There shouldn’t have been much doubt about which Chelsea we were going to see at Anfield on Sunday afternoon.
Not only did Jose Mourinho act against his claim that he’d field a weakened team against Liverpool – Tomas Kalas and Mohamed Salah the only inexperienced Premier League players in the XI – the Chelsea boss also strongly adhered to the tactical approach that won him and his team such praise following their win at Manchester City.
For Liverpool, it was a game that was bound to crop up sooner or later. Brendan Rodgers’ blitzkrieg tactics had overpowered most of the Premier League’s members up until this point. They’d been countered, of course, notably against Manchester City at Anfield. But never before had Liverpool’s attack looked so tame and devoid of ideas.
And that’s the crucial factor in Liverpool’s 2-0 home loss to Chelsea. Speed and the advantage of surprise attacks only work when the other team is willing to play. A good team, a well organised team who sit deep and force the play wide can’t be broken down simply through the use of pace. There is no space to run into.
What Chelsea did was expose Liverpool’s biggest attacking failing – a complete lack of creativity. It’s not to say players like Coutinho and Steven Gerrard have suddenly been found out to be short of ingenuity in the final third. Rather, Liverpool are in need of a player who can constantly dictate play, conjure moments of brilliance and split and stubborn defence like Chelsea’s.
In the past, Luis Suarez, used wide in the attacking three, would put through Daniel Sturridge or Raheem Sterling. It was a brilliant tactical move by Rodgers to throw off the opposition, though one that relied heavily upon space to exploit in behind.
The problem Liverpool faced on Sunday was that there was no one to put Suarez through when he was the team’s most advanced forward. Shots were being taken from distance instead of passes effectively finding players inside the box.
Liverpool’s ascent this season into the category of genuine title contenders has been built upon the premise that speed compensates for other shortcomings. As good as Liverpool as a team have been, individually very few would displace the midfielders and forwards in Manchester City and Chelsea’s teams.
Rapid counters have been used to stun opponents in the past. Rodgers has turned a hard worker like Jordan Henderson into a midfielder capable of providing goals and assists, yet you wouldn’t necessarily think of Henderson in a creative sense. He’s just an example of the manager’s tactical product.
It’s difficult, probably even wrong, to say that a team who play football in such an attractive fashion is one dimensional, but Liverpool were made to look flat and bereft of ideas. Chelsea set up a wall and the home side had no tool capable of knocking it down.
The events of the past week don’t owe towards too much praise for Jose Mourinho. He won’t answer questions on his tactics, everyone is in the firing line, and we’re a few short steps away from going without Mourinho-led press conferences for a prolonged spell.
But favour his tactics or not, the Portuguese put on a masterclass over ninety minutes. He reinforced his strong defensive wall with forwards who were willing to work. They were patient, never allowing for slips in play. Their rewards came via two mistakes, one certainly enforced through frustration in the dying moments.
Liverpool’s game plan will work in the majority of their games. Yet it’s interesting that for all the defensive work Chelsea’s team are able to put in and have put in this season, one glaring shortcoming is the absence of Juan Mata.
As fantastic as their Plan A has been for much of the season, against Chelsea, Liverpool were shown to be in need of player like Mata, David Silva or Mesut Ozil to turn the tide of the game.