Tactical Analysis

Chelsea F.C. thrashed Klopp’s side with their positionally adaptable midfield to repress opponents’ switch plays and passing style resulting in a much needed 1-0 win. By playing with 3-5-2, Chelsea was more likely to initiate threatening counters and fast attacking runs.

Chelsea’s positionally adaptable midfield

Chelsea played with 3-5-2 set up with Fabregas, Kante, and Bakayoko as central midfielders. Since Chelsea is getting better in their counterattacks with Giroud as real nine, such a defensive formation is justifiable – unlike some time back when Chelsea was playing with a false nine. The 3-men central midfield allowed Chelsea to carry out a positionally adaptable midfield shape in a way to cover both the width and depth in defensive and transitional phases.

Chelsea’s center-mid overload – 3v1
Chelsea’s centre-mid overload – 3v1

Liverpool was using width to connect to the stretched front line, especially Salah at the right. With Bakayoko and Fabregas as the wide CMs, each could join their respective wide defenders and wing-backs to form press structure against the opponent players advancing through the width. This way, the Blues’ positionally adaptable midfield strengthened the defence at the width. Rudiger kept a strong check individually on the wide opponent players. Alonso was also cautious of the wide opponent moves. Bakayoko’s work rate, unexpected tackle, and hold up play was well recognisable which led Chelsea to carry out an aggressive attacking run in the first quarter.

Salah multi-marked by Chelsea's wide players while Kante also joined to isolate Salah from his deep teammates.
Salah multi-marked by Chelsea’s wide players while Kante isolating Salah from his deep teammates.

Additionally, when the away team tried to switch to the deeper zone to escape Chelsea’s press at the wide, Chelsea had at least one midfielder already there – Kante – to deal with these horizontal switch plays. And as soon as the wide central midfielders joined back Kante and Chelsea’s back line at the depth, they were able to outnumber the opponents. Whenever Salah had to drop occasionally in the deeper region when required, Chelsea’s backline and central midfield were able to multi-press him. This way, the Blues’ positionally adaptable midfield strengthened the defence at the depth too.

Rudiger and Alonso pressing the fullback Clyne while Kante remained at the deep CM to stop any switch play.
Rudiger and Alonso pressing the fullback Clyne while Kante remained at the deep CM to stop any switch play.

Such a positionally adaptable midfield offered a great defensive coverage to Chelsea in a dynamic setting and forced Liverpool to push their game back almost always to avoid losing possession. And even when the Reds attempted to make their way from the overloaded deep zone, they ended up losing possession. Offensively, this tactical set up of Blues forced Liverpool to make loose long passes which were not accurate enough so Chelsea won back on second or third balls.

Chelsea exploited the width

Chelsea’s adaptable midfield also allowed them to utilise the open widths, resulting from Liverpool’s narrow defensive shape, to initiate their attacks. Chelsea was already outnumbering Liverpool in the deeper planes with the 5-man midfield, which made Liverpool cautious of that zone with their 3-men midfield shrinking their shape in defensive phases. This opened up the wider planes for Chelsea to carry out their quick attacking runs.

Alonso ran up the width quickly during the build up escaping the pressure of Liverpool's shrunk defence.
Alonso ran up the width quickly during the build-up escaping the pressure of Liverpool’s shrunk defence.

Another reason Chelsea were able to exploit the widths is that many times, they won the ball from Liverpool when the latter switched the play from wide to Firmino at the deep region so as to pass the ball again to Salah at the attacking width.  But since Chelsea were already overloaded in the deep region, the away team also attempted to match the numbers there, which concentrated the region and opened up the width. It was thus Chelsea’s winning back of the ball at this point in time which let them exploit the width during those switch plays.

Firmino received ball from Clyne at the depth to pass it to Salah at the wider plane, but instead lost possession to Chelsea's overloaded midfield.
Firmino received the ball from Clyne at the depth to pass it to Salah at the wider plane but instead lost possession to Chelsea’s overloaded midfield.
Here again Clyne passed to Firmino so the latter could pass to Salah but he lost possession to Kante and Bakayoko.
Here again, Clyne passed to Firmino so the latter could pass to Salah but he lost possession to Kante and Bakayoko.

Besides, Chelsea found the wide spaces open in their attacking third too despite Liverpool’s Back 4 because of the advancing opponent fullbacks. With that, Chelsea forwards only faced 2 v 2 during the transitional phases and they were also able to come short for the long balls played by Chelsea in many instances.

By being able to use the open width without facing much pressure, Chelsea wide players were able to execute their attacking runs smoothly. Chelsea’s goal also resulted from one of such attacking runs. In the build-up phase, Alonso dribbled up the flank quickly and when checked he took no time to grab the opportunity and passed to Bakayoko who crossed outward to Moses at either flank. From there, Moses made his dribbling moves from wide and put in a high cross for Giroud who headed it behind Karius.

Moses sent a high cross to Giroud which he headed.
Moses sent a high cross to Giroud which he headed.

Liverpool’s under-deployed attacking options

Chelsea’s positionally adaptable midfield forced Liverpool to under-deploy its front players who ended up losing position in their final third. Liverpool’s game was also discrete across the wider and the deeper planes i.e. they were unable to swiftly move their play across the planes by using half spaces. Instead, they switched play via direct mid-range passes from the wide to the deep or by having forward players to stretch wide and collect the ball from the advancing full-backs. Such passing style is less likely to work against Chelsea’s strong press around the width.

Liverpool later swapped in Henderson to nearly match Chelsea’s central midfield in numbers and to have more bodies forward. The centre mid was also supposed to occupy a spot between Liverpool’s midfield and front line to look for chances of tackling or counter tackling with his teammates. However, the Reds still couldn’t deploy enough bodies forward. This is because Henderson often had to be occupied with his defensive teammates to stop Chelsea’s counter threats. And to cover for him, Mané had to drop back to the midfield until his team would hold possession in the final third. Due to this, Liverpool’s attacking options eventually remained under deployed at the front.

Conclusion

Liverpool couldn’t get to threaten Chelsea much and were forced to push their game back if not ended up losing possession due to Chelsea’s positionally adaptable midfield. Once the ball is in Liverpool’s half, they couldn’t bring it to Chelsea’s half again easily since their build-up was slowed down by Chelsea’s overloaded midfield. And when Liverpool front players dropped back to match numbers with Chelsea in the midfield, they ended up with fewer bodies forward which caused them losing possession eventually in the final third. This prompted the Blues to keep pushing the game up in the opponents’ half and threatening them.