A masterfully planned and executed tale of two tactically different halves resulted in a dominant and relatively comfortable Chelsea performance that turned Liverpool’s recent attacking ascendancy stagnant.
The first half saw Chelsea play a similarly high-pressured and attacking game as they did against Swansea on Boxing Day (see the analysis here), just at an even higher, more energetic level that forced Liverpool’s defense and midfield deep into their own territory and isolated Suarez up front. In the second half, Chelsea altered to a more containing strategy, not pressing Liverpool so high up the pitch or committing as many players forward, and defended resolutely to preserve our lead.
A quick comparison between Chelsea’s first and second half passing (image below) highlights the deliberate change in the team’s tactics and attacking play in each period. The high-press and attacking philosophy in the first half meant we controlled the game, making 231 out of 278 passes (83% success rate). Chelsea dropped deeper to defend in a second half that – possibly due to the draining fixture schedule and high pace of the game – became more end-to-end and open. As a result, our passing was more direct, long range and less controlling; only 94 out of 145 passes were successful (65% success rate).
Jose Mourinho and his Chelsea team got their tactics spot-on against Liverpool. Each half was strategically different and virtuous in their way, however, it’s the tactical benefits allowed by the defensive pressing and attacking efforts in the first half that I will extol in the following paragraphs. In particular, how it enabled our attacking midfielders to dictate the play, forced Liverpool deep and isolated Suarez and undid the good defensive work provided by Lucas in Liverpool’s midfield.
RESULTS OF HIGH PRESSING:
1. ATTACKING COMBINATIONS
Creating goal-scoring chances and winning matches is much simpler if your creative, attacking players dictate a game. As it did against Swansea in our previous contest, the high-pressing first half tactic kept Chelsea on the front foot and encouraged the team to regain the ball in Liverpool territory. As opposed to dropping deep, our attacking midfielders remained advanced and in more threatening areas of the pitch, which meant that when in possession Oscar, Hazard and Willian could really stamp their authority on the game.
The graphic below shows where our trio of attacking midfielders received passes during the first 45 minutes. Three vital tactical factors are evident: one, Oscar, Hazard and Willian were given the ball often – 28, 24 and 24 times respectively; two, 45% of their combined total of receptions were within the attacking third; three, each player received passes in various areas across the width of the pitch. Each of these three points demonstrates Chelsea’s attacking intent during the first half. Oscar, Hazard and Willian gained lots of possession in dangerous areas of the field, often in between Liverpool’s lines of midfield and defense, and they had the freedom of movement to interchange positions.
All of the above fostered some great combination play between our attacking midfielders who collectively posed different and constant threats to Liverpool throughout the first period, helping to prevent the Merseysiders from vacating their own half.
2. FORCING LIVERPOOL DEEP, ISOLATING SUAREZ
Having displayed such excellent and quality attacking threat away at Manchester City at the Etihad Stadium in their previous match, Liverpool were made to look ordinary going forward at the Bridge. Against City, Liverpool created 9 strong chances, including the assist for their one goal, but produced only 5 clear chances versus Chelsea. Of those 5 chances only 1 came in the first half, which was the free-kick that lead to Skrtel’s early opening goal, and 4 in the second period when Chelsea stopped pressing high up the pitch and allowed Liverpool more possession. Over the course of the 90 minutes in each game, at the Etihad Liverpool completed 413 passes but only 289 successful passes against Chelsea.
It was due to Chelsea’s defensive pressure and attacking dominance that Liverpool was forced backwards and discouraged from any effective build-up play. The more Chelsea pushed forward the deeper Liverpool became. This obligated Liverpool’s attacking threats to drop back in order to get involved in their passing game, moving them out of their final third of the pitch.
See the first half passes that Philippe Coutinho received against Chelsea in the graphic below. Compared to the first 45 minutes versus Man City (same graphic) where he had two chances, one assist and got into more offensive zones, it’s apparent that Chelsea’s pressing tactics were effective at pushing Coutinho (and Liverpool) deep and making it harder for his teammates to pass him the ball.
The same comparison for Suarez is also a telling graphic (see below). Other than his shot (header) assist that lead to Skrtel’s goal, Suarez did not receive a pass inside the Chelsea penalty area in the first half and only 26% of the time did he obtain possession in our defensive third. Compare Suarez and Coutinho’s passes received graphics to those of our attacking midfield trio – compelling evidence that the first half was a really one-sided encounter.
Further nullifying Suarez’s impact in the first half was his isolation as the lone striker. Chelsea fans are all too familiar with the problems a lone striker faces when the team is pinned back in its own half and cannot get midfielders in support of the forward quickly enough when they gain possession. As Liverpool’s midfield sunk deeper with Chelsea’s pressure, the distance between Suarez and his midfielders got larger and the passes into him subsequently longer. With only Suarez to mark, Terry and Cahill were able to guard him closely and limit most of his play in the middle third.
3. AVOIDING LUCAS
Even without Chelsea’s pressure forcing him back, Lucas’ position in the defensive midfield role was very deep to begin with during the first half. Sitting just ahead of the centre-backs and behind Henderson and Allen, Lucas was providing excellent cover in the central hole between the midfield and defense, blocking the gaps where our attacking midfielders love to receive the ball (image below).
In the opening 17 minutes of the game leading up to Hazard’s equalising goal, Chelsea’s pressure was forcing Lucas gradually further back. Although this meant that in possession Liverpool were often giving him the ball so deep that he was playing alongside the centre-backs and had more difficulty passing forward, in defense he was a permanent presence inhibiting Chelsea’s attacks in those very dangerous areas in front of the central defenders. The Player Influence graphic below, which signifies the average positions at which players had an impact on the game, depicts Lucas’s role.
Review the first graphic (“Chelsea – All Passes”) near the top of this article, you will see that the majority of Chelsea’s first half attacks were in wide areas and those attempted passes into Lucas’ central defensive zone failed. Oscar, who typically operates in the centre, had to drift wide more than usual to gain possession. Avoiding Lucas in the deep central midfield position was becoming a problem, but one that the culmination of our first half tactics solved.
HAZARD GOAL, 1-1
Good pressure once again on the ball from Chelsea influenced a poor forward pass from Coutinho aimed for Suarez, which Cahill intercepted. Cahill played ahead to Hazard who had drifted inside from the right channel beyond Henderson and Allen, then dribbled along the halfway line. Due to Hazard’s position in advance of Henderson and Allen, Lucas had to step out to apply pressure on the ball. Lucas’ movement allowed Oscar to continue his forward run into the vacant space, where he gained possession after Hazard and Willian’s quick combination play. Also, Willian’s transition from wide to central to get involved in the attack dragged Glen Johnson out of position, leaving Oscar a run directly at the exposed Liverpool centre-backs that resulted in the ball ricocheting into the path of the goal-scorer, Hazard.
The defensive pressure on the ball and the advanced and interchanging positions of Oscar, Hazard and Willian provided Chelsea with one of the rare moments to exploit the space emptied by Lucas in his deep defensive spot.
It was great to watch such a dominant performance and another tactical victory for this Chelsea team. Limiting the attacking prowess of Liverpool has not been easy for most teams in the League this season; we made them uncomfortable and indifferent in possession and reaped the rewards of another dominant first half display.
Written by Chris Wales. Follow him on Twitter here
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