The European Super Cup was played out by two English sides for the first time in its history.
Champions League winners Liverpool were set up by manager Jurgen Klopp in their usual 4-3-3 formation, with Adrian filling in for the injured Alisson Becker, Joel Matip coming into the centre of the defence while Joe Gomez moved wide in place of Trent Alexander-Arnold, James Milner taking Georginio Wijnaldum’s spot in midfield and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and Sadio Mane joining Mohamed Salah in attack, replacing Roberto Firmino and Divock Origi from the side that thrashed Norwich.
Europa League winners Chelsea endured a thrashing of their own against Manchester United on the opening day of their Premier League season, but N’Golo Kante, Olivier Giroud and Christian Pulisic all came into the starting eleven for Frank Lampard’s second competitive game in charge of his old team, matching Liverpool’s 4-3-3 shape.
Despite playing in Instanbul’s sweltering heat on a patchy pitch, the game started at a decent tempo. It was Liverpool who had most of the ball, although Chelsea made more use of it in the opening stages.
Usually Klopp has his full-backs bomb forward to provide width but, like against Norwich last Friday, here Gomez and Andy Robertson held back, with it instead being left to midfielders Jordan Henderson, now back in a box-to-box role having played at the base of Liverpool’s midfield for the last few seasons, and James Milner to get forward and support the attack. Milner switched between dropping back next to the centre-backs to work the ball out and joining up with the attackers, whereas Henderson was constantly looking to attack any spaces between the opposition defenders.
Henderson’s running created several half-chances for Liverpool in the first half. Chelsea’s 4-3-3 shape didn’t really give them great pressing access to Liverpool’s defenders: Giroud could chase after one but, without a strike partner, the other centre-back was free to receive the ball. Chelsea tried to work around this by having one of the central midfielders push up to join Giroud in pressing, but they had to cover so much distance to get into position this was rarely effective.
Pulisic would tuck inside to help defend the centre, but this meant Gomez, or Salah or Oxlade-Chamberlain ahead of him, were available for a pass on the right flank, with the American unable to block the pass wide or get across quick enough to effectively close them down. Liverpool’s defenders could bypass Chelsea’s midfield by hitting the ball out to the right flank, where the recipient would pass back inside to Henderson making a run into attack. This was particularly effective when the ball was sent to a Liverpool winger, as Emerson Palmeiri would rush out to try and get close to them, leaving a huge gap for Henderson to attack.
For the most part, Chelsea’s defending worked though. They sat off in a mid-block, letting Liverpool have the ball then pounced on any poor passes before bursting forward on the attack. Kante was constantly nipping in on poor Liverpool passes to put Chelsea on the front foot. Much like against Norwich, Liverpool’s defence didn’t look at the races, with Gomez, who had also looked particularly sloppy in the previous game, constantly letting Pulisic get in behind him out wide and failing to get back quick enough.
This wasn’t just the backline’s fault though: Henderson and Milner pushing high into attack meant Fabinho was too often left by himself in midfield, enabling Chelsea to overwhelm Liverpool through the centre. Often forming a 4-1-5 shape in possession, Liverpool struggled in their build-up, mainly looking to hit long balls over the top rather than working the ball forward. Chelsea could either win those long balls then spring forward while Liverpool had so many men ahead of the ball, or they could pounce on a poor pass between Liverpool’s defenders and immediately attack. Chelsea caught out Liverpool’s high line several times but Giroud’s lack of pace meant the defenders could usually recover.
The opening goal came when Kante won the ball in midfield and layed it off to Pulisic. The American had looked bright but had usually been been positioned out wide, however here he ran through the middle, pushing back Liverpool’s defence so that when he slid a pass through to Giroud, the Frenchman was already close enough to shoot. He finished with one touch as no Liverpool defender was able to recover fast enough this time.
At half-time, Klopp withdrew the largely anonymous Oxlade-Chamberlain for Firmino. The Brazilian made an immediate impact, assisting Mane for the equaliser in one of the flurry of Liverpool attacks that started the second half.
The goal did show the weakness of Chelsea’s fairly passive defensive strategy. Liverpool forced Chelsea back into their defensive third, sent in a cross which was deflected up in the air, Fabinho won the loose ball and flicked it into the box, with Firmino squaring the falling ball to Mane to finish. Maybe if they had engaged Liverpool higher up the pitch, Fabinho wouldn’t be winning loose balls on the edge of their area.
Regardless, Liverpool had changed their strategy, no longer ceding control of the centre. Henderson still got forward in support of the attack but wasn’t running beyond them with the same frequency, while Milner and his replacement Wijnaldum stayed closer to Fabinho in the second half. Firmino was also constantly dropping off the frontline into midfield, giving someone for the Liverpool defenders to pick out with a ball to feet rather than having to hit aerial balls over the top. Liverpool went from having only Fabinho in the middle to having four men there, which made it easier for them to both pass and press in that area, cutting off the main source of Chelsea’s success.
Chelsea managed to weather the storm at the start of the second half and the game settled into an even back-and-forth between the two teams. The heat was having a significant effect on the match in the second half and by the time extra time rolled around, large gaps were opening up and both teams had resorted to long balls in place of more considered attacking. Liverpool took the lead with their pressing, winning the ball back in Chelsea’s half when they tried to play out from the back, however Chelsea soon equalised with a penalty when Adrian brought down substitute Tammy Abraham, following a long pass in behind Liverpool’s defence.
Adrian saved Abraham’s penalty in the shoot-out though, winning Liverpool a trophy in his first start for the club.