Jurgen Klopp's far-post plan pays off in Liverpool draw vs. Chelsea
Chelsea earned a point at Anfield on Tuesday to go nine points clear at the top, having produced a robust defensive display that kept Liverpool at bay for large spells.
Antonio Conte tweaked the shape of his 3-4-3 system so that Eden Hazard did not have to track back too often, freeing him up to roam and link up with Diego Costa. With the visitors keeping a compact shape, Liverpool had possession but few chances in the opening stages.
It did not help Jurgen Klopp that Sadio Mane was deemed ready only for the bench after returning from the African Nations Cup, nor that David Luiz had smacked home a quickly taken free kick in the first period.
Klopp had tried to destabilise Chelsea with his high-octane 4-3-3, but only in the second half did his players produce the precision required to break through.
When Georginio Wijnaldum equalised, he did so via a move Liverpool attempted several times in the second period; a far-post cross from outside the box. Chelsea nearly replied when Diego Costa won a penalty, but he missed it, leaving Conte with mixed emotions.
Conte tweak hinders Liverpool
As ever with Chelsea, their three-man defence presented an intriguing match-up between contrasting systems. Facing a 4-3-3, the orthodox solution for Conte may have been to use his usual 5-4-1 in the defensive phase and have his wingers mark the Liverpool full-backs, leaving five defenders to pick up the forward trio.
But that would have left Chelsea with one man fewer in two zones of the pitch: up front and in central midfield. Besides, Hazard would never be likely to track Nathaniel Clyne all game. And so Conte made a subtle change.
On the right, things worked as normal, with Willian following James Milner and Cesar Azpilicueta picking up Philippe Coutinho. But on the left, Hazard stayed closer to Joel Matip, the right-sided centre-back, while Marcos Alonso pushed up on Clyne. Meanwhile the rest of the defensive line shuffled across to mark the three forwards, while N'Golo Kante and Nemanja Matic protected the centre-backs. Chelsea now matched Liverpool more equally across the pitch, while Hazard could spend more of his energy going forward.
That plan left Liverpool struggling to convert their dominance and intensity into clear chances. Roberto Firmino alternated between coming short and working the channels, but David Luiz tracked him well. The space between the lines in which Coutinho and Adam Lallana were supposed to work was often crowded and squeezed.
And so at half-time, Liverpool had only produced one shot -- Wijnaldum's 20-yard effort -- and pulled off two dribbles, both near the halfway line. Looking at their successful passes, you could make out exactly which area Chelsea had set out to protect.
Hazard given more freedom
Yet Chelsea had not produced much either. Liverpool pressed well and the visitors were often unable to attack coherently. One clear strategy, however, was to move Hazard close to Costa for quick combinations.
The defensive tweak mentioned above was useful here, because it enabled Hazard to take up more adventurous positions when Chelsea broke. The same was true in more established play and, midway through the first half, Hazard raced forward and got fouled by Lallana outside the box. Up stepped David Luiz, who caught Simon Mignolet off guard with a dipping shot.
Hazard would continue to threaten in similar zones, while Alonso made ball recoveries far upfield.
Klopp's far-post plan pays off
The goal presented Liverpool with a huge challenge and when Firmino missed a sitter just after the interval, Klopp may have wonder how many more such chances would come their way.
But the manager did seem to have spotted a gap to exploit. In a spell in the second half, Liverpool tried no fewer than four crosses from the right side towards the back post. This added to an attempt earlier, when Emre Can had swung in a ball that Azpilicueta had cleared ahead of Milner.
Perhaps Klopp had noted that Dele Alli had popped up in this exact zone to head home twice when Tottenham beat Chelsea earlier in January. He might also have wondered whether Victor Moses, a natural winger, would lack defensive awareness.
Either way, it worked. On 57 minutes, Jordan Henderson whipped a cross in behind Moses, where an unmarked Milner headed back across goal for Wijnaldum to convert. Just three minutes later, Henderson put in a similar ball just out of reach for Lallana and Can. The next ball in came five minutes later, this time from Clyne, while on 71 minutes, Henderson's delivery was again too long for Can.
After the game, Klopp confirmed that this zone had been a deliberate target. "This space where we scored the goal, we wanted to have more crosses," he said.
Long balls to Costa cause trouble
Still, Klopp was not the only manager who had spotted weaknesses. Conte knew his side would be forced into long balls at times, so he instructed his players to look for Costa. Most of the passes were harmless and few got Costa involved in the passing game, but it would take only one blip for him to pounce.
Before the main incident, Matip had looked shaky. He had once fouled Costa on the break, then gifted possession to Hazard two minutes later. Five minutes from half-time, he gave the ball to Hazard once more, while early in the second half, another one of his clearances flew to Hazard as if attracted by magnetic force. The Belgian proceeded to set up Willian, whose pass to Moses was mistimed.
It was defensive work that convinced nobody and, on 76 minutes, Matip erred again. Moses sent a familiar long ball towards to Costa, who shook off Dejan Lovren and ran into the box where Matip tripped him. Costa missed the penalty, with Hazard, the usual first-choice taker, having been brought off minutes earlier. Both teams had chances to win it after that, but a draw did not seem unfair.
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