If Chelsea versus Arsenal last Monday was to determine who topped the table going into Christmas, then both sides gave Liverpool a massive Christmas gift two days early. After Chelsea and Arsenal drew at the Emirates, Liverpool were able to take top spot in the Premier League entering the festive period and looked to stay there. However, their bid to remain top was derailed on Boxing Day by Manchester City, and that leads us to Sunday’s clash at Stamford Bridge between Liverpool and Chelsea, a rivalry that has seen numerous matches, and is a matchup between third and fourth.
Chelsea was involved Monday night in a statement match for their opposition and handed Arsenal a draw in a very Mourinho-esque way. Against Arsenal, the famous Jose Mourinho pragmatism was on full display, remarking after that a point was more damaging to Arsenal than his Blues. In a sense, he was right. This was a point won not on pretty football and goals from defensive lapses, but a committed performance that saw Mourinho ask his players to disrupt Arsenal’s play and look to break, and they executed his plan to perfection. On Sunday, Chelsea will be looking to do the same to Liverpool as their title credentials are now up for question after a humbling defeat at the Etihad on Thursday.
However, while for Mourinho, it’s back to basics, carving out clean sheets while keeping things nice and tight at the back, Liverpool have undergone a small renaissance under Brendan Rodgers. Since falling out of the Champions League after finishing seventh in the 2009-2010 campaign and three different managers, Rodgers has been the one that has their hopes of European glory once more revived. It doesn’t hurt that he has a player in Luis Suarez who at the moment is making the Premier League into his personal playground of goal scoring. However, defeats to City and Arsenal this season have become black marks on whether they can take the next step and challenge for their first Premier League title, and they face another tough challenge in a trip to Stamford Bridge and another tough manager.
Stop Luis Suarez if you can.
I may have many issues with Luis Suarez as a football player, from his biting to other antics, but it’s hard to deny what a talent he is and what he does bring to a club. It’s fitting that in the absence of Steven Gerrard that Suarez should be given the armband in his stead. Just as the team a decade ago was constructed around the abilities of Gerrard, the same can be said for this current Liverpool side in terms of Suarez. Everything that Liverpool does goes through Suarez, either by him finishing chances or creating them or even initiating the build-up play. That means that to stop Liverpool, you first have to look at how to stop Suarez.
It is noteworthy that Liverpool have failed to win a match this season when Suarez hasn’t scored, but no one has found the complete solution, though. The closest solution came from City on Thursday, but it’s a calculated risk that could have backfired on another day. Basically, City’s defense ushered Suarez deep and forced him into areas where he could do less damage and would have to go past more people. Usually, that involved one of the two center backs staying tight to him when he received the ball. The risk is that Raheem Sterling and Philippe Coutinho had numerous chances when they made diagonal runs from wide through the middle. Suarez was able to find them, but they failed to put them away.
The risk is that you stop Suarez from scoring, but you dare the others to try and beat you, as the pedigree of his supporting cast without Daniel Sturridge makes it a good risk to take. However, you still have to acknowledge that means Suarez will make chances for others.
Normally, I would assume that Mourinho would put John Obi Mikel as a shield in front of the back four to do that job of staying tight to Suarez while also cutting out the diagonal run because both center backs are still in position. However, with the suspension of Ramires, Mourinho’s options to play a 4-3-3 are limited by having only three central midfielders available who can play deep in that system unless he plans to put David Luiz there, which is a risk unto itself.
Liverpool’s midfield without Steven Gerrard can look pedestrian.
A lot of the control through midfield comes through the presence of Gerrard, simply because there’s no one else in that midfield that has that amount of influence in so many ways. I think it’s telling that has been their main source of inspiration since Gerrard’s injury, though others have stepped up and played better. The fact is that outside Jordan Henderson, there isn’t much creativity from the deeper midfielders, meaning creation of chances comes mostly from the front three. Lucas is solid as a shield for the back four, but doesn’t offer much going forward, and Joe Allen has been inconsistent since his move to Anfield at the start of last season.
