Liverpool took on Chelsea in their third match in six days, a sequence labelled by many as season defining. Having been knocked out by Southampton and Wolves in the EFL and FA Cup respectively, The Reds took on league leaders, Chelsea, who they trailed by 10-points prior to kick-off. Had Antonio Conte’s side extend that to 13, then Liverpool’s title challenge would have been all but over with a top four place the last remaining target before the start of February.
As it turned out, there’s still a glimmer of hope. But only a glimmer.
Sadio Mane – flown back from the African Cup of Nations via a private jet – was named as a substitute having not appeared for Jurgen Klopp’s side since the 2-2 draw at Sunderland on January 2nd.
Numerous followers of the game have pointed to the wide-forward’s absence as a major contributing factor to Liverpool’s terrible run of form during January which saw them only register one win in nine matches.
Chelsea, meanwhile, were at full-strength with Conte opting for Willian ahead of Pedro in the wide-right position, presumably to provide a better link between midfield and attack in addition to some extra defensive cover.
Buoyed by a raucous Anfield crowd under the lights and heavy rain, the home side got off to a strong start. Taking control of the ball and looking to impose themselves on their opponents defensive third. But Chelsea’s backline was typically organised and disciplined as they held the hosts at arm’s length.
One notable element of this opening period was the contrast in number and types of passes. On the few occasions Chelsea did have possession, they’d look for long balls towards the front three, primarily Diego Costa. Manager Conte has built a team and style of play that is stubborn in defence and ruthless on the counter-attack. In early December, Man City found out just how clinical Chelsea were as they scored three goals on the break.
After 25-minutes, David Luiz broke the deadlock with a well-struck free-kick that caught Liverpool off-guard. The Brazilian’s goal – his second from 46 attempted free-kicks in the Premier League – temporarily took the wind out of Liverpool’s sails.
Squeezing on the sides
Jurgen Klopp’s famous gegenpress appeared to be more focused in the wide areas on Tuesday night. Roberto Firmino was forcing the opposition to play the ball down one particular side through well-positioned and short sprints – something Daniel Sturridge is less effective at doing. That then led the wide front player – Philippe Coutinho or Adam Lallana – to close off the square ball inside as the widest central midfielder – Emre Can or Georginio Wijnaldum – along with the full-backs also closed in. This normally led to Marcos Alonso (54.3% pass completion – 19/35) or Victor Moses (62.2% – 23/37) being outnumbered and with few options.
Their respective pass completions were their lowest amongst the last six league games with worse percentages away to Man City. That match at the Etihad and away to Tottenham were the only other times each player fell below their average over the nine games listed in the table below.
Man Utd at home was also considered as this along with Man City away and Tottenham at home were the other matches against top six rivals since the introduction of the 3-4-3 formation.
A look at Liverpool’s interceptions and ball recoveries also reveals most of their success took place down the wings, particularly with regards to interceptions.
The clusters of ball recoveries show where the gegenpress was most effective. Liverpool achieving more down their right is reflected in Alonso’s poorer pass completion and the extra protection provided for right-back Nathaniel Clyne who was concerned with Eden Hazard. The Belgian playmaker had a quiet game prior to his substitution on the 72nd minute.
Henderson v Kante
Both players find themselves in similar roles yet have very different impacts on the game for their respective teams.
Liverpool captain, Jordan Henderson, has been pivotal for his club as he’s often their top passer and expected to link both wings by moving the ball quickly. The former Sunderland midfielder showed great vision and awareness to provide a deft ball for James Milner to head back across the box from which Wijnaldum equalised just before the hour mark.
Meanwhile, Mr. Double Shift, N’Golo Kante, racked up an impressive 14 tackles from the 16 he attempted. That was 11 more than the game’s second placed ranking player, Henderson, who had three from five.
The protection Kante is providing Chelsea is similar to his work at last season’s champions, Leicester. The French international is proving value for money since his summer move as this formation allows him to contribute to a solid defence so the likes of Diego Costa and Hazard can do their damage at the other end.
Form against rivals
Unfortunately for Chelsea, like Hazard, Costa too had a fairly quiet game. Although that could have been very different had he converted the penalty he won with 15-minutes remaining.
Chelsea have succeeded most in winning the games against those outside of the top six. Only Swansea have taken points of The Blues this season and that was a 2-2 draw in Conte’s fourth league game in charge.
The table below shows both Liverpool’s and Chelsea’s performances against the top six this season in terms of possession, passes, attacking third passes (both completed), shots and finally the result. Klopp’s men have had little trouble raising their game against their rivals as they’re rarely coming up against the deep block that has caused them such problems in the last month.
As you can see, since the introduction of the 3-4-3 during the second half of the Arsenal game at The Emirate – which Chelsea were already 3-0 down by half-time – Conte’s side have only had more than 50% possession on one occasion out of five matches. That game saw them lose at Tottenham as Mauricio Pochettino matched Chelsea’s formation.
This ‘lack’ of possession emphasises the direct style of play Chelsea employ, particularly against their rivals. With Kante and Matic protecting a solid back-three, Conte likes to draw his opponents in before hitting them on the break to devastating effect. Costa is one of few top-level strikers who can play the lone forward role in such a team without sacrificing his number of goals.
As a result, Liverpool were able to enjoy their joint-most attacking third passes – the previous occasion also coming against Chelsea – but only managed their second fewest attempts on goal.
There was a noticeable difference between Liverpool’s first and second-half performance in terms of passing as the graphic below shows. During the opening 45, they only completed two passes into Chelsea’s box, neither of which were particularly dangerous. The second-half saw and improvement in penetration as the Merseysiders rarely got to the bylines.
The point satisfied Conte more than Klopp due to his table-topping team being so far in front of the stumbling pack. Albeit a stumbling pack that has seen Arsenal earn more points at this stage than eight of the last 11 seasons; Liverpool in 23 of the last 25; and Tottenham in 50 of the last 51.
Liverpool will now look to build on this gutsy performance with a win at Hull on Saturday as they look to cement their place in the top four before considering an unlikely assault on the title. Fans should note that finishing in a Champions League spot would certainly be an achievement for what is arguably the league’s sixth best squad.
Chelsea’s tough fixtures continue as they host Arsenal. Should they again avoid defeat then you’d expect them to have enough to see the season out barring any major injuries. Their following fixtures read favourably too: Burnley (a), Swansea (h), West Ham (a), Watford (h), Stoke (a) and Crystal Palace (h). But based on the above analysis, those teams, including The Gunners, should look to pressurise the wing-backs while being prepared for a counter-attack. Not as easy as it sounds and it doesn’t sound easy.
EPL Results (Gameweek 23):
Arsenal 1-2 Watford
Bournemouth 0-2 Crystal Palace
Burnley 1-0 Leicester
Middlesbrough 1-1 West Brom
Sunderland 0-0 Tottenham
Swansea 2-1 Southampton
Liverpool 1-1 Chelsea
West Ham 0-4 Man City
Man Utd 0-0 Hull
Stoke 1-1 Everton