Chelsea demonstrate how to control a match without dominating possession.
Liverpool will regret their timid start to the FA Cup final as Chelsea left Wembley with the trophy for the third time in four years. With his side already 2-0 down, Andy Carroll came on to inspire a Liverpool comeback and was close to getting an equaliser that was rightly ruled to have not crossed the goal line.
The result means that, in spite of their early season troubles, Chelsea are on track for the most unlikely of doubles. With a European Cup final still to come, Roberto Di Matteo has shepherded Chelsea to an impressive season close.
Liverpool, on the other hand, now only have the Carling Cup trophy and a mid-table finish to show for their efforts this season but another cup win would have masked a disappointing league campaign somewhat. Liverpool’s American owners will likely review Kenny Dalglish’s position as manager in the close season. Were Dalglish to be relieved of his managerial duties at the end of the seas there is the director of football position vacated by Damien Comolli for him to gracefully step into.
Di Matteo went with his usual 4-2-3-1 shape. Saloman Kalou was selected on the left and Didier Drogba got the nod ahead of Fernando Torres up front. The rest of the line-up was as expected.
Dalglish went for a 4-2-3-1/4-3-3 formation with Luis Suarez as the lone striker supported by Stewart Downing and Craig Bellamy on the wings. Jay Spearing was to pick up Juan Mata, and Steven Gerrard and Jordan Henderson picked up John Obi Mikel and Frank Lampard further up the pitch.
Ramires goal aside, the first half was a tame and cautious affair. Chelsea were happy to sit back and let Liverpool have the ball and play on the break. They pretty much knew that Liverpool would beat themselves and that is basically what happened.
The Ramires goal on 11 minutes was a combination of three individual errors from Liverpool players. First Spearing’s sliced pass gave away possession. Then Jose Enrique instead of either pressing the ball aggressively to attempt to win the ball, or pressing passively to shepherd him in a straight line to deny him a shot on goal did, neither and was beaten far too easily. Finally Pepe Reina, in guessing that the shot would go across goal, went down too early and was beaten at his near post by a shot he should have saved. It was a poor goal to concede but Liverpool offered nothing at the other end of the pitch to suggest that they deserved better.
Gerrard, whether as part of a specific tactical ploy or as a part of his typical Roy of the Rovers mentality, was dropping deep to pick up possession and get involved with the play. The downside to this was that it left Suarez isolated and without support. To his credit, Dalglish noticed this and shuffled his midfield. Henderson moved to the right flank, Gerrard partnered Spearing in the centre, and Bellamy played off Suarez in a 4-4-1-1.
Having got the early lead, Chelsea remained content to sit off Liverpool and play on the counter. Liverpool ‘won’ the possession battle 62- 38% but Chelsea’s plan was never to contest possession as they demonstrated once more how a side can control a match without the ball. Liverpool focused most of their play down the left flank but Downing and Enrique were often wasteful in possession and misplaced passes under little pressure.
Even if a successful crossing opportunity was created there were not enough targets in the box. Suarez would often come short to get involved in the build-up play thus leaving no target in the centre. This is the odd part of Dalglish’s selection and something that has come up often throughout the season. Downing, the sides only ‘classic’ winger, and Carroll aren’t played in tandem. Suarez plays better with midfielders that are skilled at short sharp passing exchanges, such as Maxi Rodrigues, Bellamy or Kuyt. Carroll needs an out-and-out winger to supply him with crosses. Playing Downing with out Carroll, or vice-versa, is illogical and doesn’t get the best out of either.
Mata, who had a bright game, moved laterally off Drogba and found plenty of space as Spearing struggled to keep him quiet. Daniel Agger and Martin Skrtel dealt relatively well with Drogba although he managed to score with his only real chance of the match in the second half. At the other end, Suarez was kept quiet as Chelsea’s two central defenders meant that there was always cover for one to mark him tightly.
Liverpool’s performance, and the match as a whole, was divided into two parts. Before Carroll came on and after. 9 minutes after coming on, he scored the goal which got Liverpool back in the game. He seemed determined to make an impact. He put himself about well and even made tackles by tracking back.
This move also had the added effect of getting Suarez in the game. As mentioned earlier, he struggled with both Branislav Ivanovic and John Terry to beat and the addition of Carroll kept one occupied and opened up more space for Suarez to move into. Carroll went up against Ivanovic and Suarez challenged Terry. This was ideal for Liverpool as Carroll was much better than Ivanovic in the air and Suarez could exploit Terry’s lack of pace. As Ivanovic went forward to challenge Carroll in the air Terry would stay deep covering Suarez and vice-versa when played short into Suarez coming short into midfield. This had the effect of stretching Chelsea’s defence in a way that Liverpool had failed to do for the previous 60 or so minutes.
Hindsight would suggest that Dalglish should have started with Carroll but it was the 10 minutes after half-time which were crucial. Liverpool were going nowhere in the first-half and an immediate change was needed at the interval. In the time it took to bring Carroll on Drogba had made it 2-0 and the game was all but lost.
Not really a great tactical battle, Chelsea sat back and played counter-attacking football after grabbing the early lead. Liverpool dominated possession but never really looked all that threatening until the end. Chelsea, much like they had in the second leg against Barcelona (although under much less pressure against lesser opposition) demonstrated a team can control a match without possession. For all Liverpool’s possession their 17 attempts only yielded 4 on target. A sign of how Chelsea limited clear goal scoring chances and Liverpool’s continued inability to create them.