Liverpool 0-2 Chelsea: Chelsea play ultra-defensively but win the game

April 28, 2014

The starting line-ups

Chelsea scored breakaway goals in stoppage time at the end of both halves.

Brendan Rodgers named an unchanged side from the nervous win at Norwich last week. Jordan Henderson was still suspended, Daniel Sturridge fit only for the bench.

Jose Mourinho named a heavily changed side, preserving his best players for the return match against Atletico in midweek.

Chelsea’s defensive performance was highly effective, and Demba Ba capitalising on Steven Gerrard’s error meant they were able to continue with this strategy into the second half.

Mourinho’s starting XI

Mourinho had openly said his focus was on the Champions League, and had ‘conceded’ the title race. He also had to cope with various injury problems, and therefore played a starting XI that was almost unrecognisable from his first-choice side this season. Judging by recent selections, only three of this XI: Cesar Azpilicueta, Branislav Ivanovic and Nemanja Matic, would be in Mourinho’s ideal side – with only Matic in his regular position.

It wasn’t exactly a team of kids, as some had predicted – veterans Ashley Cole and Frank Lampard came into the side, Andre Schurrle and Mohamed Salah are internationals (and big-money signings) and Tomas Kalas was the only genuine newcomer. But this was genuinely a second-string starting XI, and while Chelsea’s approach was very negative, it’s still impressive that Chelsea managed to work so efficiently as a unit despite barely any familiarity between players.

Chelsea approach

Chelsea’s overall approach was more interesting than their precise tactics. This was a game they needed to win to remain in the title hunt (Mourinho might insist Chelsea aren’t involved in the race, but a home win over Norwich next weekend puts them top with a week to go – even if their two title rivals will have a game in hand) and therefore many might have expected them to take the game to their opponents. 0-0, after all, was a good result for Liverpool.

Instead, Mourinho decided to play extremely deep, and his first target was probably to reach half-time at 0-0. Liverpool have consistently made terrifyingly quick starts to big matches, particularly at Anfield. If Chelsea could reach half-time goalless, they could take advantage of the fact Liverpool tend to fade after half-time, and maybe win the game in the second period.

Chelsea defensive tactics

Once the approach was decided, the tactics were obvious. Chelsea have become accustomed to defending deep under Mourinho anyway, at least in recent weeks. Besides, they were only playing against one striker, Luis Suarez, and therefore needed to concentrate on minimising his threat.

It was logical for Chelsea to defend deep (to nullify his pace) and narrow (to prevent through-balls, and to encourage Liverpool to cross, which their centre-backs would be happy with). That’s exactly what they did, with Chelsea in a deep, compact 4-4-1-1 formation and the full-backs tucking inside.

Liverpool approach

As a side that has consistently thrived breaking into space, especially at home, it’s somewhat surprising that this is the first top-class opponent that has played deep at Anfield this season. Arsenal retained the ball and were caught on the break, Manchester City also played an open game and were vulnerable to pace, Everton played a high line and were torn apart by Sturridge running in behind. Chelsea, however, parked the bus – or parked two buses, as Rodgers said after the game.

Playing against a such a defensive-minded side continues to frustrate the best sides in Europe, regardless of their approach, but Liverpool were surprisingly unconvincing in their efforts to create chances. They started with a 4-1-4-1 / 4-3-3 system, in contrast from their approach at Norwich where Raheem Sterling and Coutinho were in the centre of the pitch. Here, these players started on the flanks, but then increasingly drifted inside into the congested midfield zone.

Liverpool seemed unsure whether they were attempting to go around the Chelsea defence with width, or playing through the centre. The former seemed the more obvious approach – even if they lacked a big central striker, they could have worked the ball into good positions and played cut-backs. The problem with going through the middle was that they lacked genuine incision from the central midfield trio. Without Henderson and Sturridge, Coutinho has to play in the front three, with Joe Allen and Lucas Leiva in midfield – there was a lack of midfield runners breaking forward to join Suarez, with Lucas’ sporadic efforts unconvincing.

Perhaps this was why Coutinho and Sterling moved centrally, but in those situations the full-backs need to overlap, to prevent the play becoming too predictable. Glen Johnson and Jon Flanagan didn’t do that much, presumably for fear of leaving the defence exposed to counter-attacks, which is perfectly natural in a game where Liverpool would have taken a draw. However, it meant Liverpool rarely looked likely to break down the Chelsea defence, which stayed narrow and seemed quite comfortable. The home side didn’t record a first-half shot on target.

Chelsea attacking approach

When they weren’t running down the clock, Chelsea’s attacking approach was very simple. Theoretically they were attempting to counter-attack, but Lampard wasn’t likely to lead breaks, and therefore it was all about the wide players. They never received the ball on the run – the initial pass out of the defence was very poor which frustrated Salah, and when Chelsea went longer, Ba’s lay-offs were poor to the annoyance of Schurrle.

Instead, it was all about set-pieces. At times Salah seemed keener to win corners and throws near the corner flag than attempt to dribble past Flanagan, but it nearly worked – Kalas came close when reaching a corner, while Azpilicueta’s long throws caused problems too.

Their goal, though, was completely out of the blue. Gerrard miscontrolled, then slipped, and Ba ran half the length of the pitch unchallenged to score.

