Chelsea 2-1 Liverpool: Chelsea lift the trophy
Chelsea won their fourth FA Cup in the last six years.
Roberto Di Matteo went for his usual 4-2-3-1 system with no real surprises – Didier Drogba was upfront and Saloman Kalou got the nod on the left.
Kenny Dalglish left out Andy Carroll and went for a 4-3-3 system with Luis Suarez upfront alone. There was also no place for Jamie Carragher at the back.
This was basically two completely separate games – Liverpool before Carroll, and Liverpool with Carroll.
The game started extremely cautiously, with neither side committing players forward and instead playing short, simple passes in midfield and across the backline. With the two midfields closely matched, no players in this zone got time and space on the ball to pick a good pass. The one slight exception was Jay Spearing, because while Liverpool used Jordan Henderson and Steven Gerrard to press John Obi Mikel and Frank Lampard, Chelsea focused upon getting back into shape. Spearing’s passes were generally short and sideways, which is his job in that position, though as the man with most time he could have been a little more incisive – his one attempted penetrative pass was to no-one, drifting out of play for a goal kick.
The game needed an early goal, and Chelsea pounced with what is now their standard route of attack under Di Matteo – the ball played out to Ramires on the run. Their strategy was highly based around counter-attacking, and this was only exaggerated once they went ahead. There were no particularly interesting features of their overall play, though it was interesting to watch Juan Mata’s movement and positioning – he drifted laterally into pockets of space either side Spearing and in behind Gerrard or Henderson, causing Liverpool problems in exactly the same way he did in the league meeting at Stamford Bridge.
But with Chelsea now sitting deep and content to soak up pressure, this was no longer a real formation battle, in terms of one trying to outmanoeuvre the other in midfield. Instead, it was all about Liverpool trying to break down a resilient Chelsea defence.
Frankly, Liverpool were terrible for 45 minutes. The obvious analysis is that Suarez was isolated, but this in itself isn’t necessarily a problem. In fact, Suarez is one of the best ‘isolated’ forwards around – he was superb in the Copa America when Diego Forlan dropped deep and left him upfront alone. But he likes to work the channels – he’s clearly not a target man like Drogba.
Therefore, Liverpool had to be more intelligent to get him into his favoured positions. They needed to either play the ball forward quickly before Chelsea had got back into shape, or drag the full-backs out and increase the space between Chelsea’s centre-backs and full-backs. The latter was something they did excellently in the semi-final against Everton, with Leighton Baines moving up the pitch to Jordan Henderson in deep positions, and Suarez taking on Sylvain Distin in a one-against-one battle he clearly won. But he never got the opportunity to do that against Terry, with Bellamy playing an odd, anarchic role that saw him drifting into the centre of the pitch. Chelsea could stay narrow, and Suarez was barely noticeable.
Therefore, most of Liverpool’s play went down the left. Here they were fielding two ‘linear’ players, Stewart Downing and Jose Enrique, and their play was too slow and predictable – and without a target man, crosses weren’t particularly useful. (This has been an incongruous part of Liverpool’s play this season – there’s often been no obvious correlation between the use of wide players on their natural side to cross, and the use of Carroll to get on the end of crosses). Neither Downing nor Enrique are in great form, and the major threat in the first half came when Daniel Agger moved forward to briefly overload Chelsea in that part of the pitch.
Dalglish moved to more of a 4-4-1-1 system towards the end of the first half, with Henderson moving right and Bellamy permanently in the middle.
It would be a little unfair to criticise Dalglish’s tactics from the start (the line-up would have fared better in a more evenly-balanced game when Chelsea were attacking more, which may have been the case had Liverpool not conceded an extremely sloppy early goal), it’s fair to question why he didn’t immediately introduce another forward for the second half. Liverpool were awful in the opening period, and with Chelsea parking the bus, the obvious man to bring on was Carroll.
He eventually arrived, but after 55 minutes rather than 45. During that ten minutes Chelsea scored again, and it was ten minutes less of heavy Liverpool pressure. Hindsight is a wonderful thing, but a quick straw poll of Liverpool fans at half-time would surely have produced a consensus that Carroll should have been introduced straight away.
Spearing was the man to depart, with Gerrard and Henderson now the midfield duo. Neither had a particularly great game, but they were more purposeful on the ball, with more diagonal passes than Spearing played, helping Liverpool move the ball much quicker into wide zones.
Of course, there was nothing subtle about the effect Carroll had – he won aerial balls, got on the end of crosses and provided a central pivot Liverpool could play around. He also showed great awareness to nod the ball down to onrushing teammates. Bringing on a big man to thump the ball towards is the most primitive tactic in football, but it worked excellently and Liverpool were inches away from equalising.
A 2-2 would have been Liverpool’s most unlikely comeback since Istanbul in 2005, when Liverpool radically changed shape to turn the game. But Rafael Benitez made his changes at half-time during that game – even if Carroll’s goal had been awarded, it was still a mistake for Dalglish not to make his changes at half-time too, to give Liverpool as much time as possible with more of a goal threat.
Quite a standard game – Chelsea counter-attack early and go ahead, then spent the rest of the game defending with Liverpool struggling to break them down. Then Liverpool have a target for longer balls, and Chelsea struggle to deal with the constant pressure. It was as simple as that.