Match Review: Liverpool 1 – 1 Chelsea

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Updated: February 3, 2017

Liverpool and Chelsea shared the honours at Anfield in a thoroughly entertaining game Tuesday evening. While Liverpool dominated for long spells, Chelsea will be more disappointed not to come away with three points after Diego Costa missed a penalty with fifteen minutes remaining. However, the Blues are the happier team with a draw, and will still be comfortable sitting atop a nine point lead over Tottenham, while Liverpool will be looking over their shoulders nervously at Manchester City, who could reasonably knock them out of fourth place in the near future.

Liverpool intensity pins Chelsea back

For much of the game, and especially up until David Luiz’s 23th minute goal, Liverpool pinned Chelsea back into their own half. This was accomplished with a pressing game that played on Chelsea’s preference to build attacks by passing out through the back, and also through Klopp’s trademark gegenpressing. It was also down to Chelsea’s inability to press Liverpool’s early buildup that the home side could establish consistent dominance.

Liverpool’s defence didn’t start when they lost the ball, but rather in their buildup play. By playing a narrow front three, they could press immediately in the middle upon losing the ball. Meanwhile, Clyne and Milner provided the width, and pushed up high against Chelsea’s wingbacks, tucking in whenever the ball was lost. This meant Liverpool played in somewhat of a 2-3-5 formation, with Wijnaldum, Henderson, and Can forming a flat midfield three that occupied the space in front of the back two and gave Liverpool a collectively press-resistant platform to build from.

Chelsea had difficulty pressing this 2-3-5 high due to their own structure in their own half on defense, a 5-4-1. This formation naturally means an extra player on the last line, but a ramification of this a decreased ability to press the opposition’s early buildup. Therefore, Liverpool could usually start their ball progression cleanly from about the halfway line, giving them a good structure to pass the ball with. Chelsea, for their part, defended extremely well.

Chelsea compactness

To withstand long spells of Liverpool pressure, Chelsea had to be extremely compact. This has been a trademark feature of their defense under Conte, and it’s where the strengths of the 5-4-1 lie. Most importantly, the four-chain in the middle was extremely disciplined — even Hazard — which meant Liverpool couldn’t get the ball to their three narrow attackers. Also, compared to Tottenham, Liverpool placed less emphasis on overloading and penetrating through the halfspace, which was to Chelsea’s advantage. At the same time, five across the back meant Chelsea’s back line had to shift relatively little to cover the aggressive movements of Milner and Clyne. All of this lead to Chelsea being able to soak up long periods of pressure with relative ease.

Conceding from the left halfspace

In big games, Chelsea have had a single major point of weakness: the left halfspace. Manchester City were the first team to exploit this area, and de Bruyne controlled the game by playing through it. Then, Tottenham, while not explicitly exploiting it, scored two goals by crossing from it. Now, with Liverpool crossing from it to score, there’s no question of a systemic weakness in this area caused by a lack of pressure on attacking players.

Compared to the right halfspace, which Kante and Willian occupy, Matic and Hazard form a much weaker defensive partnership on the left. Matic is far less mobile than Kante, and therefore struggles to close players down as quickly, while Hazard is sometimes lackadaisical in performing his defensive duties. This creates a situation where an attacker has time to curl a cross into the back post — where, incidentally, Moses and Azpilicueta, to sub-standard defenders in the air, have to deal with it. This combination of individual weaknesses adds up to a minor systemic problem, but an exploitable one.

The most obvious fix to this is to switch Cahill and Azpilicueta, so that Cahill, the better header of the two, is placed to deal with crosses that come in from the left. This solution would also put Cahill on his favoured right foot when bringing the ball out of the back, which is an obvious plus. Whether Conte does this is another matter, and he may have other reasons for keeping things the way they are.

Conclusion

In a game with a massive impact on Chelsea’s title challenge, honours ended even at Anfield after a game Liverpool dominated for long spells. Chelsea, however, could count themselves unlucky to have gotten only a point after Diego Costa missed a penalty on the 76th minute. Liverpool, on the other hand, failed to take advantage of a number of opportunities, most significantly Roberto Firmino’s  mishit shot just before halftime. Juergen Klopp will probably be the more relieved of the two managers to avoid a loss, with a fourth consecutive loss staring him in the face. Chelsea will have to forget their disappointment at not getting the three points, and move on to a potentially title-deciding game against Arsenal.

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