Chelsea put an end to Liverpool’s 11 game unbeaten run in a massively anticipated potential title decider.
The pretext to the contest was what some referred to as a psychological masterclass from Jose Mourinho. It appeared that he had provided the greatest platform possible for a Chelsea defeat, knowing full well that he would not allow defeat to happen.
From the absence of crucial players, the declaration that the ‘reserves’ would be played to save fire power for Atletico, Mourinho’s supposed illness and separate travel to Liverpool, to an apparent ‘scouse disco’ taking place outside the Chelsea hotel the night before – the odds were stacked against Chelsea in every way possible.
Liverpool were riding the crest of the wave, playing at home, feeling invincible, and the Kop had come prepared to suck the ball over the line as the all important 12th man. All of this, coupled with Chelsea’s ‘weaker’ line up, inspired Rodgers’ decision to go all out attack and try to blitz Chelsea.
Mourinho’s lack of key personnel has been well documented, and he gave a shock start to young centre-back Tomas Kalas, with Ivanovic coming to join him in the middle, while Ashley Cole earned a rare start at left back, giving Azpilicueta his preferred right back position.
Chelsea’s plan was simple. Cram the final third with bodies and do not allow Liverpool to do what they are good at, and play through you in the centre. Salah and Schurrle played deep and wide tracking the full backs, and were actually the perfect players for Mourinho to execute his plan properly. Lightning quick, skillful and threatening, they could carry the ball at any opportunity Chelsea got, and Schurrle proved that in the second half with an excellent strike which Mignolet saved.
Ba was simply there to work hard, be a nuisance to the defenders, and take a chance to score if it came. This is the exact reason Torres didn’t start – in a game where Mourinho knew chances would be few and far between, Torres on his current form would not be that man to seize the rare opportunity like Ba eventually did.
Despite Mourinho intimating that he would have a ‘B’ team out, the midfield certainly did not reflect this (Ramires was probably the only man missing). The level of physicality, experience and street-smart thinking in the midfield was more than enough to carry out the simple tasks given to them, and the trio stayed tight in the middle in front of the box and didn’t allow anything through them.
Rodgers’ starting eleven wrote itself, but the system did not. As mentioned last week he could have realistically started with the diamond, the christmas tree or the 4-3-3, and he went with the latter. Sterling started on the right up against Ashley Cole, with Coutinho on the left, however, the two soon switched sides (perhaps Rodgers had seen an advantage to be had with Sterling running at Azpilicueta).
The Story of the Two Buses
Liverpool’s major problem in this contest lay in breaking Chelsea down in the final third.
The lack of breakthrough in the first half was unlikely to have been worrying Liverpool at all approaching the 45 minute mark. They knew Chelsea would be tough to break down, and were most likely prepped by Brendan Rodgers to be more patient than ever before this season.
However, perhaps what none of them were prepared for, was a mistake of the magnitude of Steven Gerrard’s. People could barely believe their eyes as it unfolded, and it went on to set a precedence for the type of day this could turn out to be for the Reds.
Not only was it agonisingly close to half time, but it was also so symbolic. It was the Mourinho game plan unravelling before us – smash and grab in all its beauty. It was the man who is Liverpool slipping at the crucial moment. Was this a sign that Liverpool themselves would slip at the crucial moment? All of this would have taken a massive psychological toll as the teams walked in for half time.
So it was hardly surprising when the second half started, that perhaps saw Liverpool with more individual ideas than collective, there were glimmers of desperation, long range shots and hopeful crosses. Coupled with an abundance of strikers and attacking potential, all itching for spaces they couldn’t find, it was increasingly ominous for Liverpool.
Had they gone in 0-0 at half-time, it may well have been a different outcome. So here was Chelsea’s set up in the first half, and it remained very much the same throughout the duration of the game:
As mentioned by Brendan Rodgers, Mourinho set up with effectively a back six – Schurrle and Salah tucking in alongside their respective full backs. The midfield three of Mikel, Matic and Lampard sat in front, strong and organised, and capable of picking the right passes into the wide areas when the ball was won back.
Liverpool couldn’t find the right passes in the final third. You can see above the areas they would usually look to penetrate into – bear in mind in this screen shot Chelsea have 10 players to Liverpool’s 4. In the image below (2 seconds later), they have recognised this central space in the box, and you see the Chelsea reaction:
They immediately shut down this space with six bodies around the D, and three players pressing the ball. This trend continued throughout the game, and eventually led Rodgers to a formation somewhat consisting of two at the back, and a front eight.
Statistics and the Possession Debate
I won’t analyse or critique these statistics too closely as I don’t believe they should shape peoples opinions on the game. Many sources have already taken these statistics out of context in order to provide a platform for their own arguments and I do not wish to do the same. It is a very unique game to examine when bringing all elements of the equation together.
So Liverpool remain top of the Premier League, with Manchester City waiting 2 games and six points behind, hoping to capitalise on the Reds’ slip up. Mourinho claims that Chelsea remain out of the title race despite the win, and they require 2 slip ups from City, while Liverpool either require one slip up, or two extremely significant wins against Crystal Palace and Newcastle to snatch it on goal difference.
Brendan Rodgers took criticism following the game for his comments on Chelsea’s approach. Jose Mourinho spoke of his pride for his team and claimed it was a ‘beautiful victory’. His game plan paid off and Rodgers was left to dwell on Liverpool’s missed opportunities, and lack of space to work in and accurate passes in the final third.
The title race meanwhile, looks set to go all the way to the final day!