with the role of tracking Sterling into the box and making sure he does not have the freedom to wreck havoc.
- Matic and Lampard would act as box-box midfielders, with the dual role of marking Coutinho and Lucas (or whoever Rodgers picks in the wide roles in his diamond), and of moving the ball forward quickly after turnovers to launch the counter attack.
- I would pick Torres to start against his former club and task him with the role of dropping deep and keeping Gerrard quiet. Torres' physicality and hard-working style, coupled with a 3 man midfield, should effectively shut down Liverpool's midfield.
- This would leave the entire back 4 free to stay narrow and shut out SAS without the threat of being overloaded.
- Our wingers would be tasked with staying compact in defensive periods of play, sitting back and encouraging Liverpool's fullbacks to attack, before breaking with speed into the space vacated behind them after turnovers. Matic and Lampard's ability to play through balls to our wingers will be crucial to our counter attacking success
- During attacking periods of play, the wingers should target Gerrard, pulling him out of position with clever dribbling and off-the-ball running.
Next, I will take a deeper look into some of the key tactical match ups and try to see where Chelsea can find an advantage:
Mikel vs Sterling/Coutinho
As I've already mentioned, making sure Sterling (or possibly Coutinho, if Rodgers opts to use him at the tip of the diamond) is unable to play in his free role will be crucial to shutting down the Liverpool attack. I had initially planned on giving Luiz the role of tracking him, similar to the one he had in the game at the Etihad where he successfully shut down Silva for the full 90 minutes. However, an injury to John Terry means Luiz is likely to fill in at CB. The suspensions we have in the Champion's League have also changed things somewhat. Therefore, under these new circumstances, I have decided to use Mikel in his holding role to keep Sterling quiet. With two midfielders ahead of him, Mikel will be free to sit back and track the movements of Sterling into the attacking third. There is also a clear physical mismatch between the two players which should serve Chelsea nicely.
N.B. If Mourinho opts to use Ivanovic in the centre and give Cole his 2nd consecutive spot in the starting 11, then Luiz could be freed up to be played in midfield. This could be a useful strategy as Luiz is more mobile than both Mikel and Lampard and could probably do a better job of tracking either Sterling or Coutinho. Also, JT being out of the crucial upcoming Champion's League match, and Chelsea's lack of midfield options for that match means it is very likely that Ivanovic will have to play in the centre against Atletico. Therefore, Mourinho may opt to use the match against Liverpool to test drive an Ivanovic-Cahill pairing. Eitherway, the tactics are the same, even if the personnel may vary slightly.
Chelsea's wingers vs Johnson and Flanagan
A key feature of Liverpool's game this season has been the attacking play of the fullbacks, especially Johnson. Though they are likely to be more weary playing against Chelsea, they will still look to attack, especially at home. Instead of trying to prevent this, Chelsea should encourage it. Moving Johnson out of position then breaking past him on a fast counter will be a key strategy for Chelsea to enter Liverpool's defensive zone. Clever through balls for Salah to run on to in the space vacated by Liverpooll's fullbacks will be crucial. Another possible tactic here would be to overload one side. Matic has been surprisingly good at attacking opposition team's fullbacks, even getting an assist from such a position in the match against Stoke. We should look to make use of this, by overloading one wing before switching the ball over to the other side where a bemused Johnson/Flanagan will get absolutely shredded by a ready to pounce Salah/Hazard. This requires the attacking mids + Matic to pull Liverpools defence over to one side, before quickly switching it to the opposite wing.
