Sarri’s men fairly dealt with a much awaited, yet interesting, tactical battle against Liverpool. A 1-1 draw was not that bad given that both teams were equally competitive working to offset each other’s attempts. Scoring a goal and retaining the lead long until few minutes were left before the game ended shows their offensive ability against a team which dominates on its purely pressing game. However, Chelsea failed to exploit some key opportunities and they did struggle under the press, again. The tactical analysis below will show how Liverpool pressed Chelsea with the help of statistics and how Chelsea failed to counter press even though they could have with their Sarrismo style.
What Liverpool did?
Liverpool structured its press around Jorginho. However, the Italian wasn’t closed by the opponents unlike being done by Chelsea’s opponents in some of the last fixtures. As shown in the match-shot below, Jorginho is pressed from all directions, though the opponents are positioned as much distance from him as would allow him playing pass during even slight transitions. This shows Liverpool was not up to winning possession from Jorginho every time but to block any build up moves by Jorginho.
This multidimensional press not only capacitated Liverpool to block Jorginho from all directions but also to overlap the area around the midfielder so as to press the other Chelsea teammates around him as well. This is shown in the picture above how the away team players on the sides of Jorginho are also pressing the respective fullbacks and wide central midfielders too by isolating them from each other.
Since Sarri wants his players to remain close enough to each other to form the offensive patterns, the formation of the home team was already closed. This further helped the away team to overlap the press between Jorginho and his adjacent teammates, which caused an overall compressed covered area by both sides.
One thing which the compressed area by both teams gave rise to was the back to back to shift in possession between the two teams. Both teams intercepted and tackled each other passes a lot, even more than each usually does to its opponents. On average Chelsea’s opponents made 48.5 interceptions per game this season but Liverpool made 57 interceptions against Chelsea in the said fixture, while the Reds’ own average is 41. Same goes to Chelsea which made 40 interceptions per game this season on average. But against Liverpool, they made as much as 57.
Similarly, the average tackles accuracy by Chelsea’s opponents is just 35 per cent while Liverpool’s own average against its opponents is just 36 per cent too, but in the said fixture Liverpool made it as much as 75 per cent accuracy in tackles against Chelsea. This was even higher than the tackle success the Reds had made against Chelsea in the League Cup – 66 per cent.
The higher number of interceptions and the tackles accuracy than each’s average is an outcome of the closed tactical formations of the two teams and the gegenpressing behaviour of the away team structured around Jorginho. Even when the away team stretched its tactical formation, there were the passing plays by Chelsea within the two closed opponents’ lines which contributed to extra interceptions made by the home team than it casually does. This back to back interceptions or tackles and shifting of possessions between the teams reflect the prevalence of phase-less situation i.e. none of the teams stays in attacking or defending phase for certain time duration. When there is such a frequent occurrence of phaseless situations especially when the two teams are equal in aggressiveness, offensive ability, and defending duels, a draw is expected.
The interceptions and phaseless play also hurt Chelsea passing statistics. The Blues which usually play with 90 per cent accuracy, played with 86 per cent accuracy; out of that too a large portion is dedicated to their clueless passing which concluded towards the blocked advance players only. Chelsea could only play 509 passes which hurt its possession too as it dropped to 41 per cent, compared to the season’s average 56 per cent.
The following chart shows the break up of Chelsea’s passes among some of Chelsea’s key pass makers. It shows how not only the overall passing dominance reduced of the players compared to average, but also Jorghino’s passing responsibility was shifted to the centre-backs, mainly to Rudiger. The centre-back played the highest number of passes among his teammates in the fixture – usually, Jorginho ranks the highest in this department, playing as much 92 passes per game on average.
Where Chelsea overlooked?
Yet, out of all this Liverpool’s tendency to compress themselves around Jorginho and eventually other adjacent players, they were leaving huge spaces outside their compressed shape.
As Chelsea’s backline, and even midfield, moved closer to Kepa to help the goalkeeper in initiating the build-up or goal kick, Liverpool in their pursuit to press Chelsea closed down Chelsea’s backline and midfield. This, again, created a very large gap between Chelsea’s midfield and frontline. Liverpool’s press thus in a way was way stretchable.
The pass map of Chelsea also shows that the mean position of its backline is closer to the goalkeeper while the front line is also farther from the opponent goal area. Then there is a large gap between Jorginho and his wider teammates – exactly the gap outside of Liverpool’s press structure, which often being compressed at the right half of the pitch gave space to Alonso and the left width players.
In both cases, Chelsea could have exploited these spaces. Sometimes there were no or very late off-the-ball movement made by Chelsea players to drop in to these spaces and get the ball through at the right moment, while at the other times, the ball-carriers overlooked those free men (Alonso, for example) wide open in space outside Liverpool’s pressing arrangement compressed to a specific zone of the pitch.