Even with Gerrard, one of the tactics that Liverpool have had trouble against are teams that pack the midfield and have quality. Arsenal were able to do this against Rodgers’ 3 at the back formation in their early season meeting, and Arsenal’s midfield simply dominated. Against City, Fernandinho and Toure largely controlled the deeper parts of midfield while David Silva drug Lucas around the pitch with his movement.
Now put that in the context of Chelsea, and you see that the personnel are there to do the same. Frank Lampard and John Obi Mikel will most likely anchor the midfield with Oscar behind the striker, but all three are more than willing to muck it up in the midfield, and Oscar’s interchanging movement with Eden Hazard in the wide areas makes him difficult to cover, though he might not have the stealth of Silva.
If there is a real place to attack Liverpool, it’s to use the flanks against their fullbacks, particularly the left side.
One thing I noticed in the City match is City’s ability to play out balls to either Samir Nasri or Alvaro Negredo behind Glen Johnson, who will always vacate that defensive position to go forward. In addition, City’s biggest threat on the wing was running Pablo Zabaleta and Jesus Navas in 2 v 1 situations against Aly Cissokho. For me, that’s been Liverpool’s weak point for a while now, but it’s been magnified at this point by the reliance on playing Coutinho on the left and Sterling on the right.
City broke against Cissokho mainly because Coutinho’s positioning took him inside. Because his creative threat comes when he comes in and looks for diagonal balls, it leaves his fullback a little exposed because he’s looking to come in-field to collect the ball in the transition from defence to attack. Navas and Zabaleta continued to find space down that flank for crosses, particularly because Coutinho is neither adept at defending when he’s asked to come back and the fact that asking him to come deep means that he’s not creating in the transitions, leaving that up to Suarez and making Coutinho a passenger at times.
On the other side, all Chelsea and England fans know about Johnson’s deficiencies in defense, and he’ll be asked once again to line up against Hazard or Willian on that flank. It will be a real test, particularly if Mourinho decides to invite Liverpool forward and counterattack. Unlike Arsenal who were a bit more cautious with their fullbacks, Rodgers will send them forward, and that leaves space. It exposes Johnson a lot because he’s not a great defender nor does he transition from attack to defence well.
Pressure their center backs and force them into mistakes.
One thing that’s happened since Rodgers has taken over is the philosophy of building from the back. However, his two preferred center backs this season, Martin Skrtel and Mamadou Sakho, are neither very comfortable with it. In fact, Sakho in particular has had periods where he’s looked very shaky with his distribution, dallying on the ball a second too long or playing iffy back passes to his keeper. Sakho seems to be a confidence player, and when his confidence is shaken, he gets very jittery and can be liability.
Likewise, Skrtel’s bugaboo is the set piece, where he’s not very good in the air. He’s started to take the Jamie Carragher own goal habit on, and Vincent Kompany abused him so badly that Skrtel was practically disrobing him on every corner. In addition, Skrtel’s not the best ball playing center back, and I would assume that closing down the back line will be something that Mourinho would have noticed in watching the tape from the City match.
What style does Mourinho decide to play?
Against Arsenal away from home, it was a given that Mourinho was never going to try to outplay Wenger in that match. Psychologically, he still has never lost to Wenger, and the trend of Chelsea beating Arsenal repeatedly is still there. However, this time, Chelsea were unable to take their one or two chances that such players as Didier Drogba would have taken previously under Mourinho, but the defence and the midfield were much more solid in making it hard for Arsenal to play.
The question is whether or not he’ll employ the same tactic at home against Liverpool. Because of the number of flair players, there should be a bit more impetus on attacking. However, when attacking has been the focus, mistakes were made at the back, and many goals were conceded in a short period of time. I think Mourinho looked at that and realised that a bit more solidity was needed, especially in the big matches.
Given the fact that the league is quite close at the top and goals conceded by the big teams due to shoddy defending seems to be a trend lately (though it’s made for entertaining games), I wonder if Mourinho thinks that slow and steady wins the race, although at the cost of bringing back “boring, boring Chelsea.” At the end of the day, he knows that’s a tried and true method to winning the title, and not dropping points to rivals is just another part of that. I would assume that he tries to make sure his unbeaten record at Stamford Bridge remains intact after Sunday, and the Blues creep ever steadily towards the top.