After more than 450 minutes of scoreless football between our two sides, in the space of 39 minutes there were two goals scored and two others disallowed by VAR against Liverpool in the first Premier League match of Mauricio Pochettino’s reign at a reputable London club...
His direct impact on the team was evident, and the most impressive feat may be that he created passing networks with clear instructions and expectations in a formation we rarely saw from him in preseason. There was an awareness and circumspect nature of the entire squad to each others’ runs and passing expectations, and they truly impressed with all passing metrics.
Having spent the summer fielding a steady defensive back four, Pochettino most certainly brought a significant more amount of flexibility into the formation for this match. Pochettino’s starting XI had three traditional centre-backs and two wingbacks, in what all originally expected to be a 3-4-3 or 3-5-2. More predictably, Liverpool set up with their traditional personnel and positioning, and Jürgen Klopp had as much to learn about his revamped midfield as Pochettino did about his squad in general.
Player positions are shown below as well because Pochettino has claimed that his “back four” consisted of a variation between building with centre-backs in possession to shifting whereas Reece James would drop back to cover in defense when off the ball, levelling off that back four with Levi Colwill filling in at left back. There is a much more specific and perhaps veiled reason why the squad played in that manner.
It would be more likely to say that, because Mohamed Salah and Trent Alexander-Arnold had predictable roles, they were also given tracking markers, Colwill and Chilwell specifically. And so, defensively speaking, our marking scheme did somewhat fit Pochettino’s description, but James often did not completely retreat in defense because the midfield work of Enzo Fernández and Conor Gallagher allowed him that luxury, which also let him be an outlet who was almost endlessly unmarked because of Liverpool’s narrow midfield. Leaving James higher also explains why almost 70% of our clearances were to the right side...we had a better chance of winning those aerial duels there.
Liverpool’s formation ironically also worked to Chilwell’s advantage, because the central meanderings of Alexander-Arnold put Chilwell in front of their goal often and, especially after high turnovers, he wreaked havoc which nearly paid dividends - not only including when he scored while slightly offside. We ought to bang our chests proudly knowing that we had the best outside backs on display of an extremely talented quartet. We also have better second depth in those positions, which we may need noting James’ substitution. And let’s not get started about depth in central midfield...
One additional thing to note via the player positions more than the lineups is that Chelsea played with significantly more width than Liverpool, and that width was crucial to pinning them back. Below you can see not only how Gallagher was typically the only one dropping into that pivot position but also holding the honesty of Diogo Jota’s press on Thiago Silva. This screenshot was taken right after a throw-in from Chilwell, so his positioning off the screen shows our width contrasted to how centrally rigid and narrow Liverpool tried to be in their spatial organisation when we had possession on our back line.
The positioning of Raheem Sterling was also instrumental as to why our first half attack was focused on that right side. His ability to pick up the half spaces between their lines and to complicate Andy Robertson’s marking led to numerous chances, and virtually all of his progressive carries begin where he is in the image above. His link with James was clear because his pass map via Opta is almost a perfect triangle at the corner edge of their box, almost always connecting with James.
Enzo Fernández also did extremely well in exploiting the tight space highlighted in the rectangle in the image above to either help progress possession (completing 39/40 short passes) or to turn with the ball. Gallagher’s strict adherence to his role allowed Enzo to do what Enzo wanted, and he wanted to show how talented he truly was. I rewatched the game to specifically note each of both Gallagher’s and Fernández’s touches/passes and they were almost never square, only backwards when under pressure, and always looking to progress or switch the field of play. Their heat maps are downright impressive, and they did a tremendous job of contributing in the attack while being defensively responsible.
Nicolas Jackson’s versatility is fantastic - he will be a handful as he grows into this league. While he is happy to drop in and join up in linked play with the midfielders with the delicate touch to do so in tight spaces, he made 21 off-the-ball runs into Liverpool’s box. Even though he presses well, all of his statistical defensive contributions (including 5 ball recoveries) were done in our half, showing his willingness to work for the team. He has pace, power, and can hold possession if we are charging forward or carry up field if he is on his own. He also accumulated essentially half of our xG, and all of his chances were taken from within the 18, most within the range of the penalty spot. I care not that two were off target and two were shot low and centrally - he does seem to know where to be, he will have easier chances, and this was just his first PL game.
