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Chelsea 1-1 Liverpool, Premier League: Tactical Analysis

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Breaking down an open, high-quality match at Stamford Bridge between two of the best teams in the Premier League

First half

The second game between Chelsea and Liverpool in just four days saw a number changes to the starting lineups, which affected both the flow and the outcome of the match.

In the first game, Liverpool had some early difficulty in closing down distances and in pressing Cesc Fàbregas, allowing Ross Barkley to make runs behind Liverpool’s midfield line to receive the ball in space. This game saw a different dynamic on the right side of Chelsea’s midfield, where Kanté would receive the ball under pressure — Henderson over to press him; Milner on Azpilicueta; Mané or Firmino pressing Jorginho from behind. If Kanté was able to play forward to Willian (who had his back to goal with Robertson tight behind him), he could make the run behind on the right to either receive the return pass from Willian and get behind or open up space for Willian in the middle — where Van Dijk provided good cover for the Reds.

Chelsea’s choice of central defenders for this game (David Luiz, Rüdiger) have better ability and quality to play long passes behind than in the previous game’s pairing (Cahill, Christensen), and so instead of using the fullbacks to break pressure in deep areas, Chelsea could instead directly attack Liverpool’s backline on the outside or get behind them — especially evident in the David Luiz-to-Willian passes.

When Chelsea had the ball in central midfield, drawing Liverpool pressure in numbers would provide the opportunity to play quick with one- or two-touch play, combinations, and running off the back of defenders as they moved towards the ball to press. This pattern of drawing the opposition right back forward before running behind him is now beginning to be a successful way of creating 1-v-1 chances for Chelsea — such as the goal against PAOK.

Liverpool again had opted for a direct gameplan, with long passes behind Chelsea’s backline, into the corner, or to onto Chelsea’s backline to compete for the second ball in midfield (Kanté adding his quality here), before looking to press Chelsea high and force mistakes to recover the ball. Liverpool are excellent in getting the ball to their frontline quickly, which gives them more space and opportunities to create chances or press the ball high.

Van Dijk offered Liverpool the option to carry the ball forward on the left with Robertson higher up and to play long passes behind for the front three or Robertson (which created the chance for Shaqiri in the second half), while when Milner dropped back to receive the ball at left back, they could play quickly through Robertson to look for Mane making an outside diagonal run behind Azpilicueta — Rüdiger provided good cover here, thanks to his mobility and reading of the game.

From the right, Alexander-Arnold would play diagonal passes inside to the feet of the front three. They would use a runner moving outside to draw the defenders away from where he played the ball, which would change based on which player was pressuring the right back. If Kovačić was pressuring Alexander-Arnold, Wijnaldum would make a run behind him to open up the middle and take Alonso away. If Liverpool had moved higher up and it was Alonso pressuring him, then one of the front three (usually Firmino) would make the run behind Alonso to draw David Luiz out slightly, which would then open up some space in the middle (as well as forcing Chelsea’s defenders to reorganise) for Salah or Mane.

Liverpool’s front-three were much more dynamic in this game than on Wednesday, with more mobility and quality to find quick passes behind from central areas. Chelsea’s backline needed to maintain good concentration and be alert to cover runs. By remaining narrow Chelsea could usually maintain control of the middle, even when stretched by runs, but this would leave the far side free for crosses over the top to the winger staying out or one of the central midfielders (usually Milner) joining the frontline. Although Liverpool created chances from some of these positions, Chelsea were able to cover quickly enough to prevent a goal and clear the ball.

Second half

Chelsea made a good start to the second half, with early opportunities to score from quick free kicks, counters from deep and winning the ball through pressing in the final third. Kanté made a number of quality through passes to set up these opportunities, especially to set up Hazard for a second 1-v-1 against Alisson. However, very few of the other opportunities created would end with a shot on goal — good recovery by Liverpool’s defenders to get back or block the chances inside the box limited Chelsea to just 10 shots (4 on target).

With Chelsea finding a lot of space during their attacks, Morata was brought on in place of Giroud. He provided both intense pressing (stopping Liverpool playing forward on a couple of occasions, pressuring Alisson and almost intercepting a back pass) and was able to make runs behind the defence thanks to his mobility advantage over Giroud.

Liverpool hit back with several good chances of their own as the half went on. A goal-line clearance by David Luiz, a good save by Arrizabalaga from a shot by Mane, and a missed 1-v-1 by Shaqiri made it seem likely that Chelsea would take their second victory in a week against Liverpool. But then Sturridge came on and attempted the same shot from which he almost scored in midweek (ed.note: the one that hit the crossbar) to recover a point for Liverpool.

Conclusion

An open game which saw opportunities missed or prevented by good covering and defending by both sides. It took an exceptional individual goal to decide the game in midweek, and another late individual goal changed the outcome of this game.