Chelsea 1 - 2 Liverpool | A Tactical Analysis
We are now five matches in to the league season and the competition is beginning to take on a more established look with sides finding their form.
After an inconsistent start to the season, Liverpool began to find their feet with a win last week against reigning champions Leicester City. The fifth game of the season would offer perhaps the stiffest test for Liverpool and their coach Jurgen Klopp as they faced a somewhat resurgent Chelsea side.
Chelsea are still getting used to the system imposed by their new coach Antonio Conte and have yet to convince so far this season although their form is undoubtedly improved upon their extremely poor 2015/16 season.
The biggest piece of team news for Liverpool was the absence of Roberto Firmino who had been one of the most effective players in last weeks win over Leicester City. The Brazilian was superb against the champions as he linked play and continuously worked to press the opposition high up the field.
The free space in the front line was taken by another Brazilian Coutinho in a move that saw a shift in roles from the Leicester match. Daniel Sturridge was free to move in to a central striking role with Coutinho playing essentially from the left hand side but his natural movements saw him play a more central role as the game developed.
The only other change for Liverpool saw Dejan Lovren return to the starting line up, replacing Lucas Leiva as the partner for Joel Matip at the centre of the Liverpool defence.
Chelsea also made a change in their defensive line with the returning David Luiz making his second debut for the club and partnering Gary Cahill.
The configuration of the Chelsea midfield was interesting with Nemanja Matic in a more advanced role rather than his preferred defensive midfield slot.
A slight change in the midfield
In the continued absence of Emre Can from the Liverpool side Klopp decided to stick with the now established setup of Jordan Henderson in the deepest slot, with Lallana and Wijnaldum more advanced. With the exception of the Burnley match this system has worked relatively well, Henderson in particular growing in to his role as the controller in the midfield three.
In the first half of this match however we saw a subtle change. Wijnaldum dropping more to form a double pivot with Henderson and allowing Adam Lallana to join the first line of the press.
Here we see Wijnaldum on the ball and Henderson sitting on the same line as him in a double pivot. A double pivot simply means that you have two players sitting on the same line of the pitch controlling the ball and the space around them. So far this season we have seen Liverpool operate using a single pivot with either Henderson or Wijnaldum responsible for circulating the ball.
This movement of Wijnaldum in to a deeper role could also have been influenced by the presence of Coutinho on the left-wing and his tendency to come and sit in central positions.
The movement centrally of Coutinho had a double effect as he emptied a large space in the wide area for James Milner to step in and stretch the Chelsea defensive line. He also offered both Henderson and Wijnaldum a central passing opportunity to break the midfield line of Chelsea.
This time we see the shape of the midfield as Chelsea are in possession of the ball. Adam Lallana is the most advanced of the supporting players as he looks to put early pressure on David Luiz trying to force a mistake from the Brazilian centre-back.
Henderson and Lallana have formed a relatively deep double pivot as they look to negate the threat of Chelsea playing through the centre of the pitch in transition.
The use of a double pivot in this manner was a regular feature of the first half for Liverpool and they went in at the half-time break 2-0 up, before switching their defensive structure.
A change of shape
At the start of the second half we saw a noticeable but still somewhat subtle change of shape from Liverpool as Klopp tasked both wide players to sit slightly deeper in a 4-1-4-1 shape.
This switch was designed to stop Chelsea from building attacks through Eden Hazard on the left and Willian on the right.
The tactical discipline shown by the five midfield players in this switch of system was highly impressive.
I have highlighted the positioning of the line of four midfielders in this example. Wijnaldum has now stepped out in to the line of four midfielders and Lallana has become more disciplined with his positioning. Jordan Henderson has retained his role as the deepest of the midfielders.
This line of four across the midfield makes it very difficult for Chelsea to find accurate or safe passing lanes to play in to the space between the Liverpool defence and midfield.
The Chelsea right-back Ivanovic is in possession of the ball inside the Liverpool half. I have again highlighted the positioning of the midfield four for Liverpool but I have also shown the area of danger for the Liverpool defence.
If Chelsea can find a way to access the shaded blue area then they have Diego Costa and Willian both positioned to attack the space and break through the Liverpool defensive line.
It is in this position that the more defensive orientation of the Liverpool wide players really comes in to play. Coutinho is effectively covering that space with his positioning as Ivanovic cannot play the ball through him and any attempt to clip the ball over his head will give the Liverpool defenders a chance to re-position themselves.
The opposite side of the field this time but the same situation. Although Lallana has stepped slightly out he is still in a position to cover the ball played through the right half space in to the Chelsea forwards.
The only other effective point of access for Chelsea in this example is to play around the Liverpool defensive block on the far side of the pitch. Sadio Mane has already positioned himself to expect the pass to travel out wide.
Fluid attacking movement
One of the key aspects of the performance from Liverpool in this match was the fluidity of their movement and positioning in the final third.
There were large periods of play in the first half in particular where Liverpool pressed Chelsea back with sustained attacking pressure. This pressure was achieved by the movement of attacking players in to and out of space and the ability of the deeper players to play the ball through the defensive lines of Chelsea to access the player in that space.
Here I have highlighted the attacking connections that Liverpool were able to form on one side of the pitch.
With Clyne advancing from right-back to the final third of the pitch, we saw Sadio Mane access the central areas more often than not looking to drop into the space between the Chelsea midfield and defence. This was obviously a deliberate aspect of the build up play as the more natural rotation would have seen Mane drop in to the half space to allow Clyne to attack down the right side and Lallana look to move to the central areas.
When Liverpool were able to play the ball to Mane in these areas, we saw the Chelsea defensive system struggle to deal with his pace and direct running through the central areas.
The ease with which Joel Matip has settled in to life at Liverpool has been surprising to almost everyone. His ability to defend centrally and in the wide areas has been a huge asset over the course of the start of the season and he has quickly established himself as one of the key defensive players in the squad.
He also however performs a secondary role with his ability and willingness to play the ball out from the back and through tight areas.
The example above shows the quality of options that Matip has when bringing the ball out from the back.
The first option in terms of difficulty is the short pass in to Mane in front of the midfield line of Chelsea. The second option is the pass out wide to play around the Chelsea defensive block and the third and most difficult is the pass through the midfield line to Lallana.
Matip has the quality to make the third pass with ease and as soon as that pass is made the midfield line for Chelsea is forced to turn and react and Liverpool have a chance to overload the defensive line of Chelsea.
In all honesty the final score of 2-1 flattered Chelsea. Liverpool controlled the first half almost completely and set out in a more defensive shape for the second half.
The second half alone should go some way to appeasing those fans that think that Liverpool are too defensively fragile to mount a title challenge. The defending and counter attacking was excellent and there should have been more goals for Liverpool.
There are definite signs that Liverpool are finding their feet this season and that consistency is starting to show itself in all aspects of their play.