This led to dissociation between the home team’s front line and midfielders. The midfielders were too compressed to provide an inside channel to Hazard who ended up dribbling up the ball either himself or through the other frontline players who were blocked by the heavy opponent press. The dissociation was also between the front line and the fullbacks especially Alonso who had to stay back due to Salah being the winger at his flank, leaving Hazard without any backward or inward outlet. Chelsea couldn’t have enough bodies available during the counters too due to this isolation of its lines.
That’s how Klopp’s men blocked Chelsea’s buildup by executing a multidimensional press over Jorginho and his ultimate passing options, something I have detailed in my previous analysis ‘How to stop Jorginho?‘. The difference is here Liverpool blocked Jorginho and his ultimate passing options not through a low-block, as that’s not what Klopp would want. Instead, it overlapped its pressing position between Jorginho and the other Chelsea players. The pressing scheme went effective because of the compression of the covered area, but, it was stretchable as Liverpool’s frontline was willing to close down Chelsea’s backline as far as possible.
The same applies to Liverpool’s backline to follow and press Chelsea’s front line. This obviously often created a more favourable situation for Chelsea compared to West Ham’s low-block in the last league fixture. There they couldn’t score even a single goal while here they scored one. I would say Chelsea just didn’t exploit it much well against Liverpool where they could have.
Shuffle the press
Sarriball is all about the players staying close enough to each other to form offensive patterns and keeping the build-up as vertically forward and efficient as possible by using the nearby spaces. This is a wonderful tactic to counter press the opponents and remain offensive even against a high press, in fact especially against a high press. Then why did Sarri’s men have their build-up blocked by Klopp men? Did they overlook something? Did they even play Sarriball?
First, as explained above, the fullbacks didn’t go high due to Liverpool’s high press even when Chelsea’s backline released the ball long enough up to the final third. At the right flank, Willian was not doing much to extend the wing play even at least near to the goal line. On the other hand, it’s the main element of Sarriball that the fullbacks, especially Alonso, and the wide respective central midfielder would go up to form the offensive patterns. Against Liverpool, someone from the fullback or the wide midfielder of the respective side should have dragged up in the spaces behind the front players which were created due to the stretching out of Liverpool’s pressing arrangement. This tactic would have worked to shuffle the press.
Second, Chelsea’s wide central midfielders couldn’t contribute much in channelling the ball. As Liverpool was very closely fore-pressing Chelsea backline, the midfielders had to stay in their defensive half too. Kovacic and Jorginho’s usual position maps show their presence in the offensive half of the field while their maps for the Liverpool fixture shows their presence restricted to the defensive half only.
But given that the Blues tend to play one-touch passing to counter the press and penetrate to the final third at the earliest, they could have tried this here too. Instead, they tried to play the ball too long that they lost the possession to the opponent backline which was already all over Chelsea’s frontline. There should be dropping of the midfielders or even the wingers in the space behind the midfielders on those moments to keep the ball channel through, as explained above. This again would have worked to shuffle the press.
Third, there were instances when Alonso went up while the play was being executed at the right half of the pitch giving the Spaniard chance to going up to open space. But that’s where his teammates overlooked him. Here also, instead of looking for passing options outside the pressing arrangement, the home team kept passing within the structure thus eventually losing possession.
In the analysis of the fixture against West Ham too, I have highlighted that Jorginho often overlooked Alonso at the far flank and kept attempting to pass to the closed down spaces. Yet, with low-block in that fixture, Chelsea was left with not enough opportunities. Though here, Chelsea could have taken advantage of the wide spaces Liverpool was conceding because of their high press and stretch-ability of their press structure. Such consistent horizontal passing patterns could also shuffle the press.
Take-Ups for Chelsea
Chelsea failed to counter the press, again. A team which is becoming increasingly efficient in one-touch passing and is forward minded just had to drop in and look out the unusual spaces out due to the opponents’ either too compressed or too stretched pressing structure. In the whole ninety-minute period, whenever Chelsea played a pass outside the press structure, an opportunity created – and whenever they played a pass with the narrowed down lines, an opportunity lost. You can’t just keep looking for surrounding nearby teammates and pass to them in such a closed space when opponents are ready to gegenpress all over you and your supporting teammates – not necessarily to win possession but to block your build up options. Instead, you should release the ball of their static compressed structure and then connect closely to your teammates after you get into space to compose offensive passing patterns and kept the opponent press shuffled till you reach to their goalkeeper.
While the opponents are planning to play a pressing game against Chelsea, it’s time that Sarri’s men start learning and playing a counter-pressing game. They need to learn to shuffle the press now where they would not only look for surrounding teammates bounded by the press from their back but look for the teammates at distant open sides too.