Chelsea 1-2 Liverpool: Johnson wins it late
An excellent tactical battle ended with Liverpool snatching the three points.
Andre Villas-Boas went for Didier Drogba over Fernando Torres upfront. David Luiz played alongside John Terry, with Branslav Ivanovic at right-back.
Kenny Dalglish surprisingly selected Maxi Rodriguez, excellent at Stamford Bridge last season, on the left. Craig Bellamy played just off Luis Suarez upfront.
A few phases of the game here – Liverpool were better in the first half, Chelsea took command in the second, and then Liverpool clawed themselves back into the game late on.
With the versatility of the front four, Liverpool could have set up in various ways. In the end, it was a 4-4-1-1ish shape – Suarez played left-of-centre against Luiz, Bellamy dropped deeper as a link player, Dirk Kuyt stayed very high up against Ashley Cole and came into the centre of the pitch when Liverpool got the ball, and Rodriguez started much deeper close to Adam, but tried to break forward inside Ivanovic.
Chelsea were their usual 4-3-3 – Ramires worked hard to close down Charlie Adam early on (as Scott Parker did so well) and attempted to deny him time on the ball to turn or play good passes. The wide players struggled to get into the game, and Cole was nullified by Kuyt.
Liverpool closed down well from the front – Suarez, Kuyt and Bellamy are all naturally chasers, and they worked hard high up the pitch. There was often a slight problem in that the pressure didn’t always continue in midfield – Adam was usually up against Ramires, Lucas watched Lampard, and Mikel sometimes went free until Bellamy dropped deeper on him. The one exception to this, of course, was the goal – when Adam moved higher up and robbed Mikel, the surprise factor explaining (if not justifying) his sloppiness on the ball.
The interplay that resulted in Rodriguez’s chance was excellent, and it’s worth pointing out that in their pre-match warm-up, Liverpool’s attacking four plus Adam were practising a very similar move (whilst the defenders worked separately and Lucas worked on defensive headers with a coach). Adam would fire the ball into Bellamy or Suarez, the wide players would come inside, a couple of quick passes would be played, and then one player would finish. The similarity with the goal – albeit with Adam winning a tackle rather than playing a pass – was remarkable.
Chelsea’s passing was poor in the first half. Too often they resorted to hopeful long balls towards Drogba – it would be interesting to know if they played that way because Drogba was in the side, or if Drogba was in the side because Villas-Boas wanted to play that way. Either way, it didn’t work.
Andre Villas-Boas did exactly what he did when he found himself trailing to Manchester United – he removed a midfielder, brought on Daniel Sturridge, and Juan Mata became the central playmaker in a 4-2-1-3 shape. Mikel was the man sacrificed.
After period working out how Chelsea had changed – and a brief time struggling to get the message across to his players on the far side – Dalglish reacted. Rodriguez was brought inside from the left, Bellamy went out to that flank, and Adam moved across slightly. Liverpool were now 4-1-4-1ish.
That was quite a reactive move, and it’s debatable whether such a shift was necessary at that time. Chelsea, as we know from the Arsenal game, are vulnerable to runs in behind their defence and can be hit quickly on the break. Taking away Bellamy’s pace from that zone was a shame in that respect, and having been on the front foot for much of the first period, Liverpool now dropped deeper and deeper, with captain Pepe Reina continually screaming at his defenders to move higher up the pitch.
Mata was much more involved after the break – 32 passes attempted compared to 20 in the first half – his positioning was excellent, and he helped drive Chelsea forward. He cleverly drifted either side of Lucas, hampered by an early booking, and caused the Brazilian more problems than in the first half. To make a wider point, Lucas is better at scrapping and sweeping up in front of the back four as a ’spare’ player than when forced to track a specific man – and with Mata playing higher up than Frank Lampard did in the first half, he now had a problem. When he tracked Mata closely, he was dragged away from his preferred zone so Lampard and Florent Malouda could find room, and when he let Mata go, the Spaniard got passes into feet.
Adam also didn’t seem to appreciate being moved to a right-centre position to allow Rodriguez to move inside, and this contributed to Malouda getting space for the equaliser.
The wider problem was that Liverpool were being overrun in the middle, but Dalglish saved it with a clever substitution. Bellamy made way, which pushed Rodriguez back over to the left (he wasn’t a force in the middle) and Jordan Henderson provided fresh legs. From then, Chelsea dominated much less.
Villas-Boas waited until very late on to introduce Torres – inevitably, for Drogba – but the change didn’t work. Torres was only on for three minutes, when Liverpool went 2-1 ahead. Having gone long too frequently when Drogba was on the pitch, Chelsea now had to be direct…but now had Torres upfront, clearly less of a force in the air.
To make a wider point again, this can be a problem in this situation if a manager opts for a target man rather than a quick striker from the start. Defences tend to start the match defending high up and then drop deeper, and by the time the quick striker appears, there isn’t enough space in behind to exploit, and you’re better off having someone who can win the ball in the box. Another example here was Manchester United’s defeat to Manchester City in last season’s FA Cup semi-final, when Javier Hernandez came on when City were happy to sit deep.
Johnson’s goal was very well-taken individually but two other points deserve mention – John Terry’s strange reluctance to move over into a covering position, and Kuyt’s move from right to left shortly before Adam’s excellent pass, which probably contributed to Terry’s poor positioning.
A fairly evenly-balanced game overall… even if it was rarely evenly-balanced at any one moment, either side dominating at different moments.
Liverpool’s first half performance forced Villas-Boas into a change – and Chelsea’s recovery, in turn, forced Dalglish to react. The key decisions that influenced the pattern of the game were Mata becoming a number ten, and later Henderson being introduced to help Liverpool in the centre of the pitch.
One final point – overall, the shooting from both sides was poor: