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Tactical Analysis: Chelsea 1-2 Liverpool

Liverpool withstood an inspired second-half performance from Chelsea to come away with all three points in a 2-1 victory at Stamford Bridge. The Reds remain five points clear of second-place Manchester City, while Frank Lampard can be satisfied with an impressive display from his team, even if they had nothing to show for it. 

Jurgen Klopp set his side up in their classic 4-3-3, with full-backs Andrew Robertson and Trent Alexander-Arnold given license to push forward, with the energetic midfield three of Fabinho, Georginio Wijnaldum, and Jordan Henderson plugging the gaps and assisting in attack as well.

Chelsea reverted to their own 4-3-3 after playing three at the back against Wolves, with Mason Mount and N’golo Kante making the starting XI despite injury concerns. Willian was favored over Pedro and new signing Christian Pulisic, whilst in-form striker Tammy Abraham led the line. 

The first fifteen minutes were fairly even and neither side truly established a foothold. Yet Liverpool’s relentless intensity and energy that have become fixtures of their performances under Klopp were eventually rewarded, after a surging run from Fabinho and a quick pass into Sadio Mane led to a foul by Andreas Christensen just outside the box. A free-kick from that close is normally not the prime position for ordinary teams. Yet as we all know by now, Liverpool are no ordinary team. A clever backheel from Mohamed Salah set up a thunderous strike from Trent Alexander-Arnold that left Kepa Arrizabalaga helpless and the visitors a goal to the good. 

Chelsea’s resolve after conceding was admirable. They dominated possession, quelled Liverpool’s front three, and created a golden opportunity for Tammy Abraham that he should have dispatched. They were especially effective once Marcos Alonso replaced the injured Emerson.

While less solid defensively, the Spaniard provided Chelsea with much needed attacking impetus from full-back. With Alexander-Arnold playing his usual aggressive attacking role, Alonso was able to take up an advanced position on the left in the space vacated by the young Englishman, stretching the Liverpool defence and serving as a constant out ball for Chelsea. For a sustained period, their pressing was effective, their passing was fluid, and they were seemingly in control against the European champions. 

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Yet a disallowed VAR goal after Cesar Azpilicuetahad found the net from close-range changed the complexion of the first half. VAR’s introduction into the Premier League has been controversial, to say the least. Yet if its interlude in this fixture showed anything, it was that an overturned goal can completely change the course of a match. Chelsea suddenly descended from resounding optimism to meek helplessness, and it allowed Liverpool to re-establish their dominance and control over the game. To add insult to injury, a foul by none other than the Chelsea skipper himself and another clever set-piece routine led to Roberto Firmino doubling Liverpool’s lead before the end of the half. 

Chelsea began the second half with renewed vitality and energy, yet there was a prevailing sense that through all of Chelsea’s promising attacking play, it was Liverpool who was controlling the game. Their high line routinely caught Chelsea off guard, their aerial prowess kept crosses and set pieces at bay, and the confidence that is seemingly ever-present in the Liverpool squad made it seem that they were simply managing the game as any experienced, mature side would.  

To compound Chelsea’s problems, it was unclear if anyone would be able to generate their spark in attack. Tammy Abraham had already missed a golden opportunity, Mount and Willian each had their moments but both failed to consistently penetrate the Liverpool backline, and Lampard had limited options to change their attacking style with two of his substitutions being used to replace injured defenders. It appeared that nobody in an inexperienced and developing team would be able to be the hero Chelsea needed.

Enter N’golo Kante. The man who Lampard said may not even be in the starting XI, who was playing in his so-called second-best position, was the man who found his inner Lionel Messi to give Chelsea hope. A sensational run followed by an unorthodox finish made the Frenchman the man on everybodies lips and reminded Premier League fans of the quality he possesses. He was a vital presence throughout the game, helping Chelsea to keep possession ticking, assisting in their pressing, and providing the defensive solidity he has become an emblem of in recent years. Yet his efforts were to no avail. Missed opportunities by Mount and Michy Batshuayi left the Blues second best against England’s in-form team. 

It says a lot about Liverpool that in a game in which their front three were given little chance to shine and they failed to score a goal from open play, they were able to beat a top-six side away from home. Such is the resilience and coherence of Klopp’s raging machine, that looks on course for a first league title in the Premier League era.

There are no doubts positives for Chelsea, who appear to be in a much better place than their other top-six rivals and are still in the early stages of their development. Yet it remained clear that for all of Chelsea’s youth and imagination, it’s Liverpool’s tenacity and maturity that reigns supreme. 

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