On Tuesday night at Anfield, Chelsea and Liverpool are set to resume a longstanding rivalry between the two clubs that resumed last season. Years ago in his first stint as Chelsea manager, Jose Mourinho’s Chelsea faced Rafa Benitez’s Liverpool multiple times in all competitions and it started a rivalry between the two managers, one that still exists between the two men to this day. Since that time, because of Liverpool’s falling out of the Champions League and the departure of both men, that rivalry had cooled a bit, until last season. If Luis Suarez biting Branislav Ivanovic in 2013 wasn’t enough to reignite the rival, Mourinho’s mastery of the art of managing a match killed off almost all hopes of Liverpool winning the Premier League title that has eluded the club for so long and at the same time created a new Liverpool manager to feud with in an old friend in Brendan Rodgers.
The Capital One Cup competition is no better place for this rivalry to continue once more given the history between these two clubs in this competition. You could argue that the 2005 League Cup final was the start of this great rivalry. That match had everything, from John Arne Riise’s goal within 45 seconds to Steven Gerrard’s own goal that sent the match to extra time to Mourinho’s shushing of the Liverpool support. It was the first major flashpoint of many between the two clubs – right down to that slip last season that allowed Demba Ba to open the scoring.
Regardless of what your perception of the League Cup is, it remains a trophy that is there to win, and that’s always a marker for the success of a club. It was the League Cup win that laid the foundation for that great Mourinho side, and this season, both Mourinho and Brendan Rodgers are looking at this competition as a chance to lift their respective clubs.
Liverpool have enjoyed a bit of resurgence with a change in system.
Last season, Brendan Rodgers attempted to find a way to accommodate both Luis Suarez and Daniel Sturridge in attack without forcing either man to have to play wide. His first idea was to partner to the two up front with a three-man defence. While that system worked for a while, it met its downfall at the Emirates when Arsenal simply pressed the defensive three into mistakes and pulled them all over the park en route to a 2-0 win. Rodgers eventually settled on a 4-4-2 diamond with Steven Gerrard at the base of the diamond to distribute the ball in ways that Martin Skrtel and Mamadou Sakho couldn’t, while added a bit more creativity through the middle by playing Raheem Sterling at the tip of the diamond behind the front two. That worked a treat for Liverpool and very nearly carried them to the title.
This season, however, is a bit of a different story. The departure of Luis Suarez and injuries to Daniel Sturridge has proven to be a massive blow to that system, particularly when it comes to playing wide. With one of either Rickie Lambert, Mario Balotelli, or Fabio Borini up front and no balance with their fullbacks, it was easy to force them to play too narrow, as none of the strikers tends to play like Suarez and Sturridge and look to make diagonal runs from wide or even attack with the ball from there, and Gerrard was often seen dallying on the ball before playing something long over the top.
Rodgers rethink of his system brought him back to a modification of a three-man defence. While that system has come under scrutiny because of Manchester United’s implementation, Rodgers’ Liverpool have found success. Rather than playing two strikers up front and two dedicated fullbacks as wingbacks, Rodgers has settled on playing two attack-minded midfielders behind a lone striker and pushed his wingbacks up as wide midfielders by either actually playing midfielders there or by liberating attack-minded fullbacks from playing deeper. It’s worked a lot better. The addition of Lazar Markovic as one wingback and Alberto Moreno as the other, it’s provided that width that was lacking in a back four, and the addition of Lucas to the midfield has liberated Gerrard to play further forward where his ability to create is highlighted and his inability to defend is hidden. It’s all led to good performances as of late, but the real test will come against one of the two best defences in the Premier League, and we’ll see how they cope.
The current Liverpool system can create width, but at a real price defending wide.
One of the major weaknesses of a three-man defence presents itself in how you deploy your wingbacks. Play two natural fullbacks, and the tendency is that they don’t get forward enough and sit deep in an effort to not find themselves isolated high. Play two natural wide midfielders, and they don’t defend well enough, allowing the attackers to pull apart the three center backs and opening up space.
Rodgers as of late has tried to balance that out by playing a fullback on one side and a midfielder on the other. That has worked for a few teams, namely Juventus who often played Mauricio Isla or Stephan Lichtsteiner on side and Kwadwo Asamoah on the other. Liverpool have found success doing so, but it’s been shown up twice by sides who exposed it by trying to attack them from wide areas.
