Tactics Board: Ludicrously high defensive lines lead to chances galore as Kelleher shines again

Shane Keegan breaks down Liverpool’s 2-2 draw with Chelsea at Stamford Bridge.

LAST UPDATE | 4 Jan 2022


HIGH DEFENSIVE LINES, continuous turnovers and moments of individual brilliance were the order of the day at Stamford Bridge on Sunday as Chelsea and Liverpool served up an enthralling game that ultimately ended in disappointment for both would-be title challengers.

london-uk-2nd-jan-2022-christian-pulisic-of-chelsea-attempts-to-round-caoimhin-kelleher-of-liverpool-and-fails-during-the-premier-league-match-at-stamford-bridge-london-picture-credit-should-rea Liverpool goalkeeper Caoimhin Kelleher saves from Chelsea's Christian Pulisic. Alamy Stock Photo Alamy Stock Photo

Ludicrously high defensive lines lead to turnovers and chances galore

When two of the best teams in the league both show signs from the off that they intend to defend with a high defensive line then you know you’re in for a cracker.

Below, we see an image from the fourth minute that gives an early indication of just how crazy this game was going to be.

As Thiago Silva opens up to play a wide diagonal pass, we can see that the backlines of both teams are not much more than the width of the centre circle apart from each other.

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Inevitably, this led to a situation where there was very little time on the ball for either team, with possession being overturned no less than 220 times.

Both sides’ centre midfielders were constantly under pressure, though Chelsea’s players were certainly far better to adapt, with N’Golo Kante (86% pass completion) and Mateo Kovacic (90% pass completion) having excellent games.

Liverpool, on the other hand, finished the match with a season-low 77% pass completion rate as both Jordan Henderson (70% pass competition) and James Milner (63% pass competition) struggled with the pace of things.

Thou shall not drop deep

One of the first points you are taught when you go on coaching courses is that a defence can only attempt to hold a line when there is pressure on the ball. The reasonable theory is that otherwise it is too easy for the player in possession to find the space in behind.

This rule seemed to go out the window in this game as time and again both defensive lines refused to drop off.

Here is one of the earliest examples of it. Kovacic is allowed to fire his diagonal pass over the head of Kostas Tsimikas for Cesar Azpilicueta to run onto.

His cut back then finds Mason Mount but credit to Milner, who makes up a lot of ground to get back around and to block.

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The high lines both sides were adopting meant that goalscoring opportunities could swing from one team to the other very quickly.

Below, we see an example of this when Thiago Silva takes a risk by stepping out from the back to receive a throw before playing a pass to Christian Pulisic.

Again, we can see how high both defensive lines are. Had Pulisic been quicker to get the ball out from under his feet and managed to release Marcos Alonso then he could have been in on goal.

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Instead though, Henderson nicks it away from him in the direction of Trent Alexander-Arnold, who is immediately able to put Mohamed Salah through at the other end.

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Trevoh Chalobah, though guilty of initially playing Salah onside, gets across to make a superb covering tackle in what was a 3 v 1 situation.

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The chaos of the first half was perfectly encapsulated in the lead-up to Chelsea’s equalising goal. In the 25 seconds that proceeded the American’s strike, possession changed hands on no less than ten occasions.

Kante, who provided the assist, found himself in an advanced position not because of any clever off-the-ball movement but rather due to his constant chasing of the ball during the transitions.

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Those transitions had also helped to create a gap so big between Konate and Virgil van Dijk that both Mount and Pulisic were lining up to take advantage of it. It was the latter who capitalised and finished brilliantly.

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Salah capitalises on right-side rotation

Amid all the anarchy of the first half, it is worth noting the one phase of real quality.

Liverpool’s second goal came via a pattern of play that they have created on numerous occasions this season.

Alexander-Arnold, Henderson and Salah have developed an understanding down the right-hand side that allows the three to regularly rotate and take up each other’s positions.

Looking at this frame below, ordinarily you would expect the midfielder to be the one near the centre circle, the right-back to be the wide player on the ball and the forward to be the one in the inside channel.

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By rotating these roles in the manner that Liverpool have done here, the opposition’s players get drawn into unfamiliar positions as we can see below.

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Then it is about having the quality to exploit the situation and there are no two better men than Alexander-Arnold and Salah to do so.

The Egyptian genius conned both Alonso and Edouard Mendy before finding the net.

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Second half changes take the sting out of the game

Given the chaotic nature of the first half, it was somewhat of a surprise that neither manager looked to make any half-time changes in an effort to exert more control on proceedings.

Instead, the game continued in a similar vein to the first half. Liverpool again exploited the space in behind the Chelsea rear-guard when Fabinho slid a pass in behind, but the offside Mane wasn’t clever enough to leave the ball to Salah and the opportunity was passed up.

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Then Liverpool continued to try and hold their high line despite the lack of pressure on the ball, allowing Kai Havertz and Alonso to combine to set up Pulisic again.

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Only a fantastic save from Irish goalkeeper Caoimhin Kelleher, who was superb once again, denied him his second goal of the game.

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It seemed to be a case of which team would blink first when it came to the changes and in the end they both blinked at the same time.

In the 70th minute, Liverpool brought on Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and Naby Keita and withdrew Milner, and more tellingly Diogo Jota, as they looked to seize control for the remainder of the game.

Chelsea immediately reacted with the introduction of Jorginho. And that was effectively that. We now had a completely different game, played out at a far more pedestrian pace with the only half-chances coming from set pieces.


Thomas Tuchel will have been marginally the happier of the managers when the final whistle went. His Chelsea side had the greater possession (56%), the better of the xG battle (1.78 v 1.12) and showed a lot of fight to come back from two goals down.

With Manchester City and Tottenham to come in their next two league fixtures, further tests await and all the while the Romelu Lukaku situation lingers in the background.

Liverpool, meanwhile, are struggling to find the right balance in wide area at the minute. Their full-backs continue to be lethal weapons going forward but are getting found out defensively more than ever at the minute.

Would Klopp contemplate a switch to three centre-backs?

The title race may be as good as over for both these sides but you still get the feeling that it wouldn’t take a whole lot to go right for either of them to end up back in a Champions League final this year.

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