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EPL 2016/17: How Liverpool neutralised Chelsea in the victory at Stamford Bridge

LONDON, ENGLAND - SEPTEMBER 16: Sadio Mane of Liverpool and Jurgen Klopp, Manager of Liverpool celbrate victory in  the Premier League match between Chelsea and Liverpool at Stamford Bridge on September 16, 2016 in London, England.  (Photo by Clive Rose/Getty Images)
Klopp’s team have been in exciting form this season

Jurgen Klopp’s hugs are much loved by fans and the internet. On Friday night, after the final whistle, the Liverpool manager could be seen striding out onto the Stamford Bridge pitch and throwing his arms around everyone in a red shirt in a most unrestrained display of pure ecstasy.

It is the kind of hug a best friend gleefully bestows on the other once they take their first sip of alcohol. It communicates the sense of pride felt at the magnitude of such an achievement.

Liverpool’s players had deserved it too. Travelling to the home of the undefeated Chelsea, already in the mix for the title, is always challenging, yet here Liverpool made the home side look blunt and uninspired, and came away with a 1-2 win.

These are three precious points earned against the league’s early pacesetters, and the Reds’ performance was commendable. Keeping Chelsea at bay and picking holes in their strategy is no mean feat, and the Blues only found something of a voice once Liverpool were out of sight.

Stand off, get punished

There was a second Chelsea debut for David Luiz, replacing John Terry in the heart of the Chelsea defence. Liverpool, meanwhile, retained Daniel Sturridge in the starting XI, but Roberto Firmino was replaced by Philippe Coutinho.

Lining up in a 4-1-4-1 formation, Chelsea fell back on the edge of their box to clamp down on the space Liverpool could use between the lines. This would ordinarily have worked – as the Reds’ passing was not slow and methodical but sharp and biting – due to the suffocation of space within a 25-yard radius of the Chelsea goal, but two things aided the visitors’ pursuit of a goal here.

Faced with stern defences on a regular basis does that to a team, and Liverpool continued to expand play down the flanks in the manner that worked so well against Leicester –at times, Coutinho and Nathaniel Clyne were almost touchline-hugging wingers.

Sadio Mane shifted into an inside right position this time, and the attackers were joined by the marauding James Milner from left back.

LONDON, ENGLAND - SEPTEMBER 16:  A bloody David Luiz of Chelsea looks on during the Premier League match between Chelsea and Liverpool at Stamford Bridge on September 16, 2016 in London, England.  (Photo by Shaun Botterill/Getty Images)
Luiz made his second debut for Chelsea

Secondly, playing in two banks of four – or even in the shape of the letter ‘I’, with N’Golo Kante as the vertical line joining the two horizontal ones – left a lot of space in front of the Chelsea players for Liverpool’s deeper midfielders to take advantage of.

A lack of pressure was telling; Liverpool’s two goals came about from roughly the same zone of the pitch – Coutinho’s cross, Jordan Henderson’s staggering missile strike – in front of the two Chelsea lines where they were not closed down quickly enough.

A lack of creativity from deeper midfield is a problem for Liverpool that has not quite gone away, but here they fully exploited the space and time they created and were afforded on the ball.

Chelsea, for their part, was unable to stem the flow of red in the first half, although it’s worth noting that Liverpool completed the game with lesser possession and only sporadic clear-cut opportunities in the initial 45 minutes.

Blunt tools

Chelsea, for their part, seemed crude at first. Liverpool’s pressing was ferocious right off the bat; it was a big reason why the Blues were on to the backfoot, but there was a real danger that they would exhaust their energies too quickly.

Whatever the inherent risks, the tactic worked. Chelsea often resorted to whistling long passes in the general direction of Eden Hazard, while Diego Costa was forced to make a fire out of twigs with his back to goal. Liverpool kept firmly on top by the time the first half ended, their goals safely banked and primed to take all three points.

It seemed like Antonio Conte’s delayed action formula was rendered ineffectual by its central quality – delay. A triple substitution towards the end of the game was perhaps the most egregious example, although to be fair, his half time team talk identified the problems and sought to rectify them. Chelsea stepped up much further in the second half, closing the Liverpool players down, finding their passes more accurately.

Their pressing applied more forcefully, the home team pulled one goal back through Costa, a neat stab past Simon Mignolet after a four-stage defensive breakdown that began with Henderson and Adam Lallana, and concluded with overcommitment from Joel Matip and under commitment from Dejan Lovren.

Yet this was the sum of their labours. Costa’s daisy cutter at Mignolet aside, the home side seemed strangely subdued. They improved significantly after the break and forced the visitors into their shell, but in truth, Chelsea never looked too threatening after Costa’s goal.

Having played some lightning football in the first half, Liverpool switched to gritty defending of their one-goal lead and hoofed clearances, an aspect of the game that even some fans thought them ill-equipped for. It worked, as Liverpool smartly closed out their second victory at Stamford Bridge in as many seasons.

Lions and tigers

It is perhaps more than a little churlish to Chelsea to claim that Liverpool’s real test is in a week’s time against Hull City. Now with seven points from three games against last season’s top three, Liverpool have proved themselves capable of matching the division’s glamour sides.

It is against sides like the Tigers, not as technically gifted but with enough grim resistance to outlast a siege, that the Merseysiders are reintroduced to their old friends – sterile possession and defensive errors.

Momentum is a beautiful thing to have in football, though, and Liverpool’s confidence will be soaring after such a big win.

If it is indeed mental qualities rather than football ones that could prove decisive in this tie, then the Reds’ self-belief could overpower Hull’s quiet hopes for a repeat of the Burnley episode and an upset.

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Edited by Staff Editor
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