The buildup around this game, already the blockbuster of the weekend and a title-influencing clash, was centered around the Romelu Lukaku situation. While the debate could roar on endlessly whether or not Thomas Tuchel (and the club) made the correct decision regarding the individual punishment, the decision was made and he was an omission from the matchday squad entirely.
Tuchel set out with a few clear objectives. The first was to nullify the threat of the Liverpool wingers. While Sadio Mané had been on a bit of a goal-scoring drought, Mohamed Salah is on track to break his previous Premier League record, already one ahead of his pace from that 2017-18 season.
The strikers of Liverpool thrive off of their speed and acceleration, so putting two quick players in Trevoh Chalobah on the right and Antonio Rüdiger in his typical slot on the left essentially achieved this first objective.
The second objective was to control the midfield, which was crucial in the reverse fixture against Liverpool earlier this season. Liverpool do not typically score goals from their midfield — do not mention that Jordan Henderson goal — but they do try to recover balls and get them wide or forward to playmakers who do score.
But their midfield three could not keep enough possession to distribute effectively against our midfield masterclass.
In fact, the second objective was achieved in such a marvelously dominant fashion, that the dynamic duo of Mateo Kovačić and N’Golo Kanté dictated the gameplay and Liverpool’s midfield three were exposed and looked both slow and meek.
There have been times where this partnership hasn’t flourished so profusely, and often necessitating Jorginho instead.
But in a game where the supply Liverpool’s forwards needed to be limited and our possession game was not guaranteed, Jorginho did not fit the mould. In addition, Jorginho’s tendency to sit deep would not have broken the midfield lines anywhere near as well as Kanté’s and Kovačić’s running did.
The forced decision to leave out Lukaku meant that Tuchel opted for fluidity and mobility with our front three. They were effective and troublesome for Liverpool.
But while we started the brighter side, including Christian Pulisic’s inexplicable miss in the 7th minute after some fantastic pressing from Kai Havertz, our inability to capitalize handed the visitors the chance to take advantage, twice.
That miss was immediately followed by a disjointed press from Chelsea, which eventually forced Chalobah into an awkward clearance with Rüdiger putting the ball out of play to safety.
The break allows Chelsea to reset, with Chalobah on Mané and the back-three keeping a high line. Diogo Jota drops then attempts to play a perfect ball through it. He does not pull that off, and it should be another simple clearance.
Chalobah, who has hardly taken an incorrect step this season, decides to stoop low and clear with his head — perhaps affected by a later-revealed hamstring concern? Not only is it a bad decision, it’s also very badly executed, presenting the ball to Mané, who, unlike Pulisic just a couple minutes prior, does not waste the gift to end his personal goal-drought.
The goal came against the run of play and Chelsea settled right back down to the previous pattern, focusing on attacking down our left. We were hoping to find an outlet through Marcos Alonso, who had a fantastic afternoon, despite being beaten by Salah on their second goal.
That second goal is a team breakdown — and also just a fantastic bit of play individually and collectively from Liverpool.
As he did throughout the game, Rüdiger comes high into midfield as Salah receives with his back to goal. Salah has virtually no outlet and Chelsea are set defensively, but our strikers are far too spread, leaving Pulisic isolated with three potential marks — Fabinho, Trent Alexander-Arnold, and Ibrahima Konaté. Our midfielders are also too deep, giving Pulisic far too much space to occupy. Ideally, he would drop into the midfield hole and force Salah to play back to Konaté. He does not and Salah threads a pass to Fabinho, opening up our midfield.
Rüdiger throws his hands up in contempt that the pass actually connected and completely ignores the advancing run of Salah thereafter, which is his job here. Ideally, Alonso would cover this run — and he does make an attempt to pick him up and cover for Rüdiger’s lapse — but Salah is too quick and too good, shaking off Alonso with the drop of a shoulder and then deftly finishing high at the near post over Mendy’s left shoulder.
Chelsea had been playing well, but were down two goal, at home, to one of the best teams in the league. Luck was not in our favor, but our response was about as good as could be hoped.
Our first goal came from another set piece — technically a free kick, but essentially a short corner. Alonso drilled the ball towards the near post where Kelleher punches clear, but only as far as Kovačić at the top of the box. Normally, he’d collect the ball and look to recycle possession. This time, he decides to crane kick it into the back of the net, kissing it off the inside of the post for a goal of the season contender.
Just minutes later, Chelsea were level.
After forcing a rushed pass that Rüdiger duly sends right back to him by beating Salah to it, Kanté has two options to pick out, Mount and Pulisic, both making a run through the center.
Kanté lobs it perfectly into the path of Pulisic, who takes a nice touch with his chest, and smashes home. Going early with his weaker foot seemed to catch Kelleher out, who could only react after the ball was past him.
At this point, with the energy and the stakes at play, the game was stretched and chances were opening up. Mount had a glorious one in stoppage time to make it three goals in just a handful of minutes for Chelsea, but his difficult volley went just wide.
In the second half, Liverpool continued to have no real presence on the ball and had only threatened through counter attacks, mostly through Salah.
But we were again forced into some injury/player management changes which caused a shift in formation to a 3-5-2. Jorginho coming in for Chalobah saw Azpilicueta shift to the right side of the back line and Pulisic again slide to right wing-back.
Callum Hudson-Odoi entered the fray for Kai Havertz with about ten minutes left on the clock, playing in a front two alongside Mount. One wonders whether Lukaku could have played a more influential role in those final minutes, helping to hold possession in the final third a bit better (though he does take time to get going and that slow start against Manchester United was evidence of it - which happened to be the game right before the famous interview). The game is done, the point is earned, and with our typical chaotic endings of late we almost should be content that both teams settled for the draw.
At least one goal has been scored during the final 20 minutes in nine of Chelsea’s last 10 games in all competitions.— Statman Dave (@StatmanDave) January 2, 2022
Which way will it swing?! pic.twitter.com/J33taGj8sN
It is no wonder there were minimal real efforts in the second half as the team is overplayed after the festive fixtures and had burnt through their adrenaline built up for the big occasion. Due to progression in the league cup, minutes need to be spread as broadly and wisely as possible in the coming weeks to maximize both points and cup potential. May players’ health be on our side.