Liverpool's tactical naivety and Gerrard error ensures champagne stays on ice
Rodgers played into Mourinho’s hands by doing exactly what he was expected to do
Chelsea manager Jose Mourinho keeps the ball from Liverpool’s Steven Gerrard during yesterday’s match at Anfield. Photograph: Peter Powell/EPA
“Make Us Dream” had become an unofficial slogan of their unexpected title charge. But Anfield’s fevered dream gave way to a cruel reality in the last minute as Daniel Sturridge lost possession and suddenly almost €100 million worth of blue-shirted striking talent was bearing down on the Liverpool goal.
A former Liverpool player, Torres, drew the goalkeeper, then passed to his right and a player Liverpool tried and failed to sign last summer, Willian, passed the ball almost apologetically into an empty net.
The “weakened” Chelsea team, assembled at a cost of more than €250 million, had beaten Liverpool’s €145 million first-choice available XI. The iron logic of 21st century football had reasserted itself.
Of course, the second goal was only rubbing it in. Chelsea were already leading 1-0 thanks to Steven Gerrard’s nightmarish mistake.
Gerrard fought desperately to redeem himself, but in the end his struggle would encapsulate Liverpool’s wider failure. He shot at goal nine times but eight of those were from outside the box, like 21 of Liverpool’s 26 attempts in the game.
It was another tactical triumph for Jose Mourinho – and it followed precisely the same template as all his other tactical triumphs. When are other managers going to notice?
Rodgers in denial
Judging by his comments yesterday, we shouldn’t expect Brendan Rodgers to be the first. Sky’s Geoff Shreeves asked the Liverpool manager whether Mourinho’s tactics had decided the match. Rodgers: “No, ’cause I don’t think it’s a tactic to just . . . If you have players behind the ball I think you could get anyone to ask a team to just
. . . defend on the edge of the box.”
Not a tactic? Rodgers should watch the Champions League, where defend and counterattack is the dominant style of three of this year’s four semi-finalists.
Chelsea’s defensive method is rooted in Mourinho’s profound belief in human fallibility. His team says: we will focus on not making any mistakes. You can focus on winning the game. We have faith that eventually you’ll make a fatal error.
Gerrard’s mistake might have looked like an act of God, but to Mourinho it was part of the plan. It was the moment for which his team had been waiting. They didn’t know what form their chance would take, but they believed it would come and knew they would take it when it did.
Rodgers said it was going to be difficult if Liverpool didn’t get an early goal because Chelsea could not otherwise be tempted out defence.
The problem with his logic is that a 0-0 draw would have suited Liverpool. Chelsea were the team that needed to win. Liverpool only needed to avoid defeat. They were like a team playing the second leg of a European tie at home having won the away leg 1-0. If they didn’t concede, Chelsea would eventually be forced to attack, and leave themselves more open at the back.
Liverpool might have played it safe, taken no risks, left plenty of men behind the ball and let the clock do its work. Instead, Rodgers played into Mourinho’s hands by doing exactly what he was expected to do.
Rodgers has received credit for tactical tweaks that amount to sending out the same group of brilliant attacking players in slightly different formations. Arguably, many managers would look like tactical geniuses if they had Luis Suarez in their team scoring a goal a game. Yesterday Chelsea snuffed out Suarez and the result suggested that the Liverpool manager’s pilgrimage towards tactical mastery remains incomplete.
The result demonstrated again that no manager is better than Mourinho at getting big results against strong opposition. He boasted that now, whether Liverpool or Manchester City won the league, “we can say we won both matches against the champions
But what kind of team wins all four matches against its title rivals and still finishes behind both of them?
Did Roman Abramovich fund more than €850 million of Chelsea’s losses to end up with a team that makes the blood drain from the faces of opponents and neutrals alike? The only way to justify Mourinho football is to get good results, so a bad result against Atletico Madrid on Wednesday will leave the coach in an awkward position.
The truest words yesterday were spoken by Frank Lampard.
“We’ve won titles here before, we know what it takes,” said Lampard. “If we’re gonna go away and we have to dig in and win games that’s what we’ll try and do. Like we played against Liverpool earlier in the season, it was a fantastic game of football . . . So you have to have both sides to win the league.”
You do have to have both sides. Liverpool have conceded too many. Chelsea have scored too few. Manchester City are the closest the league has to a team that can attack and defend; and that’s why it’s now their title to lose.