Two of the top sides in Manchester United and Arsenal did so by either overlapping that side or using their wide men to beat the Liverpool wide men in 1 v 1 situations. Against United, Ashley Young and Antonio Valencia had a field day beating Henderson and Alberto in 1 v 1s, and it resulted in every cross looking like it might be a goal. Against Arsenal, they were able to attack the Gunners on set pieces, but in open play, Arsenal looked dangerous every time Alexis Sanchez found space wide. Even Leicester City once they went down 2-0 began to come out and attack more, and Nigel Pearson’s side have some quick wide players. Once Riyad Mahrez began attacking down the flank, he started finding space and at the end, it looked more likely that Leicester would win than Liverpool.
That’s what Liverpool have to be concerned with if they try to play that way. Chelsea boast one of the best one-on-one attackers in the game in Eden Hazard and boast an overlapping fullback in Branislav Ivanovic who combines well with Willian to isolate a fullback 2 v 1. In addition, Liverpool have to be wary of going back to a back four because Chelsea also gave that formation a torrid time in their first meeting.
Liverpool getting their central midfield right is a priority. But will they?
This is the main question for Liverpool. How do they set up their central midfield, whether it be a back four or a back three? In the first meeting, they opted for a back four and it didn’t work. Balotelli found himself isolated up front as Coutinho and Sterling weren’t able to find areas wide and Gerrard was left stranded with either no one to pass to or a Chelsea player chasing him around the pitch.
The one bright spot to this midfield is the reintroduction of Lucas to the side. Why Lucas was ever left out, I don’t really know, because he is the only midfielder Liverpool have that is a dedicated holding midfielder. He doesn’t have the range or variety of passing that Gerrard possesses, but he’s no slouch with his distribution. But simultaneously, that is the real problem. The way Liverpool are playing is that they tend to play two attacking midfielders behind a lone striker and oftentimes Henderson alongside Lucas. Henderson, while great with energy and becoming more comfortable in creating chances, is not good defensively. And when you play any combination of Gerrard, Coutinho, Lallana, or Sterling ahead of those two, you tend to leave Lucas very isolated as a back-four protector. Once he starts getting dragged out of position, it allows space in between the lines.
That’s how you have to attack the midfield with Lucas playing. If Rodgers opts to play that system, which he has done for many weeks now, the ability of Chelsea to play on the counter is vital because once you get Lucas isolated with the back three, space suddenly opens up and they can get pulled around. Discipline in the midfield is vital. If Liverpool do play three midfielders that are more attacking with a wide midfielder at wingback, they can catch you if you play too far forward.
The fitness of Adam Lallana can be a clue as to how they’ll play and a clue as to a big weakness.
Liverpool’s problems at striker are well-documented and because of them, Sterling has often been asked to play that role. However, Sterling is not a striker. He’s not an instinctive finisher and he doesn’t really use the right spaces off the ball like a natural striker does. In addition, his height makes it so that Liverpool never have a true out ball. They have to relieve pressure either by passing their way out from the back, which their center backs are horrible at doing, or they have to play it wide, which can see their wingbacks get caught out.
However, without Adam Lallana, Rodgers in a sense has been forced to play one of his strikers up front and drop Sterling a bit deeper, as he’s found out that playing Gerrard and Coutinho behind Sterling doesn’t really work in terms of worrying a team’s back line with pace. Lallana has enjoyed good form once he started to regain his fitness, and his ability to create space for himself has added a new dimension alongside either Gerrard or Coutinho. However, he’s been missing with a thigh problem lately and may or may not be fit to play. If he doesn’t play, expect Sterling to come deeper to give them a threat on the ball, but if Lallana does play, you may see Sterling up front alone. Either way, striker becomes a problem for them, especially against a side that structures their defence so well.
Liverpool’s defence could be interesting, especially with Emre Can or Dejan Lovren.
In recent weeks, the Dejan Lovren experiment has gone completely off the rails with him losing his place to Kolo Toure as Rodgers prefers Skrtel, Sakho, and Toure as his back three. However, Toure is off playing for Ivory Coast, and in place of Lovren has come Emre Can. Can scored the opening goal in the first meeting from midfield, which is his natural position, and he’s looked okay in the last couple matches. However, he did have one or two issues with the movement of Christian Benteke last Saturday and looked a bit unconvinced of his positioning.
Ironically, that’s been the major problem of Lovren who has tended to leave large swaths of space between himself and his fellow center backs, inviting attacks. It’s why Toure was given a starting berth, but without him, that defence looks vulnerable. Regardless of their deficiencies on set pieces due to lack of organization, it’ll be important for either Can or Lovren to get that organization right against the Blues or they’ll be in for a long day.