Chelsea's attacking midfielders and Striker vs Gerrard
One of the best English midfielders of his generation, Stevie G has lead this title surge, both on and off the pitch. His role (apart from taking penalties and set pieces) has been to link the midfield with the attack, playing clever balls to Liverpool's strikers, as well as forming a key part of Liverpool's intelligent play on the edge of the opposition team's box. He does have one major weakness though when playing this role: his positional discipline. There is a serious opportunity for Chelsea's attackers to target this in a similar way to David Silva. Man City's period of domination at Anfield came when David Silva was able to pick up the ball in the Liverpool half and target Gerrard and this yielded two goals. There is no reason that Chelsea's attacking players can't make use of this same opportunity. If Matic and Lampard can feed the attackers quickly after recovering possession, some direct running and clever off-the-ball movement will give Gerrard some massive problems. Off the ball, Willian's lung-busting style and defensive solidity, coupled with Torres dropping deep, should keep Gerrard quiet.
What about Suarez and Sturridge?
Chelsea have played almost exclusively a narrow defence this season, with Azpilicueta in particular rarely venturing forward. This does not bode well for SAS and I think they will have a quiet game. Suarez is likely to try his luck out on the wing when he finds it impossible to impregnate the Chelsea centre, and our play on that side will have to be very disciplined. Now there is a danger that, in trying to keep Suarez and Sturridge quiet, the defence become TOO narrow. This is probably the main reason Man City often got over-loaded by Liverpool: In effectively shutting the SAS down, they left space and time for Sterling and Coutinho to wreck havoc. With Jordan Henderson suspended, we are less likely to suffer this fate. Also, employing a player dedicated to tracking Sterling (i.e. Mikel) will also ensure this does not happen. This will likely be where the game is won or lost: Can Mikel and Matic effectively shut down Sterling and Coutinho, or will the latter's better mobility see them control the match? If the Chelsea duo are successful, then our defence should have no problem keeping SAS quiet.
Key things to consider in this match:
- Natural Flow and Tempo: Liverpool start matches on fire then gradually burn out. Chelsea start matches slowly and then gradually build in intensity. Liverpool are a high tempo side if I ever saw one. Chelsea are more equipped to dealing with this than City were. As long as we can prevent them setting the tempo and go into the second half still in the match, we will be poised to take control of the game as it progresses.
- Momentum: If Chelsea score one, we should be able to hit them again almost immediately. Liverpool are a shaky side defensively and, as we saw when they played City a few weeks ago, they are especially vulnerable to conceding another after being breached once. The atmosphere at Anfield will mean Liverpool have a solid advantage here.
Finally, Let's look at Phases of play:
Chelsea should approach this game as a set of 4 phases of play.
Phase 1: KO-30/35 minutes
Liverpool will come out the gates on fire, like they always do, and for 30 minutes or so, we will just have to survive. During this period, Ba/Torres' role of dropping deeper and doing a defensive job on Gerrard will be at its most crucial. The wingers will have to be very disciplined during this period, wary of the fullback’s attacking threat.
Phase 2: Last 10-15 minutes of the first half
When Liverpool begin to drop off, Chelsea must come on strong for the remainder of the first half and, hopefully, get a goal. The psychological effects of keeping Liverpool at bay during phase 1 before dominating during phase 2 will be huge going into the second half, even if we are unable to find a goal.
HALF TIME: Score either 0-0, 1-0 Chelsea or 1-1.
Phase 3: First 20-25 minutes of the second half
This is the ideal time for Chelsea to take the lead. We must continue to try and make our physical advantage felt during this period, shutting down the Liverpool midfield with intense pressing. Suarez is likely to move out onto the right wing to try his luck against Azpi when breaking through Chelsea's centre proves impossible. Gerrard is likely to have fainted at this point from sheer confusion and dizziness from trying to hold off Torres while getting pulled from one direction to the other by our attackers.
Phase 4: final 20 minutes
Come the 65/70th minute mark, if Chelsea have the lead, we should sit back and protect it. The idea will be to stretch Liverpool to the point of breaking for the last 20 minutes: Torres/Ba will stay high up the pitch, keeping their defensive line back. The rest of the team will drop back, inviting pressure from the Liverpool midfield and attack. The plan for the final 20 minutes will be to defend, regain possession, and then immediately hit a long ball into the space between their defence and midfield for our striker to control (Ba would be the best option for this portion of the game). Chelsea will have a few good chances to score again at this point as Liverpool will be desperate and stretched. Think Chelsea-Barca at the Nou Camp when Torres scored. If he doesn't start, Salah would be a very useful impact sub during this final portion of the game. He is a good enough defender to not be a liability, especially in a 433 shape with a hardworking midfield and opposite winger, and his pace could prove decisive. I can see Salah scoring, as he runs out to support Ba, who chest down a long-ball and then feeds the oncoming Egyptian to strike home. If Salah starts, then someone like Schurrle or even Hazard would be good subs to do a similar role during this period.
