Once again, there seems to be a level of outrage over the way Chelsea played. It never ceases to amaze me how this happens after every big game. Jose Mourinho will never change. He will have you believe that his side is David facing Goliath and that his players are a still a group of ponies—whereas I think that they are actually clydesdales.
What Mourinho is, and will always be, is a great big-game manager. Surely, nobody expected Mourinho to play expansive football. Against this Liverpool team, it surely would have been suicidal. He would also want to make you believe that his team is not complete and lacks certain players, but I think most of the pieces are already in place for the way he likes to play. Even if Mourinho had Didier Drogba at his best, or even if he gets Diego Costa next season, it would not change the way he approaches a game like this.
We've seen him do it time and time again this season—as well as in the past with all of his teams.
It is, of course, a philosophy that you don't have to like—I can tell you I don't—but one that we must respect and not always criticize. I haven't met a player, in my career or after, that questioned a result if his team won after being outplayed. For players, a win is simply a win.
Just as the great attacking football that Liverpool has showcased throughout the season takes an incredible amount of preparation and training, so too does the sort of defending that Chelsea showed in that game. And that is especially true if you consider the number of changes Mourinho made to the back line, and everywhere else for that matter.
The levels of commitment and concentration, and the ability to read the game over the course of the match—these things do not happen by chance. And Mourinho has shown the ability to get the best of these traits from his players, even with different teams in different countries and with different styles of play. Again, that in itself needs to be respected.
That said, I thought Liverpool had a unique opportunity against Chelsea to continue their wonderful, Cinderella-like season while playing a breathtaking style of football. And here's where I think I may differ from many opinions I've seen over the last day or so around the world. Chelsea's double-decker-style defending was not the most important part of the match immediately, as some suggest. In the first 15 to 20 minutes, I thought that Chelsea allowed Liverpool more space behind and in transition than I had anticipated.
Given the fact that Liverpool have often scored early goals and built momentum, I was actually surprised to see Raheem Sterling and Philippe Coutinho finding space in wide areas and being able to get behind the full-backs quite often. This, to me, was an opportunity that went unused, and Liverpool will have to take responsibility for not making the most of it—because Chelsea and Mourinho had briefly opened the door for Liverpool to be successful.
For me, Liverpool's problem was simple. The wide areas were never going to be where they won the game. Two things did not happen early on, and I knew Liverpool would struggle. In those first 20 minutes, the early ball out of the midfield was on yet was never played. For me, there were too many sideways passes between Lucas, Steven Gerrard and Joe Allen, and when the diagonal runs were being made from central players, in particular by Luis Suarez, he was looking for the ball by the corner flag.
He was not receiving the ball in transition, which is where you want to see Suarez. Suarez for the most part needs to operate in between the width of the penalty area. Even though the central areas were clogged, I believe that Suarez would have found a solution centrally under extreme pressure and playing off the shoulder of the last defender rather than looking for the ball wide, where Mourinho wanted him.
Mourinho, of course, must have known that the longer this game went on without a goal, Chelsea would sit deeper. The time to beat Chelsea was the first 15-20 minutes, when there was space and the opportunity to do so. Liverpool just did not take advantage.
Another reason Liverpool struggled was that the movement of the front three without the ball—Coutinho, Suarez in particular and Raheem Sterling to a lesser degree—was not good enough. To break down Chelsea, it was necessary for Liverpool to play the early ball, but you can't have an early ball if the movement of the front three players is not correct. And when they were moving, it wasn't productive. In other words, if you're Liverpool, you didn't want Suarez to receive the ball near the corner flag.
I don't necessarily think that Liverpool had a bad, bad game. This is team that had won 11 straight Premier League matches, a team that stuck to their principles of attacking football and surely had all the initiative in this game. And even though they gift-wrapped a goal for Chelsea, they weren't that far from getting a result.
It's all about timing, of course, and there are times where things just don't go your way. It could have happened just a few weeks ago against Manchester City, but Liverpool found a way, thanks to a mistake by Vincent Kompany.
I would be very careful in categorizing this as Liverpool's failure in case they don't win the championship. Rather, they played against a quality opponent who has done this in every big game this season in the Premier League—and also in most of the big games Mourinho managed throughout his career. Let's not forget there was a similar situation a few days ago in Madrid.
In the end, I would have preferred Liverpool's style of football to prevail. But you simply can't argue against a manager and a team that proves time and time again that they can grind out a result when it matters. Just as Mourinho did not show that he has or is willing to use a Plan B in attacking, Liverpool did not show in this particular game that they have a Plan B to break a team down when their counter-attacking, transitional style was not working.
What's important here for Liverpool is that I believe there will be a time that their philosophy will prevail. Against Chelsea, they were one or two passes in the final third away from getting a result. And even if they don't win the championship this season, there is no denying the progress they've made.
This is the sort of Liverpool team that the fans will appreciate—a team and style near and dear to the hearts of all the Liverpool supporters who witnessed it during the club's most successful run in the 1970s and '80s.
It didn't go Liverpool's way on Sunday, but this season, we've seen glimpses of what could be, once again, in the future.
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