After contesting the other domestic cup this season, Chelsea met Liverpool again at Wembley for the 150th FA Cup final. Although both this and the Carabao Cup game were played to a nil-all draw through the 240 minutes of open play (not to mention the draws in the Premier League), this game was both far more wasteful and frustrating while also less entertaining than the others.
The lineups were predictable for both squads, the personnel not so much. For Chelsea, the multitude of knocks to our midfield limited the availability of those able to play the full match, but there were also late injuries to Kai Havertz and Timo Werner, once again leaving the front three to essentially choose themselves. The back line had surprises, too, with
Thibaut Courtois Andreas Christensen not even on the bench because he’s got one foot already in Spain, but also Trevoh Chalobah being deployed on the right - probably to counter the pace of Luis Diaz (or any of their speedy wingers) down that flank. Jürgen Klopp had probably hoped that the less pacey César Azpilicueta might be deployed there.
Liverpool did have a slight adjustment to make, too, as Fabinho, their anchor in midfield, was also unavailable. But, with far fewer alterations to what would have been their regular agenda and a game plan that heavily involved Diaz, they sparked to life from the opening whistle. They had far the better and more regular chances in the opening phases, even putting Édouard Mendy to work a few times. Diaz was versatile in his positioning and movements, making marking him an absolute nightmare for Chalobah. It was also easy for Chalobah to lose Diaz because of how deep the Liverpool wingers sometimes drop, making them seem like a wingback’s defensive duty, before exploding forward.
Tuchel’s directive was initially indirect and significantly more passive than we typically play, allowing their back line as much time as they’d like on the ball. In the sequence below, Van Dijk plays a long ball to Salah on the wing, but they’re forced to recycle play due to a comprehensive and cohesive press once Chelsea feel the play is truly threatening. Van Dijk ends up on the ball again, yet no strikers press him. In the meantime, Chelsea to reorganize the marking system established in the midfield and prevent being passed through with ease. Unfortunately for us, Liverpool have no problem passing over problems in addition to through them, and quite a few of their long balls proved threatening.
And because Chelsea did not press the Liverpool back line much at all, Lukaku dropped in and picked up Jordan Henderson in defensive actions while trying to attack Ibrahima Konaté specifically going forward. Pulisic and Mount were much more aggressive with their press than Lukaku, but even those were not intense enough to force their centre backs into rash passes. Tuchel was hoping to stifle their quick forward movements by dropping our attackers deeper to clutter the midfield and prevent quick and vertical barges.
If we are comparing ourselves, and inevitably we should, to the top two in the league, our play is much more in the style of Manchester City than Liverpool. Our sequence time in build-up play, our excessive number of passes per sequence (though note City’s ridiculous tally of 900 occurences of 10+ passes per offensive action), and the slower direct speed of our attack are all much more akin to City than Liverpool. Contrastingly to both, our efficiency in finishing is overtly lower, and the squad has suffered from this discrepancy heavily.
While we had James and Ben Chilwell firing on all cylinders and contributing to our goal production, our productivity was quite similar to City. We had fluid movement across the pitch, goals from players across the board, and we were top of the league. What should therefore be laid to blame is both two fold: a direct lack of (depth in) personnel at the current moment and the players lost this summer that might well have done a job for us this season in needed positions.
Comparably speaking, with each teams’ top goalscorers (above 5 in the league), there is a glaring goals gap. Chelsea’s top 5 scorers have 38 goals, City’s top 8 have 70, and Liverpool’s top 3 have 52 - yes, they have and need no more than 3 goal scorers with more than 5 league goals. This shows that while there are two specific ways to be prolific in attack - a slow build like City or a direct threat like Liverpool - Chelsea have not the personnel to achieve either.
Our minimal goal threat from wide positions grew even more noticeable as those were our preferred methods of attack. The aggressive nature of Liverpool’s outside backs opened up space behind them, and multiple times Thiago Silva (et al.) would chip a ball to our wide players in hopes of getting behind their lines. On the occasions it did work, our end product was lacking because, well, see above.
In the pattern pictured below, both James and Mount, who have developed a wonderful symbiotic relationship on the right side, attack the space left open by Trent Alexander-Arnold. Their defense is beaten and Chelsea end up with a 3v2 in the box and a clear lane for a shot. By now, we all know that shot was pulled wide and this chance, among countless others, would go begging.
Through our wide attacks, both Pulisic and Alonso would see fantastic chances fluffed between the 23rd and 28th minutes and it becomes even more clear that
we need to sign Robert Lewandowski our finishing needs to be more clinical. Those types of similar chances kept coming through our wings, and although our best chances came through our right side, because Liverpool had a majority of the possession and control on their right side, we tended to counter through their preferred attacking side.
Before it reads like masochism, we must talk about the decision to allow Mason Mount, no matter how much we love him, to take a pen - which he likely wanted to avoid anyway. We know his personality and, if he didn’t want elected to the top 5, he didn’t want a part of it at all - perhaps Ross Barkley ought to have replaced him instead of other, more fresh legs.
The minutiae of this game, including the penalties themselves, are the grueling issues that need to be addressed this summer. It has been quite some time since we have needed reinforcements in defense, midfield, and offense, quite a bit longer since we have had new ownership, and our club’s projection matters pivotally on the new ownership’s decisions in this transfer window. With top 4 now locked up, can they secure the signings of the first few years of Roman Abramovich’s era while incorporating a new corps of youth and truly establish ourselves back amongst the elite? All eyes on you, Boehly.