Tuesday night at Stamford Bridge begins a critical week for Chelsea as it pertains to trophies and success this season. After a harrowing defeat at home to Bradford in the FA Cup, the Blues compete in the other domestic cup, welcoming Liverpool to Stamford Bridge for the second leg of the Capital One Cup semifinal.
The past week was a bit trying for Chelsea with two results that Chelsea supporters will not be looking back on fondly. In both matches, the Blues took the lead early, only to give away the lead in the second half. The 4-2 defeat to Bradford was the most devastating, but drawing at Anfield in the first leg of the matchup with Liverpool could be just as bad, especially given the way that Liverpool controlled much of the match after Raheem Sterling’s equaliser.
The positive to take away from the last week is that after tomorrow night, Jose Mourinho should have a better idea of the mentality of this squad. All season, Mourinho’s been quick to point out that this side is different and is ready to win silverware. Last season, his Chelsea team did lack a bit of the killer mentality that his first team at Chelsea possessed, going as far as to doing the unthinkable – losing the league when in a commanding position. This squad is expected to not repeat that trick, though a bad result against Liverpool tomorrow night and a bad result against Manchester City on Saturday might have Mourinho questioning his squad’s mental toughness.
As far as Liverpool is concerned, they’re in a unique position as well. Brendan Rodgers’ men are not only coming off the draw in the first leg, but a draw at home on Saturday against Bolton where a near-full-strength Liverpool didn’t look anywhere near their best.
Going into the second leg, Rodgers must feel a tinge of regret. Before last Tuesday’s first leg, if you had offered a draw, even a score draw to Brendan Rodgers, he’d have happily taken it. However, after the match ended, Liverpool had to feel that they had missed an opportunity to strike a massive blow to the league leaders with a win at Anfield. As it stands, with a 1-1 aggregate score line and Chelsea having scored an away goal, the second leg should have a few twists and turns to speak about after the match.
Chelsea has to be the more positive side on Tuesday.
In the first leg away at Anfield, Mourinho did what Mourinho does. Generally, Jose Mourinho sets up to play a more defensive brand of football away, looking to not lose in the first leg and score a goal, but in the home leg often looks to play for the win. It’s what makes him one of the best at the two-legged tie and why he has so much success in knockout competitions.
However, as the match at Anfield unfolded last week, you can’t help but feel that this Chelsea side missed a trick. Liverpool were playing a bit better, but because of the numbers that they have to commit forward to play the attacking football that they did last season and the fact that they also are limited defensively, you can attack them if you play on the front foot.
Chelsea didn’t do that, and the relentless pressure in the second half could have seen them out of this tie after the first leg. While the defensive structure was good, Liverpool’s pressure made it difficult for the Blues to make decisive passes out of their own half and limited their counterattacking options.
In this leg, though, Chelsea cannot play for a 0-0 draw and expect go through. First of all, the away goal will only count after extra time, in a very bizarre Capital One Cup rule. Second of all, Liverpool don’t really have the ability to sit back and play a tighter, more defensive game, so you’re playing with fire if you try to absorb that pressure again for 90 minutes.
I expect that Chelsea will play a bit more on the front foot at home, and they’ll have to do so. If Liverpool do score first, it puts all sorts of pressure on the home side, especially after the events of this past weekend.
Jose Mourinho must resist the urge to play Nemanja Matic and John Obi Mikel in the center of midfield together, particularly against the 3-4-2-1 of Liverpool.
Mourinho played that combination in midfield against Liverpool in the first leg in an obvious effort to play on the counter and provide defensive cover. It was a combination that worked well for the Blues last season, and Mourinho has stuck with it so far this season in big matches.
However, against Liverpool’s system, Mikel and Matic as a pairing had their weaknesses a bit exposed. The way Liverpool play their three-man defence is that they play two playmakers behind Raheem Sterling, looking to get him in behind. They play Lucas and Jordan Henderson in behind, with Lucas given them that defensive protection and Henderson giving them energy. They also play an attacking fullback and Lazar Markovic, a winger who pushes forward, at wingbacks.
What played out was the redundancy of having two holding midfielders, neither of which really makes deep runs, and the number of quick attackers exploiting space caused the Blues to often get stuck in their own half and couldn’t get out. When Liverpool did lose possession, Sterling, Gerrard, and Coutinho would immediately press Matic and Mikel so they couldn’t find the forward ball. Likewise, Henderson and Lucas did a tremendous job in preventing Fabregas from finding the diagonal ball in behind the wingbacks. Without that option to play a short ball forward to a playmaker and with Mikel and Matic neither providing an option to burst forward, long balls over the top were tried and inevitably came right back at the defence.
If Mourinho persists with two defensive-minded midfielders in behind Fabregas to play on the counter, I believe he must play either Matic or Mikel and allow Ramires to play, in essence making the 4-2-3-1 into a 4-3-3 and give the holding midfielder an extra out ball. Without it, you effectively limit Eden Hazard and Diego Costa because neither really gets any service to do damage.
Willian is becoming a very frustrating player.
In recent weeks, you’re beginning to see why Mourinho is in the market for a right-sided midfielder. With Andre Schurrle struggling to break into the team, mostly due to his inability to concentrate for a full 90 minutes and the fact that he may be leaving this week, Willian has been the first choice on the right. While Willian gives you lots of endeavor and a great cover for Branislav Ivanovic when he makes forward runs, he also struggles to give you assists and goals and doesn’t do much to stretch the defence in wide areas.
That was evident in the first leg when Willian spent much of the match defending, not really seeing much of the ball, and when he did it was in central areas. And therein lies the problem. Against a three-man defence, the best way to attack it is to isolate the wingbacks and force them to defend a winger running at them. With Willian tucking inside, Alberto Moreno had free reign to bomb forward down the Liverpool left because there was no threat of needing to defend. It made it so that the only wide option was Hazard, and was largely pushed back by the advances of Markovic in helping Filipe Luis.
In addition, his lack of end product has seen him given a lot of space from defenders. The analogy is similar to basketball in this sense. When you have a player who isn’t a great shooter from distance, you can afford to stand off of him and help defend a more dangerous player because he’s not likely to score much from that area. Willian is in a similar situation. Teams have worked out that his end product isn’t great, so you can give him more time and space and help defend others. Unfortunately, with Schurrle and Mohamed Salah on the outs, Willian has to play. But he is a bit frustrating to watch.
If Emre Can plays at center back again, Chelsea must exploit him.
If anything positive came out of the first leg, it was that Liverpool showed one massive weakness: Emre Can’s ability to defend. Emre Can is a midfielder, not a center back, and it clearly showed in the first half. Every time anyone ran at him and had any support, Can ended up out of position and had to scramble.
That’s what happened for the penalty. Can tried to beat Fabregas to the ball on the byline, but as a center back in a three-man defence, you can’t sell out to win that first ball. It allowed Hazard to come in behind and when Can missed the first ball, he rushed back to stop Hazard and fouled him in the process.
Can is back there to play the ball out of defence in the absence of Kolo Toure. If you were to play Martin Skrtel, Mamadou Sakho, and Dejan Lovren as your defence, it makes it easy to press them into mistakes because none of them are comfortable on the ball. Can gives you that ball-playing option, but it also makes your back line more vulnerable. Three-man defences are hard to play because all three have to have good positional sense so that they’re not pulled apart by clever movement and gaps appear between the three. With Can back there, if you get behind Markovic, you can draw him out of position. If Chelsea set out to play more positively, that’s something they can exploit.