By Mihail Vladimirov.
Di Matteo opted for a largely predictable team, with the only minor surprise being Ivanovic partnering Terry in the centre with Azpilicueta on the right. Betrand replaced Cole at left back and the team’s front quartet kept their places. Unsurprisingly, Chelsea started with their usual 4-2-3-1 shape.
Rodgers chose the 3-5-1-1 formation he used midweek against Anzhi and in the second half at Everton. With Skrtel out with a virus, Wisdom was the right sided centre-back with Carragher drafted to play as the sweeper. Everyone else was as expected, with Johnson returning and Jones still deputising for Reina.
Di Matteo’s crucial decision
Often, Di Matteo isn’t labelled as a keen tactician and his recent managerial record also suggests he isn’t a willing tinkerer. This season he is even more inflexible than in his caretaker period last season – Chelsea largely use the same XI with only a few changes here and there, mainly caused by injuries or bans, and not pure tactical decisions.
However, as last season proved, the Italian is a willing strategist – meaning he is very precise in selecting his team’s starting approach to suit the opposition. This season he showed he is willing to be more possession-oriented and attacking against certain opposition (the weaker teams) but much more passive and even reactive in the bigger games (see the matches against Arsenal and Tottenham). The only match that did not fit this script was the home clash against Man United a couple of weeks ago; Chelsea started dominating and attacking, which left too much space for the opposition to catch them on the break and Ferguson’s side quickly built an early two goal lead.
[Just to clarify the difference between a tactician and a strategist: A tactician is a man who is willing to delve deep and insist on certain detailed playing patterns, tactical plans and ideas, setting his players’ roles very precisely and with the required depth. A strategist however is a man who simply sets out his team with a general idea of how to approach the game, only balancing his side in terms of the starting XI. He is not particularly willing to delve deeper into many tactical details. The trick is that a tactician is a strategist too, as without a well prepared, general macro plan, you can’t have detailed micro patterns of plays and tactical details; while the strategist alone is not such a powerful tactician.]
There is enough to suggest that it was the United clash that directly or indirectly lead Di Matteo to approach the match with Liverpool with such underlying reactivity and passive behaviour. Arguably he suspected (it was far from a surprise!) that Rodgers might approach the game with a back three and counter-attacking style, so Di Matteo ensured his team would not be naive and open up the space for Liverpool to do what United did back then. It can’t be proved (unless someone speaks to Di Matteo!) but it seemed as though the Italian is obviously concerned about Liverpool’s passing capabilities (it’s not a secret what Rodgers’ style is all about) and is equally worried about their capabilities on the break using Suarez and Sterling as the split forward duo. However, it was this decision that completely changed the whole game’s context and played a huge part in ruining Rodgers’ plan for this partnership to succeed.
To sum it up, it was obvious Rodgers was preparing his team to be reactive and counter-attacking oriented, looking to nullify Chelsea’s attacking threat and then catch them off guard on the break. But with Di Matteo having his team surprisingly overly reactive, the game wasn’t what Liverpool expected it to be. That’s why it turned out to be a really dull and tame clash. Let’s go through it in detail, dividing the match in certain periods.
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