Everyone seems to be previewing the Champions League final, and between them everything seems to be covered to a high quality, so, late to the party, here’s something irrelevant: Chelsea 2-1 Liverpool, 2003. Nevertheless, the match is still incredibly important. Chelsea needed the money from Champions League qualification to sort out their perilous financial state, which was soon to be sorted out by Roman Abramovich. Would he have been as interested in acquiring Chelsea were it not for them playing Champions League football? We don’t know, but it certainly couldn’t have hurt. If Abramovich’s interest was secured with Champions League qualification, this match has completely reshaped the footballing world.
Chelsea needed just a draw to secure qualification, while Liverpool were going to have to win at Stamford Bridge, where they had not beaten Chelsea for 13 years, without the influential Dietmar Hamann.
The line-ups gave a decent look at the tactical trends of the time: both teams set up in what were broadly 4-4-2 formations, with mainly defensive full-backs and two out and out strikers. Celestine Babayaro was decent going forward, but didn’t need to advance when Claudio Ranieri put Graeme Le Saux, another full-back yet very good going forward, in front of him, with the more average Mario Melchiot also put behind winger Jesper Gronkjaer.
Liverpool’s system was a bit more complicated. Gerard Houllier always played very narrow formations, and the game against Chelsea was no exception – Danny Murphy was played on the left, regularly coming infield, while striker El Hadji Diouf was played on the right wing. The Frenchman had seen how well Arsenal had done with the attacking Ashley Cole and underrated Lauren at full-back and tried to open up the side a bit more. John Arne Riise would bomb down from left-back, while Steve Finnan would be brought in over the summer, but for this game Jamie Carragher was put at right-back – he worked hard to provide an attacking outlet, but simply didn’t have the quality to realistically do so.
Another element of Arsene Wenger’s success at Arsenal had been the use of Dennis Bergkamp to play between the defensive and midfield lines of the Premier League’s bogstandard 4-4-2 formation. Ranieri had the possibility of playing Gianfranco Zola in this position, or even Eidur Gudjohnsen, but opted to play two out and out strikers, while Houllier did the same, playing Michael Owen and Milan Baros. Regardless of their being no obvious threat here, Salif Diao was put in a holding midfield position, screening the back four, which only seemed to give Emmanuel Petit more time and space on the ball.
Although it was Chelsea who left this space between the lines open, they actually took advantage of this space much more than Liverpool. Early on Frank Lampard lost Salif Diao and Djimi Traore rushed out to meet him, opening up space for Jimmy Flloyd Hasselbaink, and minutes later Le Saux found his way into the same gap. This sort of move was repeated semi-regularly; one of Lampard or Petit would pick up the ball, wait for Diao to move forward, before passing the ball on and running into this gap themselves or passing it to a player waiting in this space – Le Saux was particularly good at this, intelligently drifting horizontally from wide positions to get the ball in the free space (fig. 1).
Diao’s positioning really was a major problem for Liverpool. The extra space he was giving Petit meant he was able to ping raking passes towards the wings, so Murphy was forced to come inside to challenge him more, leaving Melchiot free. He isn’t particularly good at attacking, but he was given the time to pick out decent passes when he was a viable weak point to be pressuring so Liverpool could win back the ball – eventually Baros would start to drift towards the left to put him under more pressure. Diao’s deep role also meant that, when going forward, Steven Gerrard was often facing an uphill battle in the centre of midfield.
Chelsea were already doing well thanks to their through-pressing techniques (pressurising opposition players without the ball as well as those in possession to limit passing options) taking advantage of some of Liverpool’s clumsier players. The likes of Diao, Traore and Carragher were all misplacing a lot of passes early on, although they eventually settled, especially Diao, who was doing wellto twist away from Chelsea’s midfield late on in the first half. Liverpool, on the other hand, were pressing on a more individual basis: the man closest to the ball pressing, but the rest sitting deeper and covering.
Liverpool’s main tactic seemed to be to draw Chelsea onto them then hit them on the counter with long balls in behind Chelsea’s defence for the speedy Owen and Baros to run onto. Although it was Liverpool needing to win, so it should have really been them taking the initiative, the strategy was probably a good idea on Houllier’s part. Chelsea were simply a better quality team than Liverpool, particularly without Hamann, and would probably control the game better.
Although Chelsea controlled the opening of the game, Liverpool looked to have done their intended job early on, Sami Hyppia heading home a free-kick. There was some good movement by Hyypia, but Petit’s marking was so poor it probably wasn’t necessary. Liverpool had now stolen fourth place, but Marcel Desailly scored a similar goal just minutes later at the other end to put Chelsea back in control. Again, it was an excellent header by Desailly, but Diao’s marking was poor too. Gronkjaer’s goal wasn’t part of an over-arching theme, although he could probably have been closed down better.
With two goals needed, Salif diao replaced by Emile Heskey at half-time. His aerial threat should have meant Chelsea couldn’t sit back, in case he got a header close to goal, but, as he was played at left midfield, with Murphy replacing Diao in the centre, he posed little threat. It would have probably been better for someone like Baros to have been put on the wing, with Heskey and Owen ensuring Chelsea would struggle to play a high or deep line in the centre, but he wasn’t and Chelsea were relatively untroubled.
Diouf was replaced by Patrik Berger, who came on to play in the hole between defence and midfield, forming a 4-2-1-3 with Heskey going right and more attacking. Owen and Baros had both attempted to drop off but Chelsea, with no need for another goal, were squeezing this space well. With Berger there they had a more natural player in the role, and they came up with some incisive moves. Generally, Berger would get the ball here and draw a player out, slipping it to one of Baros or Owen who would also drop into the space, who would then slide it through to the other striker.
Zola also came on for Chelsea, giving them a natural to play in the hole too, but the service had been long balls to Chelsea’s strikers for most of the second half, which he wasn’t that suitable for. The decision was most likely to give the legend a run-out in his final game for the club rather than anything tactical, with the substitution of Hasselbaink for Carlton Cole seeming more suitable for the situation.
Still needing goals, Houllier re-shuffled his side again, bringing on midfielder Bruno Cheyrou for John Arne Riise to form a 3-3-1-3. The back three was all that was needed against Chelsea’s long balls to the strikers and the addition of another midfielder gave Liverpool more control over possession. Gerrard had been doing well to escape Chelsea’s midfielders, but the time spent twisting and turning away from the opposition could have been spent hitting the ball forward towards Heskey or Baros – the introduction of another midfielder streamlined the process.
However, as the clock continued to tick down, Liverpool didn’t look like scoring, and the sending off of Gerrard for a wild lunge at Le Saux seemed to confirm it wasn’t going to be their day. Chelsea won, confirming their place in the Champions League, and possibly at the forefront of Abramovich’s plans, while Liverpool had to settle for the UEFA Cup. A year later, both managers were gone – Ranieri, despite taking Chelsea to second and a Champions League semi-final, was replaced by Jose Mourinho, who built on his work to win Chelsea the Premier League in his first season and establish them as a world-class team. Houllier hadn’t seemed the same since returning from his heart attack and was given another season before being moved on, guiding Liverpool to fourth for Rafa Benitez to take charge, winning the Champions League in his first season and rebuilding Liverpool as close to their glorious past as any manager had since Kenny Dalglish.