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Chelsea’s excellent defending, ability to switch gears late save the day against Liverpool

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Liverpool 1-1 Chelsea, Premier League: Tactical analysis

Liverpool with the ball

With the ball, Liverpool had five players back (back four and Henderson) joined by Coutinho and Milner moving up and down in midfield as numerical advantage (Chelsea only using Morata and Hazard to pressure sparingly) to maintain possession in their own half and midfield. Being able to hold possession in the opening stages of the match allowed them to keep Chelsea from opening up as a team when they won the ball (where the wing-backs move forward and backline spread wide) and to move into Chelsea’s half to create.

Initially both Chamberlain and Salah were wide of Chelsea’s wing-backs, where Salah had a clear mobility advantage to break away from Alonso on the inside, making quick and short runs behind the defence after a long pass forward to Sturridge (moving side-to-side between Chelsea’s central defenders), which required Cahill and Christensen to quickly switch over to stop the attack.

Although from wide Salah had this mobility advantage to cut inside, Cahill provided good cover to block or rush his shots. Where Salah created the most danger was when Milner would move up to the wing on the outside of him (drawing Alonso away) and Salah could move inside to be up against Cahill (where Christensen was up against Sturridge). From these positions Salah could use his body to hold off Cahill well in and around the box, before quickly turning inside to shoot—Cahill doing well to recover quickly to rush or delay the shots, making contact to try to disturb Salah’s balance, and Christensen quickly shifting to block the shots inside the box.

source: WhoScored

From Liverpool’s left, Coutinho could dribble past opponents, and when he moved inside onto his right foot the frontline of Salah and Sturridge would be making diagonal runs (from right to left) behind the defence and into the box in anticipation of a pass behind the defence—both ground passes and over the top. These would be played with great precision and timing, with the runners are out of the eyeline of the defenders—but excellent cover from Chelsea’s back three blocked these passes from reaching the targets.

If Liverpool had trouble with pressure or Chelsea were pressing a loose ball in midfield or their own half, they had the numbers and space in their own half to calmly keep the ball and break Chelsea’s pressure before restarting their attacks.

During short building Liverpool had success to start attacks when they were able to play quickly from Mignolet and not allow Chelsea to move up, match their numbers, and pressure them high. After periods of pressure they would switch to playing long to Chamberlain instead, where they could recover the second ball and start attacks from midfield.

Especially during Chelsea strongest moments in the first half, Liverpool gave away possession too often through forward passes from midfield, either long or directly into pressure—especially passes to Milner being lost consistently. Chelsea’s backline and Kante, especially, were excellent at winning the ball from these situations, and allowed Chelsea to continue their momentum through counters.

Forward passes lost into pressure were not always a bad outcome however. If they had midfielders around the ball to quickly surround and put pressure on, they could regain the ball and attack with greater numbers against a less defensive organization from Chelsea.

Liverpool v Chelsea - Premier League Photo by Shaun Botterill/Getty Images

Chelsea during counters

Upon winning the ball, Chelsea had both Hazard and Morata as outlets to play the ball forward. Hazard’s individual dribbling past multiple opponents in the first half was phenomenal, where he could take the ball forward, play passes behind the defence and create an opportunity for himself to shoot. Morata was quick to control the ball and play passes into areas of space (to the wings) where Hazard, Zappacosta, and Alonso could move to get onto the ball.

Drinkwater made use both of his runs behind and passes during counters, where he could play quick and long passes behind the defence and find space with his runs behind to receive passes joining the box, while both wing-backs could often find themselves as the spare man on the outside to play crosses into the box (Zappacosta), or inside the box (Alonso) at the far post.

After a number of successful and threatening counters, Liverpool began to foul Chelsea’s attacks when they tried to start further counters, which was a successful solution for them. Furthermore, many of Chelsea’s counters led to corners, which they were unable to take advantage of. When Chelsea lost the ball and Liverpool tried to counter from these corners, their reactions to recover in numbers and at speed to stop Liverpool’s counters was exceptional.

Chelsea with the ball

With the ball, Chelsea possession faced some issues in their own half through Liverpool’s pressure from the front. When building from the back, Liverpool would match Chelsea’s back three with their front three, the wingers pressing inside to block the first pass out to the wing-backs, while Coutinho moved up to pressure the central midfielders. Upon passes out to Zappacosta from those midfielders, Coutinho (and later Wijnaldum) would quickly continue the press out wide to the Chelsea right back, creating an overload with Chamberlain also joining and forcing Azpilicueta to drop back deep to receive the ball. Chelsea would usually end up playing long from Courtois, with Liverpool consistently preventing the Blues from finding a forward pass.

Liverpool are generally able to press with fewer numbers with these coordinated movements wide, while also benefiting from Chelsea being spread wide but unable to find passes to the spare players on the far side—so Liverpool both pressed with an underload and maintained an overload at the back at all times to cover if Chelsea were able to break the pressure at the front.

