Liverpool vs Chelsea: How Chelsea stopped Liverpool to win
State of play before the game
Before their encounter, both Chelsea and Liverpool had been overtaken by Everton who had entered the top 4 after their 1-0 victory over West Brom, with both teams also sitting behind West Ham who were not playing in the midweek fixtures. A victory for Chelsea would see them overtake Everton and reclaim 4th spot, whilst Liverpool were looking to end a run of 4 defeats in a row at home and win to go level on points with their Merseyside rivals. Chelsea were aiming to go 10 games unbeaten in all competitions since Thomas Tuchel took charge of the side after Frank Lampard’s sacking.
Liverpool: 4 – 3 – 3
Alisson, Alexander-Arnold, Fabinho, Kabak, Robertson, Thiago, Wijnaldum, Jones, Salah, Firmino, Mané
Chelsea: 3 – 4 – 2 -1
Mendy, Azpilicueta, Christensen, Rudiger, James, Kanté, Jorginho, Chilwell, Ziyech, Mount, Werner
Figure 1. Expected shape and line-ups for both teams.
From looking at the line-ups it appeared Chelsea were changing their approach from playing Giroud as the lead striker and use the pace of Werner to run in behind the Liverpool defence who tend to use a high defensive line.
From the early moments of the game, it was clear about what Chelsea were going to try to do to break down Liverpool’s fragile defence. It has been seen and exploited many times this season that Liverpool will continue with their high defensive line and try to create moments where opposition attackers would be caught offside. In the few minutes Chelsea started to show what their game plan would be, by playing a long ball over the top of the Liverpool centre half pairing and allow Timo Werner, or the two attacking midfielders in Ziyech and Mount to run in behind to fairly open areas of Liverpool’s half. Due to the way Liverpool continue to press high up when the opposition team is in possession, further space between centre backs and full backs had been created, giving greater freedom of the channels for the Chelsea players. Within the first few minutes, Werner was able to run onto a long forward pass that come from the Chelsea back three, thus giving a hint into what was to come during the game.
One of the other hand, Liverpool were still able to have large amounts of possession in the Chelsea half, something that happened throughout, but allowed Chelsea to initiate the defensive side of their game plan, where their formation would switch to 5-3-2 when defending their own half, with Mason Mount dropping into midfield to form the midfield 3. At times the Chelsea defensive formation would be seen as a 5-2-2-1 instead of the 5-3-2 but meant that Chelsea’s midfield players and sometimes Werner would press the ball with high energy, attempting to not give Liverpool’s key players any time on the ball. It was clear that when Chelsea had lost the ball in midfield or attack, speed in transition was key for the Chelsea defensive game, with constant pressure from Mount, Kanté and Jorginho, and meant that the wing backs in James and Chilwell had to be quick to recover if they had began overlapping runs or were asking for the switch of pass.
Figure 2. An example of Chelsea defending deep early in the first half.
During the first half Chelsea’s attacking game plan nearly paid off when a long ball from deep in the Chelsea midfield gave Timo Werner the opportunity to run past the Liverpool centre backs and lob the ball over Alisson before chipping the ball over a recovering defender into the goal. However, this was given as another contentious offside decision through VAR, suggesting that Werner’s armpit was offside when the ball was played and therefore the goal was not given. In response, Liverpool tried to copy the tactic, with Mané being a willing runner in behind the Chelsea defence and nearly punished them but was unable to make contact with the ball as he entered the penalty area. Apart from this and the odd occasion where there were runners in behind for Liverpool, or there was a cross from out wide, the Chelsea back three were able to intercept with ease and clear the danger. This aggressive nature of Chelsea pressure and gaining the first contact from most crosses and challenges gave them the opportunity to employ their attacking option late in the first half, where Mason Mount’s goal came from a long ball into the large gap between Fabinho and Alexander-Arnold, which Mount had ran onto before entering the box, switching the ball onto his right foot and curling the ball into the bottom far corner, not giving Fabinho a chance to challenge him in the process.
Figure 3. The contentious offside which ruled out Werner's goal. This play was a clear example of how Chelsea were going to attack throughout the game.
The second half saw similar patterns of play again, seeing Liverpool control most of the possession in the Chelsea half but with little success and limited breakdown of the Chelsea set-up. One of the key moments of the half was a contentious handball decision in the Chelsea penalty area, where Roberto Firmino tried to lob the ball over N’Golo Kanté but the ball had hit the Chelsea player’s hand, with Kanté’s hand seen by some as in an unusual position. However, the referee had waved away Liverpool’s protests, but was asked to hold up play at the next stoppage due to a VAR check, but nothing came to it and the game carried on.
Figure 4. The handball that wasn't given.
Chelsea continued with their tactics throughout the game, holding their 5-3-2 shape when required to defend deep, with continued pressure on the ball when Liverpool had the ball in central areas, with the wing backs pressing the Liverpool full backs when out wide. Liverpool were able to deliver multiple crosses from both the right and left flanks, with most coming from Trent Alexander-Arnold down the right-hand side, however, nearly every time Chelsea were able to make the first contact and clear the ball, with Christensen and Rudiger using their height advantage and dominance over the Liverpool forwards to do this.
When back in possession, Chelsea continued to attempt to play the long ball into the gaps between centre back and full back, along with switching play from one wing to the other in a limited number of passes possible. This allowed Reece James and Ben Chilwell to get forward as much as possible when Chelsea were attacking, but this occurred less in the last quarter of the game whilst Chelsea shut up shop and contained Liverpool’s efforts to get into the final third. Chelsea were able to contain Liverpool so well, Liverpool did not register a shot on target until the 85th minute of the game, coming from a header towards the edge of the box from Wijnaldum. Another worrying element of this game for Liverpool was the lack of cutting edge going forward throughout the game, with the worst expected goals ratio under Klopp’s regime (0.32), and lead to Klopp taking off Mo Salah for Diogo Jota in the 62nd minute.
Chelsea went to Liverpool with a strict game plan which effectively paid off. Having leaked goals whilst under Frank Lampard, it appears Thomas Tuchel has seen the defensive abilities of his team and has worked on them immediately so that Chelsea become a team that is difficult to beat and even score past again. In his ten games in charge, Tuchel’s Chelsea have only conceded two goals, something that hasn’t been seen since José Mourinho’s first season in charge of the club. The game plan utilised against Liverpool showed that Tuchel has good understanding of which players are better defensively, hence picking Reece James and Ben Chilwell instead of players such as Marcos Alonso and Callum Hudson-Odoi and appears to be something that he can use again when playing against the top sides, giving belief that key opposition threats can be neutralised. With this, Tuchel is not afraid to make changes for every different opposition he faces and isn’t going to employ an attack is the best form of defence strategy where he has played Hudson-Odoi in that right wing-back role in some of the previous games Chelsea have played so that Chelsea can be the dominant attacking side against some of the teams lower down in the premier league table.