For the second time in as many weeks Anfield was packed to the rafters as The Reds entertained their ‘other’ title rivals, and while it was not a conventional classic in the same way it was when Manchester City came to town, it may well prove a decisive moment in deciding where the Premier League trophy resides come the end of the season. Charles Pulling picks out five things we learned at Anfield.
1. Tactical naivety
A mere 60 seconds into yesterdays game and twitter was alight with ‘damn and blasts’ aimed at what had already been construed as Chelsea’s nefarious tactics. Jose Mourinho’s players were taking a tad longer than usual to execute a throw-in and their manager did resemble an exasperated neighbour refusing to hand back the ball after it had sailed over his fence one too many times. Yet judging the reaction of both fans and media professionals you’d be forgiven Chelsea had committed a war crime. More shocking than the reaction was the naivety that Jose would employ such an underhanded tactic as to attempt to slow the game down to suit his team. How dare he set-up his team so in order to stifle an opposition who have racked up 36 goals in the opening 30 mins of games this season?? Mourinho is a tactical pragmatist – we all know that, and those feigning shock that he didn’t line up his team 2-2-6 are only preaching to the choir. The truth is, as with so many ‘big games’ Jose Mourinho set up his team perfectly, it may not be pretty – and certainly not popular – but it works.
2. Liverpool’s Plan B (or lack thereof)
Theres something telling about a manager bemoaning the opposition’s tactics post-game, it reveals more about that manager’s mindset than it does about their vanquishers. So when Brendan Rodgers rolled out the ‘parking the bus analogy’ in his post-game presser you it wasn’t so much a slight on his opponents tactics as much as it was an attempt to deflect from his own team’s short-comings.
There were probably two buses parked today instead of one. It’s not difficult to coach, ten players on 18-yard box.
The truth is that while ‘parking the bus’ has become a dirty word for what are perceived overly defensive tactics – Tip: it’s actually a very difficult tactic to pull off that requires discipline and stamina – Rodgers will be hurting after that defeat. The apprentice was taught a lesson by his master, and Liverpool, in the face of a deep-lying Chelsea who invited pressure onto them, looked bereft of a plan-B. The most similar situation Liverpool have found themselves in recently was at Upton Park, where another much-maligned tactical pragmatist set-up his team to throttle Liverpool’s swash and buckle. In that instance it took two penalties for Liverpool to get the points, however against a much more disciplined and talented team the Reds struggled to open Chelsea up. Much has been written of Liverpool’s need to strengthen defensively in order to compete next season, yet after looking as toothless versus Chelsea despite 26 attempts and 74% possession Brendan Rodgers’ hand may be forced into looking for another dimension to their attacking game.
3. Jose’s bluff
The media’s obsession with Jose Mourinho’s mind-games™ has been well documented throughout this season, ironically by the media themselves through a weird mix of mysticism and derision. And when Jose alluded to his intention of fielding a weakened team at Anfield the cogs of the media-machine nearly melted through the sheer kinetic pressures being exerted on them. The narrative seemed to fit neatly when the starting team sheet was announced showing two of Chelsea’s key players – Willian and Cahill – on the bench and virtually untested Tomáš Kalas starting in central defence along Ivanovic – a natural right back – in front of Mark Schwarzer who probably would have seen out the season with one appearance to his name had it not been for Petr Cech’s injury. One could have been forgiven to expect Liverpool’s attacking trident to have a field day against such an untested defensive core. What transpired was a competent defensive performance, that looked composed in the face of everything Liverpool threw at them. Chelsea have been unlucky through injuries in the final acts of this season, but Mourinho’s crying poor was more to do with eliciting a response from the assembled press – and perhaps Roman Abramovich’s cheque book – than it did with the realities of the situation.
4. Gerrard’s way
Whenever something unexpected happens in football it is only natural that some sort of reasoning is attached to it. And this season Liverpool’s unprecedented title charge has been sewn together with the story of Steven Gerrard entering the dusk of his football career. It is a well-worn story that Steven Gerrard’s career, at some points – Istanbul 2005, Cardiff 2006 – have had the element of manifest destiny about them. It’s an easy notion to swallow and certainly make for a romantic one than the mundane explanation of talent mixed with physical and mental fitness. Through tears at Anfield two weeks ago to a look of utter horror and disbelief this week, Gerrard’s slip which gifted Demba Ba an unfettered route through to goal will either haunt him or be a mere side-note on the record of a title-winning season. But Gerrard will know better than most that blood, sweat and tears rather than some sort of invisible hand will determine this season’s outcome.
5. Up in the air
The previous weeks since Liverpool’s win over Manchester City had seen a deluge of articles and comment foretelling Liverpool winning the met unlikely of titles. 90+4 minutes later and the Premier League title race has been turned on its head. We should have seen it coming – yes I’m blaming everyone for this. So who is going to win the damned trophy? Looking at the remaining fixtures it would seem Manchester City have the good fortune of playing three teams in awful form, though Goodison Park has the ability to work its hoodoo on occasion. Chelsea know all they can do is keep winning and hope for a slip-up, and in truth will have one eye on the Champions League. Liverpool’s remaining fixtures are winnable, though Crystal Palace, with Pulis taking a leaf from Jose’s book, like to sit deep and frustrate. In short – who knows, this season, of all seasons, is one where nothing can be taken for granted. Who do you think will claim the title and Why? Let us know in the comments below.