How Chelsea outplayed Liverpool in the build-up

Written by Matthew Mak

Liverpool were the Premier League champion in 2019/20, but they also struggled a lot since 2021 because of numerous reasons. Their loss against Chelsea was their fifth consecutive defeat at the Anfield Stadium – worst of the club history. Comparatively, despite being disappointing under the tenure of Lampard this season, the Blues gradually recover under Thomas Tuchel. The former Paris Saint-Germain head coach has been trying to instill his tactical philosophy to the team, however, also striking for a balance to adapt the opponents at the same time.

The clash on Thursday night was an interesting one. The guests have executed a good game plan left Jurgen Klopp and Liverpool without any solution. Particularly, this analysis focuses on the positional strategies of Chelsea in the first two phases of the offence.

Lineup

Liverpool had serious centre-back injury crisis, even the temporary option – Jordan Henderson was injured. Without Virgil van Dijk, Joe Gomez, Joel Matip, and Ben Davies, Klopp tried Fabinho and Ozan Kabak at those positions. The rest were the strongest players already.

Tuchel had a lot of options, there would be difficult decisions on leaving who at the bench. He decided to play his team in a 3-4-2-1 formation, placing N’Golo Kante with Jorginho at the midfield were the keys to unlock Liverpool’s defence. Also, it seemed Hakim Ziyech has restored a place at the team after suffering fitness issues.

Summary of the tactics

The tactic board sums up the situation of the game, and how Liverpool were not responding to the build-up strategies of Chelsea

In the first phase, the Blues kept as many players as possible to ensure a numerical overload. To go further, they occupied every vertical zone on the pitch, with the wing-backs literally staying at the touchline. By this good 3-2 or 3-4 structure, they achieved several numerical overloads, creating the free players to advance the ball.

At the centre, Kante always collaborated with Jorginho. This was a specific solution to create a decisional dilemma on the opposition striker. We all know Roberto Firmino was going to cover the pivot, but if there are two pivots, what could he do? Liverpool’s solution was to commit Curtis Jones in the press, but the young English midfielder was always late to the target from behind. His initial starting position to press had constituted the 2v1 advantage of Chelsea as framed in blue.

Thiago and Georginio Wijnaldum were very conservative in this game, probably Klopp wanted them to stay deep, reducing spaces behind the midfield as much as possible. However, prioritizing on covering spaces in the central third has completely left the pressing players unsupported.

Chelsea were also able to control the flanks by the numerical advantage. With one wing-back and one wide centre-back on each side, they simply overloaded the Liverpool wingers in 2v1 situations. Meanwhile, to prevent the Reds full-backs from stepping up and nullifying this advantage, Tuchel’s front players had alternative behaviours to constrain Trent Alexander-Arnold and Andrew Robertson.

On the right, Timo Werner had physical superiority over the centre-backs. His constant search for the attacking depth behind the high line often kept the centre-backs engaged. To avoid the Kabak being exposed, Robertson was fully aware of his positioning, avoiding overcommitting on Reece James. On the left, Ben Chilwell had Mason Mount’s help. The midfielder was clever to exercise positional superiority – staying at the half-spaces, between Alexander-Arnold and Thiago. His presence got the attention of these two players, so the Chilwell would not be closed by the right-back too much.

In the following sections, in-game situations were provided to further demonstrate what exactly happened on the pitch.

  1. Two midfielders to break the press

Tuchel’s solution was a bit like Pep Guardiola’s Manchester City – playing with two pivots. It seemed Liverpool were yet to find a solution on how to defend two players behind Firmino in a midblock. As explained, it was impossible for one player to shadow two passing lanes in a static position.

The example shows the 4-3-3 midblock of Liverpool, the full-backs stayed with the centre-backs because of the considerations mentioned above. Andreas Christensen was able to find Kante vertically since Firmino intentionally shadowed Jorginho initially. The Reds could only expect Jones to step up from his position, trying to react once the pass was made. The reactive behaviours were not optimal as Jones was always late on Kante. Under Tuchel, the Frenchman international improved by thinking quicker, now he found the passing option earlier than before.

Since Liverpool were defending at the centre, they left the wing-backs completely free. Given Jones went to Kante’s, it was impossible to get James when the ball moved to the opposite direction. Consequently, James became the free player to advance the ball out wide.

This has summed up a few issues of Liverpool defensively. Their pressing, despite looked like a compact block at the centre, de facto lacked the intensity to guide the ball into the direction they prepared. The block was too passive, hence, Chelsea could find their rhythm to play easily. They needed to run a lot more and quicker to pressure the opponents.

2. Wide overload

The second strategy was the wide overload – wing-backs and centre-backs combined to overload the sole wingers of Liverpool.  Here are some examples to illustrate the situations.

The first example shows Jorginho receiving the ball from Christensen. Since Firmino went for Kante this time, the passing lane to the Italian midfielder was opened. Again, Jones wanted to help but the late arrival could not do anything as explained.

Hence, Jorginho had been in a strong form recently. After a quick wall-pass that allowed him to recognize the situation behind, he turned to escape the challenge of Jones. After this action, the Liverpool press collapsed. Jorginho then went to the left flank. Circled in blue, the numerical superiority possessed by the guests were clearly the best zone to advance the attack.

The second image looked like the previous one, but it further showed the issues of Liverpool and how Chelsea were able to exploit them. Similar elements: 2v1 overload on Firmino, the Reds were unable to control both midfielders, wide overload.

However, Liverpool did have more players on the ball-side initially, Jones was out a bit early to try reaching numerical equality, especially gaining better access on James this time. However, without intense pressure from the front players that guide the ball into the trap, they simply let the Blues to decide which flank to go.

However, without intense pressure from the front players that guide the ball into the trap, they simply let the Blues to decide which flank to go.

The same tactic was applicable on the right side as well. Liverpool tried to control all pivots this time with Sadio Mane approaching Kante. Firmino was tight on Jorginho and Jones initiated the press. However, their left side was completely underloaded given Chelsea had Christensen and Azpilicueta in the highlighted zone.

This time, Jones did well enough to curve the run, covering the underloaded zone while applying pressure on Eduoard Mendy. As a result, he forced the Frenchman goalkeeper to loft the ball to the left wing-back, which an aerial battle was opened for contests. Liverpool did regain possession in this case.

Nevertheless, the curve-run and the intensity of Jones in this example were the elements missing from Liverpool throughout the game. They let Chelsea overload and allowed them to use the overload too easily.

Final remarks

Chelsea played with another positional structure in the second half, using flanks and the wide diamonds to advance the ball more often. This alternative game plan would require better executions as the offensive flow was not smooth enough.

In general, Tuchel’s Chelsea outplayed Liverpool completely in the first two phases, and individual quality of Mount exposed the weakness of Fabinho. Liverpool can blame the absence of a world-class centre-back, but one thing they must demand from themselves was to the pressing intensity that won the UEFA Champions League 2 years ago.

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