Chelsea’s long play had mixed success. Long out to Alonso was contested aggressively by Gomez, and the weight of the pass would often lead to the ball going out. Bakayoko and Morata were much more successful at winning the first ball inside Liverpool’s half. With the central midfielders and Hazard in support of the second ball, Chelsea managed to create a couple of opportunities to shoot.

When Chelsea were able to keep possession in midfield and Liverpool would drop back to a flat five in midfield, Chelsea could create and cause Liverpool a lot of problems at the back.

When Kante had space in midfield, Sturridge being closer to Chelsea’s central defenders and Liverpool’s midfield line too flat and deep to pressure him, he could open up and play long passes behind the defence on the right, where Zappacosta and Drinkwater were making runs behind. Christensen could also carry the ball forward in these moments, which would push Liverpool’s midfield back to open more space in midfield.

In the second half, Liverpool tried to prevent Kante from having as much space in possession in midfield, where Henderson tried to quickly press Kante upon receiving the ball. However, Kante’s acceleration, dribbling, and closer control allowed him to easily go past the pressure and carry the ball into Liverpool’s half before being fouled.

Hazard was again able to create individually by beating Liverpool’s midfielders with dribbling and then playing passes behind to Drinkwater, again, and Morata. Zappacosta found himself in many situations to play crosses into the box from the right, with numbers joining the box, but Chelsea were unable to finish the chances created.

To stop one of Chelsea’s typical ways of creating, with Azpilicueta’s crosses into Morata, Coutinho was always very aware of Azpilicueta on the ball, staying close to him and preventing him the space space to carry the ball forward.

During these moments of high possession, when Chelsea lost the ball they could win it back quickly primarily through Kante. In particular, he was able to win the high balls in the air where he would either win the header or force the opponent to miss the ball and allow it to bounce, where his reactions and speed would allow him to quickly pick up the loose ball before anyone else.

Liverpool take the lead

Although Liverpool’s forward passes from midfield could be lost, their reactions and numbers would allow them to recover the ball and create chances, which lead to them scoring the first goal. Coutinho won the ball in this instance, starting the move that would end, via a Bakayoko error, with Salah receiving the ball inside the box and finish well.

Upon Scoring, Liverpool made a change to move Salah to striker, Coutinho to the left wing (continuing to prevent Azpilicueta progressing forward with the ball), Chamberlain right wing, and Wijnaldum (replacing Sturridge) on to play in midfield—providing them with a lot of energy and legs in midfield.

But Chelsea also shifted their game, and increasing amounts of possession pinned Liverpool fullbacks deep. Salah was their only early outlet, and while he held up the ball with great bits of play, he had little support from behind to help keep the ball. Chelsea were able to thus quickly recover the ball and sustain attacks—keeping the wing-backs high and an open shape with the ball.

Fabregas was Chelsea’s first change, and he started playing long passes behind immediately, into the space which Kante found earlier on in the game. This pushed Liverpool further back, as both passes behind and crosses from the right found Alonso free inside the box for a couple of chances.

Pedro on for Bakayoko added speed and intensity to carry the ball in midfield, where he could draw defenders towards him before finding support and switching the ball wide. Further crosses into the box constantly caused problems for Liverpool’s backline, but Chelsea were again unable to find the finish.

The speed of the game increased substantially, with many quick turnovers and prolonged periods with the ball in play—Liverpool were often unable to get out, break play, or make changes (the latter of which Klopp bemoaned after the match and blamed in part for Chelsea’s equalizer).

Liverpool were able to create some good opportunities from counters, where Salah had a 1v1 against Christensen, and another where Coutinho, once again, opened up on his right foot to play a pass to Salah running behind (out of sight of the defenders and perfect timing), but Azpilicueta and Christensen were both excellent to prevent Salah getting the ball past them on both occasions.

Chelsea’s final change was to bring Willian on, providing them with an extra creative player in the middle for breaking down defence, and adding more attacking quality at wing-back with Pedro (Zappacosta making way). In this moment, Chelsea switched to a 343, which allowed them to find Willian on the ball ahead of Liverpool’s back four (Moreno wider to cover Pedro) to take on Klavan and put the ball into the net.

(Ed. note: we’ve seen many angles for Willian’s goal, but this one from the stands, from Rajarshi Ghosh whose Azpilicueta goal-video we featured a few weeks ago as well, just might be the best.)

Conclusion

Bar the one error which led to Liverpool’s goal, Chelsea’s defence was excellent and difficult to break down throughout the match. They stopped many of the things Liverpool can do well with the ball—Coutinho to Salah passes, and getting back both quickly and in numbers from attacking corners—and were able to consistently launch dangerous counter attacks when they won the ball.

Liverpool’s pressing killed Chelsea’s short building, and their pressing when they lost the ball from forward passes led to good offensive situations for them when they regained the ball, resulting in them taking the lead. After falling behind, Chelsea’s ability to shift the game in response was excellent, and both the choices and timing of substitutions ensured that each could add offensive quality gradually without weakening the team too much defensively to concede a second.