11 November 2012

Liverpool 1-1 Chelsea

Goals:
Terry 20'
Suarez 73'

You can't help but be disappointed with a draw given Liverpool's results in the 10 matches that have preceded today's and having beaten Chelsea in the last four league encounters, but that could and probably should have been a whole lot worse. Especially after the first half.

Rodgers kept the same formation used against Anzhi, with wing-backs, three center-backs, Gerrard ahead of Şahin and Allen, and Suarez and Sterling as strikers. Which, in theory, made sense in order to nullify Chelsea's incredibly potent attacking line of three – that's what £80-90m or so will buy you – especially with Skrtel unavailable. But, like against Anzhi, it also did nothing to solve Liverpool's never-ending woes in attack. Liverpool out-passed Chelsea, Liverpool out-possessed Chelsea, but Liverpool had zero cutting edge, with Gerrard and Şahin unable to link defense and attack, leaving Suarez and Sterling incredibly isolated, especially with Chelsea's fullbacks sitting deeper than excepted, wholly willing to thrive on the counter-attack and set plays.

And the formation can't legislate for set plays. Terry eluded Agger on a corner in the 20th, with Liverpool's defender blocked off by Ivanovic and Johnson, allowing Chelsea's captain an unforgivably free header from eight yards out. I think this is where everyone rails against man-to-man marking, although Liverpool usually use a mix of man and zonal. Much like against Anzhi midweek, albeit even earlier, Liverpool's conservative strategy was upset by a relatively cheap goal conceded. Terry had to go off 15 minutes later, most likely damaging knee ligaments when Ramires pushed Suarez into his standing leg.

Soon after the opener, Rodgers tweaked the system. Rather than having Şahin and Allen behind Gerrard, Allen sat deeper than the other two midfielders. At the same time, Sterling started coming into midfielder to receive possession, rather than Suarez, leaving the Uruguayan as Liverpool's furthest-forward striker, hoping to breach the back-line on the back shoulder of the last defender, as against Newcastle. Neither change did much to bridge midfield and attack, to turn possession into tangible shots, if not shots on target. Liverpool remained limited to three speculative efforts from distance – one from Agger, two from Şahin – that came nowhere near troubling Chelsea's goal.

Meanwhile, the change in starting formation did little to cut out the never-ending calamitous errors. Chelsea could have opened the scoring within six minutes, as Oscar pressured Joe Allen into a giveaway deep in Liverpool's half, but the Brazilian's shot rose narrowly over the bar after getting the ball back from Torres. Hazard sprinted away from Allen in the 27th after another Liverpool giveaway – this time, Suarez trying to singlehandedly force his way through three Chelsea defenders – but Jones did well to save Torres' shot on the break. The best chance came in the fourth minute of added time: a long throw saw three Liverpool players (Allen, Agger, and Carragher) collide when trying to clear, allowing Oscar to send Mata clear, but the winger thankfully rushed his wide-open shot from the top of the box over the bar.

Liverpool were lucky that Chelsea never took the opportunities granted to extend the lead. But Liverpool were also vastly improved in the second half, especially after Rodgers changed the formation back to Liverpool's usual 4-2-3-1/4-3-3 on the hour mark. The two sides remained in a holding pattern for the first 15 minutes after the restart, with the lone opportunity again from a set play, as Jones again denied Torres after the striker peeled away from an injured Gerrard (deep breaths; he'd be okay).

But with Suso replacing Şahin in the 60th, Liverpool switched Wisdom to right back, Johnson to left back, and the substitute played ahead of Gerrard and Allen in the midfield three. As against United, WBA (in the league cup), and Anzhi midweek, the young Spaniard proved an impact sub, able to work between the lines in a way that both Gerrard and Şahin were unable to. A quick glance at Liverpool's shots before and after the hour mark says more than enough about the increase in tempo and cohesion.



At the same time, Liverpool was more comfortable in its preferred formation, better able to stifle Chelsea and defend more solidly. Liverpool made none of the terrifying errors which often lead to goals conceded, and once again, Chelsea were limited to chances from set plays, most notably Jones' excellent punch on Mata's dangerous free kick in the 68th.

Still, Liverpool also needed a set play breakdown for its equalizer. No prizes for guessing who the goalscorer was. Suarez and Wisdom linked up well to earn the corner, Suso's dead ball found Carragher at the near post, flicking on for Suarez to head in from point blank range. Maybe Suarez's shoved Ramires in the build-up – he was definitely onside – but Liverpool were due that bit of leeway after so many punishing, incorrect decisions.

From there, Liverpool looked content to ensure they didn't concede another, hoping to find a winner on the counter with Chelsea necessarily pushing more and more men forward. Which they nearly did twice, ending the match as the more threatening side. Cech smartly charged off his line in the 88th, denying Suarez the chance to round the keeper after a first-time throughball from Enrique. We've seen numerous keepers beaten by Suarez's pace and trickery in that position before, but Cech darted out incredibly well. Six minutes later, with nearly in the last kick of the game, Cech denied Enrique his first Liverpool goal with a save at the near post after good work from Suso, Sterling, and Suarez set up the chance.

