- Liverpool started in a 4-3-2-1 shape, with the same personnel that narrowly overcame Norwich on Easter Sunday. Both Raheem Sterling and Philippe Coutinho were looking to play between the lines behind lone striker Luis Suarez.
- Chelsea fielded a variation of the system that stymied Atletico in midweek. Mikel was the anchorman in a 4-1-4-1 on Tuesday night. Here he was joined by Nemanja Matic in a 4-4-1-1 with Frank Lampard surprisingly fielded just in front of the two, ostensibly in the number ten position.
- The key theme in this game was the amount of space and freedom afforded to Liverpool captain Steven Gerrard and how he chose to exploit it.
- Upon assessing the starting shapes in the first couple of minutes, this observer anticipated that Mourinho’s decision to field Lampard in the number ten position was intended to ensure that Gerrard had a direct opponent and would not be able to play long diagonals and influence the game.
- On the contrary, Lampard stayed very tightly stationed in front of his colleagues Mikel and Matic, and made no real effort to close Gerrard down.
- This meant that Gerrard effectively had free reign. He attempted 26 of his trademark long passes, finding the target with 19 of them. In total, he attempted a massive 114 passes over the course of the game, 27 more than his nearest contender (Coutinho). Five out of the six most common passing combinations in the game involved him.
- Unfortunately for Liverpool, this was the beginning and end of his positive contribution. Following his unfortunate slip on the stroke of half-time that led to Ba’s opener, Gerrard went on a one man second-half crusade to make amends and grab the headlines. He attempted eight shots from range in the second half, to add to his one in the first. The next highest on the shots attempted list was striker Suarez with five. Following one of these futile efforts, the Sky camera cut to Jamie Carragher, watching on from the stands with his family. His shake of the head spoke volumes.
- The away side were happy to allow Gerrard to attempt Hollywood balls and shots. They were more interested in forming a deep and compact block, both preventing space in behind and between the lines.
- This stymied LIverpool’s creative players completely. Both Coutinho and Sterling found no space in the areas in front of the Chelsea defence. Sterling made five successful dribbles in the first half and looked the most likely, particularly when he went outside and exploited the space that Chelsea’s narrow defence was affording him. His end product was poor however, with none of his seven crossing attempts finding their target.
- Suarez was particularly blunted. The Uruguayan is at his best when running the channels, but like Diego Costa in midweek, that door was shut to him today, with no successful through balls forthcoming from the players behind him and no space in behind. He was dispossessed three times and lost the ball through a poor touch four times, as Chelsea crowded him out.
- Chelsea’s ultra-low and narrow block was a complete success. Only 4% of Liverpool’s 26 shots came from inside the six-yard area, with a massive 81% coming from outside the box. This compares to equivalent figures of 18% and 55% for the away side.
- Liverpool were only permitted to complete one through ball (Iago Aspas to Coutinho in the 83rd minute). They were invited by Chelsea to exploit wide areas, something which this Liverpool side are not comfortable doing. They are bottom of the table in terms of crosses attempted per game with 17. Today they were forced to attempt 39. Liverpool were loath to do this as often as they should, electing instead to continue to attempt through balls through the eye of the needle and long shot opportunities (or exercises in vanity, depending on your perspective).
- Credit here goes to Nemanja Matic and Jon Obi Mikel in particular. Matic made five tackles and three interceptions, which beats any other player’s combined total on the day. Mikel was top of the table in terms of shots blocked with four and he also made ten successful clearances. Matic was also level with Raheem Sterling for successful dribbles, winning the ball several times late on before scampering up the field, evading Liverpool legs to run down the clock.
- The first tactical change came in the 58th minute. Rodgers brought on Sturridge up top for Lucas, moving Coutinho into the midfield three and Sterling behind the two strikers. It was now the diamond shape that has served the home side so well this season.
- This was an error in hindsight. Chelsea were already comfortable defending narrowly. How was employing that most narrow of shapes going to change that? It was wide areas that Liverpool needed extra bodies in, not the middle.
- Mourinho responded to the problem of two strikers in the 77th minute by introducing a third centre back in Gary Cahill and removing the industrious Andre Schurrle from the left wing. Chelsea were now 5-3-1-1 with no protection on the flanks for their full-backs. Liverpool did not exploit it.
- Instead, three minutes later, Rodgers brought on another striker in Iago Aspas, removing left full back John Flanagan (who had seen off Salah comfortably earlier in the game). Liverpool were now a lopsided 3-3-4 with apparent right-sided centre back Johnson playing almost as a right wing-back. Sterling was primarily stationed on the left now, with the three strikers playing off the shoulder. Chelsea had their three centre backs and their midfield three shifted across as required to stymie the threat on the flanks (such as it was). Eventually they took advantage of Liverpool’s positional abandon with a late counter-attack to kill the game off.
No side has completed more through balls per game or fewer crosses per game than Liverpool this season. Jose Mourinho prevented them from doing the former and invited them to do the latter. Liverpool could not adapt. Their captain was unfortunate to cost them the first goal, but his subsequent performance was self-regarding in the extreme. Has his chance at Premier League glory “gone again”?