How Liverpool Manipulated Chelsea's Back Three
Very few games live up to the hype, but there is no doubt that the Chelsea versus Liverpool game on Sunday, more than lived up to the high expectations of the football world. It was a game where it seemed like both teams went out and played in the same manner that has made them successful. Neither gave each other the respect to change their systems and, because of this, we were treated to a game of high pressing, high intensity, and high levels of entertainment on both sides. Although neither team drastically changed from their tactical identity, they both seemed to pinpoint specific areas to attack their opponents and there were a couple of things that jumped out to me with how Liverpool broke down the Chelsea defense. If you enjoy this article, please subscribe to our YouTube page here where we share more session and tactical breakdowns.
Chelsea's pressing system was there for the first minute. You can see in the video below how forward Havertz combined with attacking midfielders Mount and Pulisic to pressure Liverpool in the build and prevent center backs from traveling with the ball. The wing-backs on the 'ball side' then pushed forward onto the Liverpool full-backs: in the case below, it was Alonso on Alexander Arnold. This forced Liverpool into longer passes both into and over their forward line. Chelsea have seen these pictures before and their back-three of Rudiger, Silva, and Chalobah seemed relatively comfortable in dealing with it.
With Chelsea's aggressive press and the nature of the high-tempo game, Liverpool's success, particularly in the first half, happened when they were able to secure possession higher up the pitch. This allowed them to create and take advantage of rotations that are extremely difficult to utilize during a press. It's in these moments where you can potentially manipulate the Chelsea back-line because of their willingness to follow runners pulling into lower positions and 'jump' on entry passes. Below is a picture of what this looks like tactically. You can see the defender has tracked the run from the forward and can step in and pressure, to restrict them playing forward. In order for this to happen however: a key detail must take place for Tuchel it seems. The defensive line must have a numerical advantage so that a defender who leaves the space, does not create an overload or an unfavorable 1v1 situation. That picture here is created by the central defender being free.
In Chelsea's previous game against Brighton, their opponents looked to manipulate a similar area when they built with a back-three. You can see the video below how right-sided defender Azpilicueta, tracks the initial run from the forward into midfield on the Brighton's left side, closing down the space and forcing Brighton backwards to re-circulate possession. As they move to the other side, a similar picture occurs when this happens as left-sided defender Rudiger also steps into midfield. The difference on the other side however, is that Chelsea attacking midfielder, Callum Hudson-Odoi is beaten by Brighton defender Ivo Veltman, and this gives the trigger for Brighton wing-back Tariq Lamptey to spin into the space and create a shot on goal.
When Liverpool assistant coach Pepijn Lijnders appeared on the TV cameras in the 8th minute, he appeared to be signaling to the Liverpool front players to 'come into the space' that they were creating with their possession in Chelsea's half of the pitch. Within seconds, Liverpool timed the movement to perfection and Diogo Jota moves into the space ahead of Rudiger and Silva and has space to turn. Although the long pass to Sane is unsuccessful, Chalobah fails to clear the ball and Mane's pressure earns him an opportunity to score the opening goal. Below you can see the moment where Lijnders seems to point out the movement of Jota that freezes Silva and Rudiger.
Why did Rudiger or Silva not track the run to prevent Diogo Jota from receiving and turning in such a dangerous area? Going back to one of our initial point's about Chelsea's defenders 'jumping' on passes into forwards who dropped into deep positions, they did not have a defensive overload on the back line, so if any defenders 'jumped out' they were left without potential cover. You only have to watch the speed and aggression in which Chelsea regain their defensive shape in transitional moments to realize just how much they value that cover. With Mo Salah on the outside shoulder of Rudiger and Mane in a similar position against Chalobah, Thiago Silva stepping would open a huge space for either Liverpool forward to sprint into.
Below is a perfect example of how this movement caused moments of uncertainty in the Chelsea defense. It comes from a Liverpool throw-in and you can see how Sadio Mane engages three players with his movement. Initially he starts between wing-back Azpilicueta and right defender Chalobah. However, as the throw is delayed you can see that Jota and Mane now work together to manipulate the positioning of Thiago Silva. It appears that Silva will mark Jota at first, but when Mane threatens to go in behind and drags Chalobah across, it looks like Silva then re-considers his positioning and choses to stay in the defensive line. An unmarked Jota then drops into space and picks up possession from the throw-in and, although he did not opt to turn and play forward, it does give us an insight into potential solutions that Liverpool tried to create. One of the benefits of having a throw-in coach, Thomas Gronnemark, is that you may develop ways to introduce these types of movements from throws, as well as traditional build-up scenarios.
Liverpool's second goal was another example of manipulating the space around the left side of Chelsea's back three, although this was more of a case of in behind it (similar to the Brighton clip) than in front of it. The ball is played from Trent Alexander-Arnold to Mo Salah, which causes Rudiger to go out and close down the Liverpool attacker. With the Chelsea back-three stretched, Jordan Henderson sprints into the space that Rudiger vacated. Although Kovacic tracks Hendersons run and Alonso also recovers into a defensive position, it appears that Chelsea switch off for a split second, that allows Salah to sprint in and take advantage. The ball from Alexander-Arnold and the finish from Salah are first class, but it shows the levels of concentration required to defend at this level and against a team like Liverpool in particular.
Was coaching the key to this with Pepijn Lijnders signaling to Liverpool forward specifically when to drop into that space? It's very hard to tell. Attacking rotations in general are quite difficult to implement. However, the higher the tempo of the game and the more transitional it is in nature, the more challenging it is. This game had a lot of excitement and intrigue from a viewer's perspective, but the most impressive thing for me is the quality and the detail of these types of movements, alongside the frantic nature of the game. Finally, the rotations do not create the goal as much as they simply create an opportunity to play forward in a yard or two of space. There is still a lot of work to be done by players like Jota, Salah, and Mane.... not to mention the recovery speed of the Chelsea defenders when a window does open up. That's what makes it even more impressive from a coaching perspective.
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