So, the change in formation may not have worked as hoped, more due to the set play concession rather than defensive weaknesses in open play. But as against Everton, Rodgers demonstrated the ability to change the system to get the minimum needed result. Once again, Jones was excellent, making it harder and harder for Reina to immediately return when fit. Johnson and Enrique also did well, although the latter remains bafflingly able to vary from superb to stupid within seconds. Agger was also crucial to Liverpool's defense while Carragher – Carragher! – notched an assist, his first since the Champions League tie in Debrecen in November 2009. Multiple players looked more comfortable in the 4-3-3: Wisdom, Gerrard, Allen, Enrique, Suarez, and Sterling all improved after the change in shape.

Most importantly, Liverpool didn't lose, which looked eminently possible after the first half. While getting more points on the board remains of the utmost importance, that sort of resilience was both reassuring and necessary.

5 comments:

Seth said...

The 3/5 man back-line was a terrible decision. Yes, chelsea have a dynamic "front 4" if you want to call them that. But Torres' strength is dropping back into midfield to connect (which he did while giving Allen fits), and the thought of Hazard/Mata running at Wisdom/Agger isn't a comfortable one, so any runs forward by Enrique/Johnson were not without risk.

When you go up against a lone striker or a front 3, 3 centerbacks is 100% the wrong call. Back 3 is perfect against a 4-4-2 leaving you with a spare man. Instead Torres tormented Allen not letting him be on the ball, we couldn't control the midfield (with our 3 spare men at the back, our "front 2" did not scare their backline, and they continuously got the better chances in the first half.

I like Rodgers, but give him no credit for going 3 at the back. Clearly our players weren't comfortable.

Suso playing as the attacking central midfielder was tremendous. That more than anything is what got us back in. Sahin and Gerrard just don't seem to get what possession football is about. And while Allen was dispossed often, it seems like his midfield abandoned him often ("Man on"). I can't wait for Lucas' return, not just for Lucas' obvious qualities but for the chance to let Allen really contribute in the interplay on that second level of midfield. #6 is not his best spot.

purify said...

@Seth

There is no tactical decision without a tradeoff. The decision to make things harder for Allen was absolutely worth it to protect our weak defenders Carragher, Wisdom, Johnson, and Enrique. They all benefited hugely from the tighter space and cover.

WetCelery said...

The 3 at the back decision was clearly the right one as far as nullifying Chelsea's attack, they created no chances other than the ones we gifted them through ridiculous mistakes. We looked very defensively sound throughout the first half, the real problem was there was no attacking threat from us in that formation. Anyways, are you saying that you know more about tactics than Rodgers? Because that is clearly not true. Go ahead and bring up concerns about the formation but to say that it was 100% the wrong choice is just crap.

Seth said...

Rodgers certainly knows more about tactics than me.

But 3 at the back was wrong, and I think he admitted this much in post-match comments.

"We were a wee bit tentative in the first half, and that was my fault," he said. "We normally play with three front players to press the ball much higher up the field. We played 3-5-2 in the first half just to see if we could get Luis a bit of support up front and still have the superiority in midfield with three midfield players.

Point is...
Rodgers' intention with 3CBs wasn't to protect our backline like @purify says, it was to control the midfield (read: wing backs join the midfield triangle to control the ball), while also giving allowing Suarez to partner with Sterling. If going against a front 2, this works. But against Torres (single striker) with scary wingers in mata and Hazard it doesn't. Either your wing backs come back to guard against mata/hazard (no control of midfield), or they go forward and leave your 3 centerbacks threatened (which is what happened on all those scary "defensive mistakes" that we got away with and will forget about soon). On top of that Torres dropping off and giving Allen fits meant that Rodgers objectives were thrwarted, and he admitted this much. Thus the change.

I'm not calling him a fool, but I don't want to give him tactical credit for a mid-game switch, if the initial tactics were off.

I still trust in Brendan.

nate said...

Tempted to agree with purify and WetCelery, as I did think that Rodgers' three at the back decision was more to nullify Chelsea, but Seth's right in that his post-match comments suggest it was to give Suarez more support.

"We played 3-5-2 in the first half just to see if we could get Luis a bit of support up front and still have the superiority in midfield with three midfield players."

That the above didn't work at all, that there was little link between midfield and attack, whether Liverpool played 2-1 (Allen, Gerrard; Sahin) or 1-2 (Allen; Gerrard, Sahin) in midfield, is my biggest grievance.

Yes, Chelsea frightened three or four times, and three of those were preventable, but honestly, that's not a bad result when playing this Chelsea side at Stamford Bridge.

The "don't play 3 CBs against a lone striker" rule, while usually the case, isn't 100% true at all times. That Hazard and Mata often cut inside (Mata's left-footed, Hazard's right-footed) means it's not quite three CBs against a single striker; Wisdom picked up Hazard, Agger picked up Mata at times, Carragher was there for support. That did limited Chelsea chances in open play, especially if Liverpool were back in position. Chelsea's best three chances came on quick attacks before Liverpool's defense could settle: twice through giveaways, once on a long throw that three players went for without communication.

Torres' strength is not dropping deep, even if he's a different player to the Liverpool version, but yes, it did cause Allen problems. Still didn't lead to many Chelsea chances because of three CBs picking up the two attackers who pushed on.

Also, we can't overlook how Skrtel's absence affects the tactics, formation, and the overall competence in defense.

All of the above is why I wrote "in theory" in the review. The objectives looked feasible. On the whole, Liverpool contained Chelsea. But yes, the change back to 4-2-3-1 was the much better move.