Additionally, there were certainly chances that might have been put through to him that were instead pushed to a winger to exploit those wide spaces, but that seemed to limit another opportunity to break their lines because Liverpool’s centre backs are not as coordinated or quick as they once were. He may have been in on through balls that were not played because we were so comfortable in attacking possession through the flanks, specifically the right side.
The below transitional play is a perfect demonstration of those missed chances. When Sterling picks up the ball, you can see that Jackson is already ready to pierce their back line. Sterling instead carries forward, missing that opportunity, and eventually passes the ball wide rather than putting Jackson in through on goal, all while Jackson does well to check his run and keep himself onside throughout the buildup. My lower image below is slightly off, because I wanted to show how he also cleverly realised he was not being given the pass from Sterling and wanted to get into a position to potentially finish a cross from James. Jackson’s debut was impressive - synchronicity is key, and that can only come through repetition and practice, but let’s hope that we are aware of the variety of ways through which we can now attack through him.
The fact that we played in Liverpool’s defensive third for a third of the game is fantastic, with 232 touches in that area - but only 32 of those occurred in their box. With our sudden willingness to cross the ball (26 in total), it is wonderful to finally see some central presence that persists in getting into those threatening positions where goals are more simply and commonly scored. The willingness of both wingbacks and midfielders to get into the box was a complete contrast to the lack of central presence we have had in recent years, but only 4 out of those 26 crosses actually connected to one of our own in the box. With so few touches in their area and so few connections from our crosses, it is no wonder why the score was 1-1 while xG and possession favoured us. There is certainly room for improvement, and while Nicolas Jackson is a decent goal scorer, he doesn’t score often with his head. His connections on crosses all came from those put across on the ground. Notably, all successful crosses also came from the right, though through a significantly larger number of chances.
Our goal was scored after winning a second ball after a poor clearance from a set piece, but that was clearly an agendum because the same essential corner was taken on the turn of the 11th minute, where the clearance was met with a gentle lob back into the danger zone accompanied by players crashing towards goal and also nearly resulted in a goal. After a dearth of free-kick goals in previous seasons, it is good to see us threatening on them as we had in preseason. There was good variety amongst short and long, near and far deliveries as well.
Once the score was even, Chelsea dominated the game, finishing the half from the 30th to 45th minute with 77% possession, while also starting the first 15 minutes of the second second half with 74% possession. Changes occurred thereafter and the game went into a less organised form of football where Thiago Silva would continue to show why he is the greatest free transfer of all time and that both squads were better with their starters than their substitutes. We did look the better of the two, gleefully, but we also certainly have the higher ceiling of the two, more gleefully.
So while clearly dominant in both the midfield and final third, our finishing still needs to improve. While some outlets like Opta have us level on xG, I prefer to lean towards this one from understat.
I know I wrote earlier that I wouldn’t talk about centre midfielders, but I knew then, as you all do now, that I was lying.
Our new midfield signings that Liverpool, unsought a club as they are, were unable to bring in, will be quite impactful. One can imagine anything from a 3-5-2 to a 4-3-3 and anything in between in our future - that versatility may be our greatest weapon with a manager equally willing to adapt to the circumstances required, just as Pochettino did against Liverpool.
Our midfield is set for quite some time, not just with these three and their essentially complementary and comprehensive stats, but with the youth waiting in the wings to impress and challenge in the years to come. Caicedo himself made 100 tackles and 56 interceptions all while creating 43 chances from open play last season, the only player to hit those levels of variety in statistics in the league, and this image (bear in mind this is per 90 stats and then per league percentiles) shows exactly the kind of brass and finesse the man will bring come Sunday against the Hammers.