The goal came on the stroke of half-time (ironically in the stoppage time Chelsea had done so much to create with their timewasting) and was crucial in the pattern of the game. Chelsea probably would have had to open up slightly in the second half to introduce more attacking threat in open play – playing into the hands of Liverpool’s attackers. The goal, however, meant they could afford to sit back, and sit tight.

Liverpool sub

Rodgers turned to Sturridge on the hour mark – presumably he could only manage half an hour – in place of Lucas, and moved to the diamond. Sterling was now behind both Suarez and Sturridge, with Coutinho a little deeper in Lucas’ previous role.

The substitution was certainly the natural change, but it’s questionable whether such a narrow shape made sense against a Chelsea side also playing that way. The full-backs overlapped more, but Chelsea were able to crowd out the three attackers relatively easily – none of them ever picked up the ball on the run at speed, as they might have done in wider zones, and for once this season Liverpool didn’t have a clear purpose to their play.

Gerrard and Suarez

At this point Liverpool needed a flash of inspiration from one of their leaders, and key players. The two men to look to were, naturally, Gerrard and Suarez.

Neither had particularly sparkling matches, for entirely different reasons. Gerrard was evidently determined to compensate for his crucial early error, and embarked up a series of increasingly ambitious long-range shots. In truth, it’s difficult to know how to analyse this. Some were hit from reasonable positions when not closed down, and seemed a perfectly reasonable approach considering Liverpool’s inability to penetrate the Chelsea defence – they instead had to shoot from in front of the defence.

The more it went on, however, the more it felt Gerrard had crossed the line from ‘leading by example’ into ‘trying to do everything solo’, the old criticism – he had eight second-half shots, which became increasingly desperate.

He was at least heavily involved, from the pocket of space between Chelsea’s midfield and one-man attack. Suarez, up against two centre-backs barely advancing, was rarely noticeable and didn’t show much invention in terms of his positioning. He played like an out-and-out striker, when Liverpool might have appreciated him helping between the lines too, particularly after Sturridge’s arrival.

It seems strange to criticise Suarez’s performance at all considering he’ll win the Golden Boot easily and was crowned PFA Player of the Year hours after this game, but his scoring record this season makes for interesting reading. He’s managed 0 goals from 6 games against the top four, compared to 30 goals in 25 games against everyone else in the league.

There are various caveats to this, of course. There’s a lot more to Suarez’s game than goals, he’s often played from the flank against top opposition, and in some of those matches – particularly the 5-1 win over Arsenal, when he came close to two wondergoals – he’s been the best player. It’s also worth considering whether being a ‘flat-track bully’ is a bad thing. Liverpool didn’t win the league in 2008/09 partly because they didn’t destroy minnows ruthlessly enough, which was also what frustrated them under Kenny Dalglish. Suarez’s stream of goals has solved that problem.

Still, against the three sides of Champions League quality, Suarez hasn’t come up with a single goal, the only weakness in an otherwise remarkable campaign.

Chelsea change shape and counter for a second

Chelsea simultaneously became more solid defensively and more dangerous going forward with two subs. Willian replaced Salah and simply showed more drive on the counter-attack – suddenly Chelsea looked promising on the break, partly as Liverpool were pushing forward more. Chelsea’s attackers didn’t always make the right decisions, but they were dangerous.

Schurrle’s injury, meanwhile, gave Mourinho the opportunity to move to five at the back with the introduction of Gary Cahill, which worked nicely against a Liverpool side now playing two upfront. Rodgers then went for broke, taking off Flanagan, bringing on Iago Aspas as another forward, and moving to something more like, roughly, a 3-4-3.

In truth, however, it all seemed a little frantic and a little desperate. Going ‘gung ho’ can be more difficult than it looks. Some questioned, for example, whether Mourinho was really showing ‘tactical genius’ when chucking on three strikers against PSG recently. But the point wasn’t that he introduced extra attackers, the point was that they played in different zones, had clear roles, and the changes didn’t result in congestion and confusion. Here, Aspas appeared to complicate things, and his individual contribution was very poor.


Chelsea defended extremely effectively. Liverpool are breaking goalscoring records aplenty this season, yet barely had a clear chance here – the vast majority of their attempts were from long-range. Their attacking play was generally quite poor – and they simply capitalised on a terrible error from Gerrard for the opener, which shaped the remainder of the contest.

Liverpool were surprisingly short of ideas against a deep defence. It’s hardly a new concept for Mourinho to park the bus, so why didn’t Liverpool have more of a cohesive strategy against this? Perhaps Rodgers was simply surprised Mourinho played so cautiously in a game where Chelsea needed to take the initiative, on paper.

“Congratulations to Chelsea for the win, they probably came for a draw,” Rodgers said afterwards. “We were the team trying to win but we just couldn’t make the breakthrough.” But such a complaint only works if the game finishes 0-0 – it’s tough to say Chelsea weren’t trying to win the game when they eventually did. Alternatively, it’s a fairly damning indictment of your team’s performance if they lost against a side who weren’t trying to win.

It’s also worth remembering that even if Chelsea were playing for a draw, that result would have suited Liverpool. In fairness, Rodgers understood this and played conservatively, by playing a more solid formation and using his full-backs deeper than usual; it’s not as if Liverpool were at all threatened by Chelsea’s counter-attacks at 0-0. Really, it all came down to Gerrard’s error and Ba’s goal.

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