Liverpool score first within Phase 1:
It will be interesting to see how Liverpool react to going a goal up, with the knowledge that they don't actually need to win to stay top. Will they sit back and defend? That could prove suicidal as their defence is simply not good enough to hold a 1-0 lead against Chelsea. And as we saw when they played City, they run the risk of conceding twice very quickly. Do they get over-confident and try and score more? That could also prove sub-optimal as they are likely to leave even bigger gaps in their defence if they get ahead of themselves. Their best strategy would likely be to try and score another in the 5-10 minutes after their goal, as the atmosphere at Anfield would be at its peak then and they'd have all the momentum. If they fail to score again within that period, they should (and probably will) try to conserve energy, controlling the possession and running down the clock till half time, with Gerrard and Lucas focusing more on their defensive responsibilities than contributing to the attack. So what should Chelsea's response be to a Liverpool goal?
Patience is key. Trailing 0-1, though not optimal, would still leave us very much in it. After all, we trailed 0-1 at Stamford Bridge against them in December and went on to win 2-1. Momentum is key against a side as unbalanced as Liverpool. When you're playing them at Anfield, it becomes even more important. Therefore, I think our first priority should be to try and kill their momentum. How? DO NOT CONCEDE AGAIN. Whoever plays on the wings for Chelsea will have to be very disciplined. Though the temptation will be to try and hit back immediately, we should not go for that if it means leaving holes in the defence. Stay solid, take the fire out of the match, and then continue onto Phase 2. Liverpool WILL ease up towards the end of the 1st half, they have done so in every match this season. If we can score during this period, we will be in a very good position to enter the 2nd half and win.
If we can't score, it is still ok. We proceed onto Phase 3. We MUST score by this stage at the very latest if we want to win. A goal at this stage, and I believe we ride out the momentum to a second goal (similar to what City did). At that point, Phase 4 begins.
What happens though if we score first within Phase 1:
Well, simple really, we try and score another one immediately. Ride the momentum. This applies to any phase of the game except Phase 4. We should always go hard for the 5-10 minutes immediately after we score, as Liverpool are a team who concede goals in quick succession. Then, if there is time remaining in the first half and Liverpool begin to regroup, we should protect the lead at costs. Defend, counter, repeat. After half-time, whether it is 1-0 Chelsea, 2-0 Chelsea or 1-1, we continue onto Phase 3 as planned. We cannot afford to begin Phase 4 too early as the momentum in this game means that either side could score 2 goals in quick succession.
For all scenarios in which the teams are drawing at Half Time, we should continue on to Phase 3 as normal.
In conclusion: The psychological effects of Chelsea beating Liverpool at Anfield could prove hugely significant. Not only will the success fully restore Chelsea’s confidence going into a crucial Champion’s League semi-final leg with Atletico, it could prove a decisive blow to Liverpool’s confidence. Here they stand, with 3 matches left to play, 5 points clear at the top of the league. The whole country has already crowned them Champions. A loss to Chelsea, and their lead is cut to 2 points. They then have to make the trip to Selhurst Park, perhaps the hardest place to go outside of Stamford Bridge in the Premier League. There, they will face a side who have won their last 5 games on the trot. The pressure would be huge at this point. Having been so close to the title, is that group of Liverpool players good enough and, importantly enough, resolute enough to get a win at Selhurst Park after losing to Chelsea? I'm not so sure. I guess we'll see. But first, Chelsea must do their part.