Saturday, July 2, 2022

Chelsea 0-0 Liverpool (5-6 pens.): Talking points as Liverpool complete cup double

Veselin Trajkovic in Editorial, FA Cup 15 May 2022

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Liverpool have completed the cup double in English football this season with another win over Chelsea. This time it was the final of the FA Cup, played at Wembley on Saturday.

It was an intense match which both teams approached with a clear plan on how to best tackle the opponent, and in the end, it was another contest resolved by the finest of margins.

The plans

There isn’t much to say about Liverpool when it comes to the way they played. Even though there was no Fabinho providing protection for the back four while Mohamed Salah was replaced after half and hour with what seemed like a groin issue, it was Liverpool as we know it; a team striving to dominate possession and keep the line of battle as close to the opposition goal as possible.

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On the other hand, Chelsea appeared to have taken a good look at how Tottenham Hotspur avoided defeat at Anfield a week earlier, and arranged in the same 3-4-3 system, they mostly defended, relinquishing possession and sought to strike on the counterattack.

The exception was the third quarter of the game, the first 20 minutes of the second half, when Thomas Tuchel’s men tried to catch Liverpool off-guard and came out swinging after the break. The Blues had several good opportunities in that period, but then the Reds re-established control and pushed them back again.

Chances wasted

Chelsea could’ve won this game in regular time, as much as Liverpool at least, with Christian Pulisic, Marcos Alonso, Romelu Lukaku all coming close on several occasions. The same can be said of Luis Diaz, Diogo Jota, Andy Robertson, Naby Keita and Thiago Alcantara at the other end.

But what needs to be stressed as well is that both goalkeepers, Alisson Becker and Edouard Mendy, performed at the highest level and bailed their teams out several times with fantastic saves.

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Diaz was particularly dangerous for Liverpool, frequently getting the better of Trevoh Chalobah who was mostly left to deal with the Colombian winger on his own. Diaz missed the target by mere inches a few times and prompted one superb save from Mendy, but the best chance of the game fell to Robertson in the 84th minute as he latched onto an accurate cross by substitute James Milner, but all the Liverpool left-back managed to do at a full run from a tight angle was to slam the ball into the post from three or four yards.

As for Chelsea, Pulisic and Alonso had their arguably best chances, but while Alonso lost a one-on-one with Alisson and hit the crossbar from a free-kick, the American winger pulled several low efforts from promising positions narrowly wide.

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So even though the game ended goalless after 120 minutes, it was very exciting throughout and the contest could’ve swung either way.

Questions for Tuchel

There are a few questions to which it would be nice to hear the answers from the Chelsea boss.

Firstly, Timo Werner. The former RB Leipzig forward, who was reportedly close to joining Liverpool before he ended up at Stamford Bridge and spoke highly of the Merseysiders ahead of this clash, was left on the bench and wasn’t called upon at all.

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With his team setting up defensively for a large part of the game and hitting mostly through counterattacks, the pace of Werner, along with his knack for playing against high defensive lines, would arguably come in very useful from the start. But if Tuchel chose to go with Mount and Pulisic – also good options – he could’ve introduced Werner late on to have a go at the tired legs of the Liverpool defence. And yet, he didn’t, and it’s not easy to understand why.

The changes the 48-year-old did make in his attacking line were eyebrow raising calls as well. With five minutes of regular time left, he pulled out Lukaku and sent on Hakim Ziyech, a change that perhaps did appear to make sense at first. Lukaku’s usually formidable physicality was of no avail against Virgil van Dijk or Ibrahima Konate – both Liverpool centre-backs are just as big and strong, and obviously quicker than the Belgian striker. Pulisic was shifted to the central role with Ziyech on the right, though this new trio was interchangeable in that aspect.

Klopp on the other hand replaced Van Dijk with Joel Matip for the extra-time, and maybe that was what prompted Tuchel to put another big man upfront. But with Lukaku now out of the picture, the only possibility to do that was to have midfielder Ruben Loftus-Cheek playing out of position, so that’s what Tuchel did for the last 15 minutes, withdrawing Pulisic to make way.

