Liverpool travelled to Stamford Bridge looking to continue the sole remaining 100% record in the Premier League after losing away to Napoli in the Champions League in mid-week. Chelsea were also looking to bounce back from a loss in the Champions League, defeated 1-0 by Valencia on Tuesday. The two teams met earlier in the season in the European Super Cup, where Liverpool edged out Chelsea on penalties.
Frank Lampard has utilised a back three recently, however he went with a 4-3-3 formation in this game. Jurgen Klopp chose the same shape – it being Liverpool’s regular set-up.
Knowing that Chelsea would try to pass the ball out from the back, Liverpool’s attackers positioned themselves high, close to the Chelsea defenders, to immediately press them if Kepa Arrizabalaga played the ball short from goal kicks. Roberto Firmino would block the pass into Jorginho, or stand on top of him if the Italian dropped very deep, while Mohamed Salah and Sadio Mane waited in positions to press the centre-backs, who were initially out of their reach in the penalty area, while also close enough to the Chelsea full-backs to drop off and cover.
It was the outside midfielders behind them, Jordan Henderson and Georginio Wijnaldum, that would close down the full-backs though. They would take up positions between Mateo Kovacic and N’Golo Kante inside and the full-backs down the outside, ensuring they were able to press whichever player Arrizabalaga picked. If he knocked a ball out to Emerson Palmieri, his early replacement Marcos Alonso or Cesar Azpilicueta, the outside Liverpool midfielders would rush out to close them down while Fabinho would come across to pick up whichever Chelsea midfielder his teammate had left. If he picked out Kante or Kovacic, the midfielders would close them down while blocking the pass out to the full-back.
Unsurprisingly, Chelsea found it difficult to pass out on goal kicks, often opting to hit the ball long. Liverpool’s opening goal came from a similar situation, although a free-kick in Chelsea’s half rather than a goal kick. The ball is played short to Fikayo Tomori, who, under pressure from Firmino, hits the ball long. Trent Alexander-Arnold wins the header and Fabinho wins the loose ball, before dribbling past Jorginho and feeding a pass into Mane. Andreas Christensen upends the Senegalese and Alexander-Arnold scores from the resulting free-kick.
Liverpool’s pressing differed in open play however. Although Firmino would generally still look to block the pass into Jorginho, Fabinho would step up and get tight to him. This meant that he was often the highest positioned of Liverpool’s midfielders, rather than sitting at the base as is more usual. While this limited Jorginho’s influence, Chelsea’s attackers exploited the space this left in front of the defence: Tammy Abraham dropped off and left the centre-backs in two minds whether to follow him or not, while Willian and to a lesser extent Mason Mount tucked inside to receive the ball to feet. With Fabinho dragged up the pitch, Chelsea could get at Liverpool’s defence, frequently trying to release Abraham with a pass in behind Liverpool’s high line.
Chelsea attempted to press high up the pitch themselves, however, much like against Liverpool in Istanbul, it wasn’t very effective. Initially Chelsea would line up in a 4-5-1 shape with Abraham blocking the pass into Fabinho, however when the Liverpool centre-back would pass across to his partner, that side’s midfielder would rush forward to press him. Like in the Super Cup, the Chelsea midfielder had too much ground to cover to effectively pressure the centre-back, meaning it was never difficult for Virgil van Dijk or Joel Matip to move the ball on. Whereas earlier in the season, the wingers had tucked inside, leaving a wide pass to the full-back or winger open, in this game they tended to stay wide, leaving enough gaps in the midfield for the Liverpool centre-backs to slide passes straight through them. This was a particular problem on the left, where several times Henderson would pick up the ball behind Kovacic and combine with Salah.
More often than not though, Liverpool’s attacks were simply long balls for their pacey forwards to chase in behind Chelsea’s defence.
Liverpool doubled their lead from another set-piece, taking a comfortable lead without much effort. After this, both teams seemed to ease up on their pressing – Liverpool protecting their lead and Chelsea presumably giving up because theirs wasn’t working.
The game tilted in Chelsea’s favour at this point and this momentum only grew as the match wore on.
Searching for a comeback, Chelsea pushed their full-backs high and wide. With Mount and Willian tucking inside, Liverpool’s back four would come very narrow, giving Alonso and Azpilicueta plenty of room to work in on the flanks. Salah and Mane would track back deep into their half, but they would often leave it late, preferring to take up higher positions to pose a counter-attacking threat then rushing back at the last moment when the Chelsea full-backs picked up the ball. This meant it was often left to Henderson, Wijnaldum and the full-backs to rush across and smother Alonso and Azpilicueta before they could cross, which was a lot of ground for them to cover.
Jurgen Klopp has often switched to a 4-4-2 shape when Liverpool have a healthy lead, moving Mane back to provide more defensive width to the midfield while Salah stays up the field for counter-attacks. Here though, no such change was forthcoming: Liverpool’s defensive shape sat uneasily between a 4-5-1 that offered defensive width but little counter-attacking threat, handing all the momentum to Chelsea, and a 4-3-3 that handed Chelsea’s full-backs acres of space to work with.
Chelsea got a goal back with an attack in which you can see the problem caused by their width, however the cause of the goal itself was more excellent play by Kante. Kovacic on the left switched play to Azpilicueta on the right, who was closed down by Wijnaldum, leaving an easy pass inside to Kante. Fabinho was slow to get across and close the gap between him and Wijnaldum initially but when Kante picks up the ball, he picks up his pace. Kante turns out though, evading Fabinho, and, with Henderson clearly too knackered to rush over until it’s too late, he pushes towards the area and lifts a shot past Adrian. An extra body in that midfield would have probably meant the gaps for Kante to exploit would have been smaller and Fabinho and Henderson wouldn’t have been quite so tired, however Fabinho did seem to have Kante shut down only for the little Frenchman to find a new avenue, so he may well have been able to pull off the same thing even if Liverpool had tightened up their midfield.
With that goal, Klopp finally made his first change, bringing on James Milner for Mane. Adam Lallana, truthfully looking too slow to really be an effective defender, replaced Henderson ten minutes later as Liverpool looked to protect their lead, and Joe Gomez was a late addition in place of Salah.
Chelsea had the run of play but they struggled to create many chances until late on. Azpilicueta constantly looped his crosses high into the sky rather than whipping them into the box and it took quite a while for Alonso to really start finding his mark. Chelsea’s front three attacked the box, getting between Liverpool’s back four, but they never quite managed to get their finishing straight.
With Alonso high up the pitch, Liverpool had looked to release Salah in behind him. Much like Kalidou Koulibaly in mid-week though, Tomori was superb, winning the one-on-ones to quell Liverpool’s counters.
Although a bit iffy, there have been worse Liverpool performances this season. Chelsea had the momentum for most of the match, but Liverpool seemed to hand it over to them willingly and, despite doing so, rarely looked in much danger. As Klopp said, the important thing is the three points, and Liverpool got them to continue their perfect record.