I thought I was done being angry at Sunday's loss to Liverpool. Turns out no, not quite yet!
We played this system against Sunderland and it worked well. The difference is that Liverpool defended very well.
-Carlo Ancelotti. Source: Dan Levene
[The match] was very difficult, Liverpool played a good game, with three at the back. We were not expecting that and maybe they took advantage.
-Fernando Torres. Source: Guardian
I wrote on Saturday that there would be a little bit of game theory going on regarding the Chelsea and Liverpool lineups. Chelsea had fielded a 4-4-2 diamond against Sunderland on Tuesday, and Liverpool had run out a 3-6-1 against Stoke City the following day (a bizarre decision on the face of things, with Stoke playing 4-5-1). Chelsea, I reasoned, therefore knew that Kenny Dalglish had a three-man back line in his pocket, but Liverpool also knew that Chelsea knew, so it wasn't entirely clear whether they'd actually use it or not.
Carlo Ancelotti losing that particular mind game would have been annoying, but not really fury-inducing. It happens. It's excusable. Expecting Liverpool to recognise that Chelsea would counter 3-6-1 with 4-3-3 and therefore never field a 3-6-1 in the first place is pretty understandable, and it would simply be a matter of luck. Not really something to get angry about.
But failure to recognise the tactical implications of Liverpool's game against Stoke is something else entirely.
How, exactly, were the strikers unprepared to deal with a three-man back line? Did Chelsea have nobody watching Liverpool-Stoke in midweek? Did the people who should have been paying attention fail to understand the significance of the shape? Fail to relay it to Ancelotti? Did Ancelotti not care enough to prepare his team for the possibility? All of these things seem rather massively unlikely, but it's clear from the quotes above that one of them is true.
In a recent article on the Guardian, an anonymous footballer said the following:
Every player has his own script, what to do, when to do it, information on the player he's up against, including weight, height, age, strengths, weaknesses, even what that opponent is likely to do when the ball comes to him in certain situations... Football at this level is very chess-like, maybe not to those outside of football but certainly to those inside.
I don't know what happened in the buildup to the match. Integrating two new players into a lineup is difficult at the best of times, and maybe something got lost in the shuffle. But whatever happened was definitely not adequate preparation for the Liverpool match. Chelsea had four days to get themselves ready to face whatever Kenny Dalglish could throw at them. Safe in the knowledge that they were a better team, they failed to do so, and paid the price.
Some want to blame the players here, and certainly nobody covered themselves with glory, although David Luiz and Florent Malouda both did well. But at the end of the day, if individual players don't know where they should be moving, they won't move at all. What looks like laziness is often pure tactical befuddlement. Carlo Ancelotti might claim the poor performance wasn't the result of the system (really, it was the result of his system meeting its antithesis) but that shifts blame onto the players in an amount they simply didn't deserve. This team was set up to fail yesterday.