On Sunday, Chelsea travel to Anfield to take on Liverpool in a match that was once considered a title decider, but has now become a possible coronation with Liverpool able to pull 8 points clear of Chelsea and 9 points clear of Manchester City, though City still have a game in hand, making it much closer mathematically.
Jose Mourinho has suggested he may send out the “kids” to take on Liverpool with the Merseysiders looking to take one more step towards their first league title in the Premier League era. Now, whether or not Chelsea puts out a weakened side, that’s left up to one man, Mourinho. However, the Blues hopes of winning the league title this season took a serious hit after last week’s loss to Sunderland, but they are still very much alive in this season’s Champions League, with the second leg against Atlético Madrid coming on Wednesday. The question will be whether or not Mourinho was being truthful or simply playing mind games ahead of this important clash at Anfield.
Brendan Rodgers and Liverpool have no such concerns this season, and they will be looking to come out and claim another big scalp en route to the title this season. Coming off a big win at Anfield against City and avoiding a trap away to Norwich, Liverpool will be looking for their 12th straight win in the league and a chance to once more prove that they deserve to be champions.
Chelsea must avoid the fast start.
The one hallmark of this run from Liverpool is how fast they come out at the start of the match. They come out and swarm you in attack before you can settle into your rhythm. But they don’t necessarily swarm you by dictating the start of the match or setting their own tempo. Their fast starts come from pressing high, winning the ball, and then breaking forward with the pace of Luis Suarez, Daniel Sturridge, and Raheem Sterling. The way they start the match is predicated on the opposition either getting sloppy in possession when building an attack or by committing too many men forward and getting caught on the counter.
When they have had the most difficulty was when teams took care of the ball when starting the match and stayed back. In the FA Cup meeting with Arsenal, the Gunners did get an early goal, but most importantly, they stayed compact, didn’t give them any space, and took care of the ball. Contrast that with City, who weren’t able to do those things and have to commit men forward to attack, and they got caught cold on the break. Chelsea are a team that are capable of keeping it tight early, and they must do so to stop the early barrage as well as the wave of emotion that will be coming from the crowd from the start.
Never forget that Liverpool are, at their core, a counterattacking side.
While there have been many waxing poetic about the pretty football that Liverpool play, against the top teams, it’s been the counterattack that’s done the major damage. What those fast starts have done is put the opposition in a position where they have to come forward, and it leaves you exposed to their main strength – they’re ability to break with pace.
However, Liverpool aren’t quite as good when having to break down an organised defence. In the first meeting at Stamford Bridge, they scored an early goal from a set piece, but were unable to create anything of note from open play. While Sturridge and Suarez are perfectly capable of unlocking spaces, they are very reliant on the opposition making positional errors to give them that space. That was proven in the match against West Ham who are a side who play solid, organised defensive football, Liverpool struggled to really create any clear opportunities and had to rely on mistakes from the Hammers’ defence to give them a chance to score twice from the spot. Even against Sunderland, Liverpool struggled for the first 30 minutes to pick the lock of an organised defence, relying on a Steven Gerrard free kick to break the deadlock and open the spaces needed to win.
If Chelsea pose one main problem to Liverpool, it’s that space isn’t something they give away. Out of all the top sides, it’s no secret that they’re the most solid in defence, but also possess players that sides like West Ham and Sunderland don’t possess. To get anything from this match, Liverpool must find a way to unlock the Blues’ lines without relying on being given space to play.
Jordan Henderson is a major absence for Liverpool.
If you would have told me one year ago that Jordan Henderson would be one of the most important cogs in the Liverpool machine, I would have laughed at you. But that’s the reality of the situation now. In finding a way to field his three best attackers, he’s found a role for Henderson in the midfield, working alongside Gerrard and doing a lot of both attacking and defensive work. It’s Henderson that has allowed Gerrard to be redeployed at the base of the midfield diamond, and it’s Henderson that allows Philippe Coutinho and Sterling to both be played in support of Suarez and Sturridge.
His absence will mean that either Lucas or Joe Allen will more than likely play in his place, but it presents a bit of a weakness in the formation. If Rodgers persists with his 4-4-2 diamond with both Coutinho and Sterling, he will play someone who gives you one half of what Henderson can offer, but not both halves. In Allen, you get a good passer of the ball who can unlock defences in attack, but is a bit of a liability in defence. In Lucas, you have a player who can pass the ball, but is primarily a holding midfielder who can defend and doesn’t link midfield to attack.
Whoever plays will mean that Gerrard will have to take on the responsibility of either defending more or attacking more to compensate for the absence of a player that allows him to usually just sit in front of the back four and orchestrate, a la Andrea Pirlo. He’s shown late last season and earlier this season that the days of Gerrard the Driving Midfielder may be behind him. If he’s asked to do so again, will he be able?
Steven Gerrard’s new role has been perfect for him, but it’s nothing that Chelsea haven’t seen before.
The conundrum of what to do with Gerrard from earlier this season has been solved cleverly by Rodgers. When he was absent early this season with injury, the fluidity of Liverpool seemed to improve and the question was whether or not Rodgers had the guts to drop the Liverpool captain for the betterment of the team. Instead, Rodgers came up with a solution that involved dropping Gerrard into a deeper role and playing a regista position similar to that of Pirlo. It sounded like a means to an end because Gerrard was so accustomed to driving the team forward, but it’s worked out handsomely. In playing Coutinho as a secondary passer further forward and Henderson as the energy of the midfield that Gerrard used to be, it’s allowed Gerrard to sit and express his great range of passing.
This does come at a price, however, and one that may be magnified by the absence of Henderson. Gerrard, while effective at that position, has not gained mystical powers of more pace. Playing in that role, he is responsible for shielding the back four, but he’s never been the quickest player or the best tackler, so he is prone to give away fouls. In recent weeks, he’s been much more reserved in defending because of being one yellow card away from a suspension, and I think it’s led to one or two chances because he couldn’t clear the ball without risking one.
It also doesn’t help that none of the centre backs for Liverpool have much pace either, so being that the fullbacks are asked to come forward and help with width, you can get at that back line on the counter or by shifting them around in transition. City proved that when they pulled two goals back.
It’s a shame that Samuel Eto’o is hurt because this is the match for his closing down.
One of the reasons for Liverpool having such a questionable defence is that their defence is error-prone in two areas: set pieces and mainly playing out from the back. In fact, earlier in the season, you could rely on pressing the centre backs when they were in possession and relying on them to make a mistake. However, with Gerrard’s positional switch, it’s allowed him to drop deep enough to be like a third centre back and build the play out for them.
The problem is that it’s once again predicated on Gerrard not having to play both an attack-minded role and a defensive-minded one at the same time. If, for instance, Gerrard has to initiate the Liverpool attack further forward, it means that Martin Skrtel, Daniel Agger, or Mamadou Sakho will have to carry the ball forward from the back. It’s one of the reasons that they have trouble building play against teams that are able to control the play without the ball. Their centre backs are not able to play split roles to create width and allow the midfielders to go forward more.
Without Eto’o, either Demba Ba or Fernando Torres will have to pressure their back line when they are in possession because I do believe that Gerrard will have to play a role a bit more forward than he has lately. If nothing else, it’ll stop Liverpool’s attacks from forming so easily because their attack is dependent on releasing the ball through the transitional phases very quickly in order for their forwards to get in good attacking positions.