Sunday's 4pm kick off sees two Premier League title contenders going head-to-head in a game that neither side can afford to lose.
Liverpool will be desperate to bounce back from their narrow defeat at the Etihad by beating Chelsea. Whilst Chelsea beat Swansea 1-0, they were not convincing in the slightest. Despite remaining in the title race, they definitely need to re-affirm their credentials with a strong showing on Sunday.
Chelsea rung the changes in their victory over Swansea and reverted to a 4-2-3-1 formation, but we can expect them to recall a number of first-team players and move to a more defensive 4-3-3 formation, such as the one deployed against Arsenal.
Liverpool should field a similar side that went close at the Etihad mid-week in a loose variant of a 4-3-3 or even 4-3-2-1 formation. Luis Suarez, Philippe Coutinho and Raheem Sterling should make up the front three with potentially the same starting eleven, given that the squad is somewhat thin. Steven Gerrard remains out through injury, again limiting options for Brendan Rodgers in midfield.
A pragmatic Chelsea
Against Arsenal, Chelsea went for a pragmatic approach. Recent weeks have seen them concede goals far too frequently (including six goals in a week versus Sunderland and Stoke) and as such Jose Mourinho opted for a defensive 4-3-3, or arguably 4-5-1. Knowing that Liverpool will come to attack, we will likely see a similar pragmatic, counter-attacking set-up adopted by Chelsea. In the below graphic, that shows the average positions of Chelsea's players versus Arsenal we can see this clearly:
Chelsea's three midfielders (12, 7 and 8) are all very close together, with Eden Hazard (17) also tucked in into a relatively defensive role. The centre-backs are also in quite deep positions as was left-back Cesar Azpilicueta (28). Highlighting the will to break on the counter, rather than dictate the tempo as they had tried to do in the 4-2-3-1 that had seen them leak too many goals of late. Chelsea’s approach was simply to contain and to break.
Against Liverpool's attacking set-up this might be the best strategy, as only three clubs in the Premier League have averaged more possession per game than Liverpool. Chelsea then will let Liverpool have the ball and look to break with Eden Hazard out wide to exploit gaps that are created when Liverpool press onto Chelsea. Playing in their 4-2-3-1 formation would simply leave far too much space in the midfield for Liverpool to exploit and thus the three man midfield will almost certainly be deployed by Jose Mourinho.
The use of width
How each side uses width will be vital. Chelsea will have to have width provided by their full-backs to an extent, but in a 4-3-3 Eden Hazard will act as an outlet out wide left for when Chelsea break. As we saw against Arsenal, Azpilicueta was used in a reserved role whilst Branislav Ivanovic at right back gets forward as an outlet for long balls. Both Hazard and Oscar will want to cut inside and get close to the front man.
Liverpool opt for a different strategy. The full-backs will push high up the field to act as outlets for the side when the midfield gets congested. Raheem Sterling has had a run in the side in one of the wide roles of late and looks to be returning to good form. Luis Suarez, despite starting as the centre-forward, will cause Chelsea's defence a lot of problems through the way he peels off onto the flanks and gets into the space between the centre-backs and full-backs. Philippe Coutinho gets on the ball and will try to thread passes into these areas to set Suarez off. The lack of pace of John Terry and Gary Cahill may be a cause for concern in these types of battles.
Generally Chelsea's wide men will have to work hard as a 4-5-1 when Chelsea aren't on the ball in order to prevent the full-backs being overloaded by Liverpool's full-backs, wide players and, at times, Luis Suarez.
Chelsea's best approach is clearly to adopt a pragmatic response in a reactive 4-3-3 formation, rather than chasing the game, given the threat that Liverpool possess through Luis Suarez in particular.
Liverpool will look to use the ball and certainly have enough quality to break Chelsea down if Chelsea defend deep and stubbornly. This is a tie that neither side can afford to lose with just three points separating the top four.
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