In one of the most tactical battles of the season so far, Kenny Dalglish triumphed over Andre Villas-Boas to consign Chelsea to three defeats out of three in their games against Manchester United, Arsenal and Liverpool so far this season. Liverpool, who were on an eight game unbeaten run in all competitions but still not performing as well as some hoped, went into the game as underdogs although there were only three points between the two teams.
Chelsea used their normal 4-3-3 with Didier Drogba favoured ahead of Fernando Torres and Jon Obi Mikel playing as the defensive pivot in a midfield three of him, Ramires and Frank Lampard. Juan Mata started on the right of the front three with Florent Malouda on the opposite flank. The high line that has been heavily criticized this season was implemented in defence once more.
Liverpool, meanwhile, made a number of unexpected changes – the introduction of Maxi Rodriguez on the left for his first league start this season, as well as the inclusion of Craig Bellamy up front with Luis Suarez. Charlie Adam and Lucas Leiva played in central midfield, whilst the centre-back partnership of Martin Skrtel and Daniel Agger was retained. Dirk Kuyt, as expected, started on the right hand side whilst Glen Johnson continued at right back ahead of Martin Kelly.
The main tactical trait apparent in the first half was Liverpool’s aggressive, narrow pressing high up the pitch. Mikel, in particular, was targeted when Chelsea had the ball at the back, with one of Bellamy or Suarez following the Nigerian, causing Chelsea to be unable to build effectively from the back. It’s from this tactic that Liverpool got their first goal, when Charlie Adam pushed out of midfield and caught Mikel on the ball before a quick exchange of passes on the edge of the Chelsea box lead to Maxi Rodriguez finishing past Petr Cech (an exchange apparently practiced before the match). The aggressive pressing utilised by Liverpool is best exemplified by the fact that the three players who made the most tackles in the match for them were Luis Suarez, Dirk Kuyt and, perhaps less surprisingly, Lucas, indicative of this policy to try and get at Chelsea early where they were weakest and while there was space behind to exploit.
Liverpool also managed to stagnate many Chelsea moves early by using their pressing intelligently, with Maxi and Kuyt also managing to keep compact in midfield when they needed to, leaving Bellamy and Suarez to hound the opposition. The compactness of the midfield and the higher line held by Skrtel and Agger meant that the middle third was crowded and Chelsea struggled to get any foothold in the match. All these factors also contributed to Charlie Adam’s best 45 minutes in a Liverpool shirt, where he was very effective in not only breaking up Chelsea attacks but able to push play forward when he could. The energetic movement ahead of him, which meant that the Chelsea midfield had to assist defensively more than they had probably hoped, and the less space between the midfield and defence meant that Adam could operate more effectively over a smaller percentage of the park. It’s tribute to the energy and intelligence of Bellamy, Maxi and Kuyt that Liverpool were able to be so effective in the first half. The intelligent movement of Maxi Rodriguez in particular was noticeable throughout also, regularly pushing behind the high line and causing head aches for David Luiz and Branislav Ivanovic. Had the final ball been more incisive on several occasions it is likely he would have managed to get a few more chances.
The high line implemented by Chelsea, though debated, wasn’t the sole reason for Chelsea’s difficulties in the first half. Luiz himself managed to make 8 interceptions and, although he was perhaps occasionally too aggressive and looked likely to make one of his trademark clangers, he managed to have a decent game. It was the lack of unity in the team moving as a unit that Liverpool managed to capitalise upon, with the midfield not being able to alleviate the pressure on Mikel and the centre backs and thus allowing Liverpool to consistently target them.
The reversal back to this method of play and its success against what is a very strong, albeit slightly disorganised (comparatively at least) side perhaps raises more question marks over Liverpool’s over-reliance on other players so far this season. Although some (myself, included) have been too quick to generalise about the tactics utilised by Dalglish (after all, in the “bigger” games this season Liverpool have changed their style of play to match their opponent), this was the first time players like Bellamy and Maxi have been used in this manner this season.
At half-time however, Villas-Boas – recognising where the damage was being caused – was brave in his tactical changes. Taking off Mikel for Daniel Sturridge and switching to what seemed at times a 4-2-4/4-2-1-3 meant that Liverpool found that the main aim of their tactical plan was now redundant. Ramires and Lampard, as well as being more able to distribute than Mikel, formed a double pivot that meant it was much more difficult for Liverpool to effectively press without committing too many players forward and compromising their compact midfield, which was still important as Juan Mata was now allowed a more roaming role behind the attacking trident.
This gave Chelsea a better base to build from and as Liverpool continued to try and press, or certainly at the start of the second half (and arguably until the change of Jordan Henderson for Bellamy in the 65th minute), it meant that Liverpool either allowed Chelsea to build or pushed players forward, creating more space for Chelsea to work in. This, combined with the players doing the most running for Liverpool tiring rapidly in the second half, meant that for a period of twenty minutes Chelsea swarmed all over Liverpool but, as Liverpool lacked at times in the first half as well, lacked the incisiveness necessary to capitalise beyond the equaliser. The equaliser itself was the result of Malouda finding space between Glen Johnson and Charlie Adam before pushing into the box and crossing for Sturridge to finish at the far post. Although some responsibility falls to specific players for not being positioned rightly or pressing the ball intelligently enough, at this point Chelsea were causing constant problems that didn’t allow Liverpool to settle at all and it’s difficult to attribute too much specific blame.
During this period, it looked like there was only going to be one winner, but the introduction of Henderson firmed up Liverpool’s midfield and caused the game to become more bogged down, with neither side really dominating (for the first time in the match). This switch, although it could be argued to have been delayed to a point by which Chelsea could have – on another day – gone ahead, was the key factor that swung the game away from Chelsea and was another intelligent use of personnel from Dalglish. This change, which was also made to provide fresh impetus in the game against Manchester United earlier in the season, compensated for the tiring of the Liverpool midfield and managed to plug the gaps that were appearing in the defensive phase.
It was in this final period of the match that Liverpool managed to create the one chance that they needed to put the game to bed. Adam, who had faded from the player who dominated the midfield in the first half, managed to get into the space he wanted to be in to effect the match for one of the first times in the second half and found Glen Johnson’s marauding run from defence – Johnson managed to turn infield and finish in the far post to win the game for Liverpool.
In a game that could have gone either way, Liverpool managed to carry on their impressive form against their main rivals for the top four, where – a defeat against Tottenham aside – they have gotten seven points and only conceded twice. Playing to their strengths and using the intelligence and experience of a diverse squad, Dalglish has managed to get Liverpool into a position where going into the game against Manchester City at home, they are only three points behind fourth with Steven Gerrard still to come back whilst having also faced most of their toughest competition before the run in to Christmas. Chelsea, meanwhile, still very much look like a team in transition, having lost the confident swagger that assured them success in the past when in similar phases. Villas-Boas knows that if they don’t improve he could be under a lot of pressure after Christmas, and they will have to drastically improve in these kinds of games to get to the level they should be at.