Liverpool 2-0 Chelsea: Torres strikes and positional discipline see Liverpool through
Two excellent first-half goals from Fernando Torres secured Liverpool’s best result under Roy Hodgson.
Dirk Kuyt came back into the side after a long period out injured, with Martin Kelly the other surprise name on the team sheet. Maxi Rodriguez continued in midfield.
Didier Drogba was only considered fit enough for the bench, so Carlo Ancelotti used Saloman Kalou on the right and Nicolas Anelka as the main forward. Frank Lampard was injured, as was Michael Essien, so the midfield trio was the same as in the win over Spartak in midweek.
Anelka playing upfront alone gives a different feel to Chelsea, and their build-up play is very different from with Drogba in the side. There is a greater focus on possession, as Anelka drops deep to become involved in midfield play, something he did very well in the title decider at Old Trafford last season. In the opening minute of this game, Chelsea kept possession and Liverpool literally didn’t have a touch, an indication of the football the away side were going to play.
Rather than playing Kuyt on his now customary right midfield position, with Steven Gerrard off Torres, Hodgson decided to play Kuyt as a support striker, moving Gerrard deeper into midfield and using Raul Meireles on the right. This is not Meireles’ best position and he’s looked slightly uncomfortable when used there so far this season, but today was a decent time to play him there – up against the world’s best left-back at the moment in Ashley Cole, his defensive duties came in handy.
That’s not to say that Kuyt would have been weak on that side – he’s helped popularise the ‘defensive winger’ idea and has frequently played very up against opposition left-backs. But he played a different role today, cutting off the passing angle to Jon Obi Mikel, and dropping goalside of him when Chelsea had possession in the midfield.
The benefit of playing Kuyt further forward, however, is that he is able to link up with Torres when Liverpool get the ball, with the shape becoming a 4-4-2 (something Hodgson generally prefers). The two combined excellently for Liverpool’s opener – Kuyt drifting a pass over the top and Torres finishing well.
Liverpool defend solidly
Liverpool defended very deep throughout the game, which snuffed out the threat of balls over the top to Anelka. Hodgson prefers his sides to sit back, and he also prefers them to play very narrow, something which suited the players he was using in wide areas today – Martin Kelly is comfortable at centre-back, Meireles is a central midfielder, Rodriguez is right-footed and likely to play narrow on the left (and played in the centre for Argentina at the World Cup) – only Paul Konchesky, of the four players used in wide areas is a true natural wide player. The chalkboard below of Liverpool’s interceptions shows how this narrowness worked when breaking down Chelsea moves.
Here, Chelsea seemed to lack natural width. The shape of their team is a cross between a 4-3-2-1 and a 4-3-3 – unlike in the Mourinho era when Arjen Robben, Damien Duff or Shaun Wright-Phillips would stay very wide, Chelsea’s wide forwards now like to move into the centre of the pitch, which was very congested once Liverpool took the lead and started to sit back, and Liverpool were quite comfortable at 1-0 – and Torres’ excellent second goal gave them a commanding lead.
Inevitably, Ancelotti turned to Drogba for the second half, with Kalou making way. This changed the way Chelsea played with regard to their main striker – in the first half Anelka attempted 14 passes as the central striker, in the second half Drogba attempted just 3, and this despite Chelsea being more dominant in the second period than in the first. Liverpool were playing very deep and Drogba was more of a targetman, but Martin Skrtel and Jamie Carragher both had very good games.
Chelsea didn’t stretch Liverpool enough down the flanks, and again they lacked an option at right-back as dangerous as the threat from left-back. They always looked to play down the left, only switching the play to Branislav Ivanovic with long crossfield balls that almost seemed a last resort. It was a surprise that Ancelotti waited until 70 minutes to introduce Jose Bosingwa, though he didn’t look particularly impressive when he came on.
Chelsea’s best chances did come from wide areas, although strangely it was when Drogba moved out there that Chelsea looked dangerous. He may have only completed two passes in the game but they were both excellent balls – on 66 minutes his cross to Malouda should have resulted in a goal, but for a brilliant/fortunate save by Pepe Reina, then on 78 minutes his cut-back to Terry was met with a miscued shot. These two chances go against the idea that he wasn’t involved much in build-up play – but it must be stressed that these were the only two passes he completed. Perhaps the surprise element caught Liverpool out, perhaps Drogba should have ventured to the flanks more to drag Liverpool out of shape.
It wasn’t often they were dragged out of shape, though, and the second half display was an excellent defensive performance. Aside from a late switch of Meireles and Kuyt, Hodgson changed little – no substitutions until the 84th minute and no change in overall strategy either. What they do have when defending deep is pace upfront with Torres (and substitute David Ngog, who was through on goal but for a late Alex challenge and could have made it 3-0) and though Torres saw little of the ball, his constant threat made Chelsea nervous about moving their defensive line up the pitch and really squeezing play, and also turned clearances into decent out-balls to relieve the pressure.
Hodgson’s negative tactics have been met with a lot of criticism so far this season, but there is little doubt that his focus upon defending deep and maintaining a good shape is very handy when it comes to protecting leads against better sides. We would not be praising Liverpool’s shape but for two excellent Torres goals, though, and they were crucial in both the result and the overall pattern of play.
Chelsea have played three away games against ‘big’ sides so far this season – Manchester City, Aston Villa and Liverpool, and have failed to score in any. Considering they scored in 37 of 38 games last season, this might turn out to be significant. They missed driving runs from midfield, as well as a goal threat from that zone.Liverpool 2-0 Chelsea: Torres strikes and positional discipline see Liverpool through