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Loftus-Cheek proved less efficient upfront than Lukaku, and in the end, he too made way for Ross Barkley, having spent just 13 minutes on the pitch. It was obviously a substitution with the penalty shootout in mind, and Barkley was indeed one of the successful takers later, but the experiment was overall a baffling one and it’s hard to imagine Loftus-Cheek being too happy about it.

Liverpool, Jurgen Klopp and Trent Alexander-Arnold

Klopp was appointed as the Liverpool manager back in October 2015, and for the rest of that season, he had little choice but to play Alberto Moreno on the left defensive flank, while Nathaniel Clyne, excellent at the time, covered the right.

At the start of the following campaign, the German tactician tried out a new idea, benching Moreno and putting midfielder James Milner into the team as the left-back. Milner was unsurprisingly good in the role, taking his already proven versatility to a new level.

But as the clash against Manchester United set to take place at Old Trafford on January 15th, 2017, approached, Clyne picked up an injury and left Klopp in a dilemma. The manager could’ve easily chosen to shift Milner to the right and give Moreno a chance, but instead, he chose to keep Milner on the left and call on 18-year-old Trent Alexander-Arnold to start in what is still the fiercest rivalry in England.

Fast forward five years and four months, and at the age of 23, Alexander-Arnold has now completed the set of four trophies which every player in English club football dreams of – the Premier League, the Champions League, the League Cup and the FA Cup. That’s not even counting the UEFA Super Cup and the FIFA Club World Cup.

Not only has he won all that, but he’s won it all as one of the vital players in the team, thriving the role of creativity Klopp has put on his fullbacks. At the moment, only his teammate Mo Salah has more assists in the Premier League this season than him.

The rise of Alexander-Arnold obviously coincides with Liverpool’s resurrection under Klopp, and it’s not really to be wondered at, given everything we’ve seen in the last five years. He has often been criticized for his defending, but the situations frequently perceived as his ‘mistakes’ stem from his involvement far up the pitch, which sometimes gets his caught out of position when the opponent launches a counterattack. After all, no man can be in two places at once.

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But this match was a good example of how effective Alexander-Arnold can really be. He contributed a lot at both ends of the pitch with plenty of dangerous crosses which gave Chelsea problems, as well as a number of defensive one-on-one situations and vital clearances which he resolved in a way reminiscent of Van Dijk.

There can be no doubt that we’re looking at a generational talent, a player destined to become a great Liverpool captain when that time comes. And if there’s anyone he should thank for that, apart from himself, it’s Klopp.

The penalties

As Geir Jordet, a Norwegian football psychology consultant, perceived, there was a lot to be read into regarding the way the two managers spoke to their players between the final whistle after the extra-time and the taking of the first penalty. A shootout after 120 minutes is obviously a psychological affair, a contest of focus endurance if you will, or a battle of nerves, to use the most frequent phrase.

Klopp appeared to have already made his selection regarding the five takers and he informed each of them individually, away from the group, ending the talk by giving each a trademark ‘Klopp hug’ to show no sign of blame if anything should go wrong. Then the huddle was formed, in which he spoke to his players with passion, but briefly.

Tuchel, on the other hand, entered the players’ huddle when Liverpool’s was already broken apart, still looking indecisively as he repeatedly checked his notes. It seemed he told each of the players he eventually chose to shoot in front of the entire group, with every remaining member of the team staring at the face of the each player named. It certainly wouldn’t have done anything good in terms of the pressure.

In the end, it was Cesar Azpilicueta who hit the post and would’ve been the culprit for his team’s defeat, had not Mendy saved his skin along with the penalty taken by his own international captain, Sadio Mane. But the Senegalese goalkeeper simply couldn’t do the same for Mason Mount, whose penalty Alisson saved before Kostas Tsimikas put his own into the back of the net to win it for Liverpool.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Veselin Trajkovic


Vesko is a football writer that likes to observe the game for what it is, focusing on teams, players and their roles, formations, tactics, rather than stats. He follows the English Premier League closely, Liverpool FC in particular. His articles have been published on seven different football blogs.

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