20 November 2011

Liverpool 2-1 Chelsea

Maxi 33'
Sturridge 55'
Johnson 87'

Another big game, another tactical master-class from Dalglish.

Instead of reacting to Chelsea, keeping it tight in the hopes of breaking through on the break, just like last year's trip to the Bridge, we saw a completely unexpected line-up and Barcelona-esque heavy, high pressing in the first half. Liverpool ostensibly stuck with the 4-2-2-2 formation, but it was a completely different 4-2-2-2: Bellamy partnered Suarez up front and Maxi got his first league start, replacing Downing on the left.

Liverpool's front six gave no quarter in Chelsea's half, furiously chasing any player in blue in possession. Chelsea's vulnerability was known to all, and Liverpool refused to let them settle and grow in confidence. The style led to an exhilarating, furious half, and Chelsea apparently opened the scoring, but on second viewing, Drogba's free kick against the run of play was thankfully, narrowly wide.

But Bellamy and Maxi provided the break-through, and Charlie Adam was the platform, just as essential to everything good. It was as disciplined and intelligent a performance as we've seen from him. Instead of his usual center-circle quarterback role, the midfield harried forward, far better in tackling and closing down. He nearly diced Chelsea open in the 18th, winning possession and providing a quick through-ball for Suarez, only for the Uruguayan to be unforgivably offside.

But just over ten minutes later, Adam won the ball 30 yards out, after Mikel lingered on a goal kick, setting up a Bellamy-Suarez-Bellamy-Maxi concerto, with the extra short, quick pass crucial to the goal. While less threatening after the opener, Liverpool continued to deny space in the slightest, with Chelsea relying on set plays for any sight of goal.

That all changed in the second half. Liverpool were never going to be able to keep up that pressure for 90 minutes. The unexpected starters were the main reason Liverpool took the lead, but neither can keep up that pace for the full match, which is the main reason why neither's a regular starter. Nor can Adam. Liverpool were far more passive in the second half, more like what was predicted in the run-in: defending deep and reliant on the counter, more concerned with the clean sheet than extending the lead. Understandably so.

But it was Villas-Boas' tactical response which brought Chelsea back into the game. Removing holding midfielder Mikel (on a yellow) for striker Sturridge allowed Chelsea to switch to a 4-2-3-1 formation; forwards pushed wider, challenging Liverpool's fullbacks, while Mata was far more influential in the middle.

With Liverpool penned in its own half, the substitute leveled matters ten minutes after the restart. Malouda cut inside and deep with Johnson dropping off, and Adam couldn't get back in time to close down. His decision to shoot was selfish and stupid but somehow paid off as Enrique went to sleep, allowing Sturridge in behind for a point blank tap in at the far post. That Malouda's shot fell so perfectly seems another dismal stroke of luck, but once again, the blow was partially of Liverpool's making, a mistake quickly punished.

Newly-confident Chelsea continued to hammer at the away side; only Reina prevented the second, somehow saving Ivanovic's flicked header from a free kick. But Dalglish's response in the 64th, replacing the tiring Bellamy with Henderson, solidified the midfield and helped stem the tide. Malouda's 70th minute acrobatics, carving space between Skrtel and Johnson, was the last non-speculative effort from the Blues and was off target anyway, like all their shots following Liverpool's first substitution.

The home side targeted Liverpool's right throughout, putting more and more pressure on Johnson with Kuyt also showing signs of fatigue. If a goal was coming, it looked like coming from Glen Johnson's part of the pitch. And it did, but not as pessimists like me were expecting. Enrique, Suarez, and Downing kept possession on the left before Adam's brilliant deep cross-field ball found Johnson in acres of space with defenders sucked inside. The right-back successfully ran at Ashley Cole, dancing past onto his left before Malouda could get back, then tucking his shot perfectly inside the far corner. So that's why Johnson's preferred at right-back then. Neither of Chelsea's former Liverpool players – both left on the bench, only sent on in the last 10 minutes – could find the winner, it was Liverpool's ex-Chelsea man. Have that, media narrative.

Given the heavy first-half pressure – which led to Liverpool's opener – it was always going to be a frightening second with Chelsea in the ascendancy. It was a calculated gamble on the part of Dalglish, and although Liverpool were punished thanks to a mis-hit shot, it paid off when coupled with Henderson substitution. Today

Aside from those moments of defensive terror, usually on the wings, everyone was excellent; it's nearly impossible to pick a man of the match. It was Maxi's eighth goal in his last five league starts, it was easily Adam's best game. Lucas was Lucas, utterly essential in shielding the center-backs. Neither Skrtel nor Agger put a foot wrong, and Reina again demonstrated a save that few in the league could replicate. The cheap and easy way out of the conundrum is to name Dalglish as the star, once again disproving notions of rigidity or that the game's somehow passed him by.

Another memorable match against top-level opposition, the type of away victory that's been few and far between for too long. Of course, Liverpool's performances against the Premier League's best has been one of the side smallest concerns under this manager. And it's not as if Chelsea's in a vein of hot form, losing consecutive matches at Stamford Bridge for the first time since Uncle Roman began losing rubles. But a win like this, with form like this, after the last disappointment two weeks ago, needs to be cherished, treasured, and basked in.

And then Liverpool needs to replicate its big-game heroics against the unstoppable City in a week's time.

No comments :