Chelsea vs Liverpool tactical preview: Why Conte might well be jealous of Klopp
In some ways, Antonio Conte could be forgiven for feeling a bit jealous of Jurgen Klopp ahead of their duel on Friday night. The Italian spent the summer looking for dynamic midfielders who could provide dangerous runs beyond the striker – a key component of the Juventus side he led to three straight Serie A titles from 2012 to 2014 – but Chelsea only landed one such player in N’Golo Kante. By contrast, Klopp now possesses one of the quickest and slickest midfield quintets around.
Nobody needs to tell Conte of the advantages these midfielders can bring. His Juve lined up in a 3-5-2 in which two box-to-box midfielders – generally Claudio Marchisio and Arturo Vidal – continually sprinted into goalscoring positions, with their runs starting in such deep areas that opponents struggled to pick them up. In his first two seasons at the helm, Conte didn't have a single player who scored more than 10 goals, instead relying on contributions from all over the pitch (Marchisio and Vidal, incidentally, contributed a combined 16 strikes in each campaign).
Oscar and Nemanja Matić have previously been accustomed to different roles in a 4-2-3-1, and Conte has so far failed in his attempts to add more dynamic options such as Radja Nainggolan to the squad
Conte's Italy used a similar strategy at Euro 2016 – the best example of it was Emanuele Giaccherini running in behind the defence to score against Belgium – and the 47-year-old has since set Chelsea up in a formation which is ideal for replicating it.
The personnel, however, is not as suitable. While Kante is an efficient anchorman, Oscar and Nemanja Matic have previously been accustomed to different roles in a 4-2-3-1, and Conte has so far failed in his attempts to add more dynamic options such as Radja Nainggolan to the squad.
There can be little doubt that Conte would have liked more speed and verve behind his striker. Not a single central midfielder has scored for his Chelsea side so far in the league, with Diego Costa the top scorer with four goals. The situation is the opposite at Liverpool, where Klopp is building a side in which dangerous runs come from a series of players, above all the midfielders.
Costa scores his fourth of the season against Swansea
The formidable five
This has been brought into focus by the summer signings of Georginio Wijnaldum and Sadio Mané. Klopp switched to 4-3-3 in pre-season in order to accommodate the duo, with Jordan Henderson pushed into the holding role behind Wijnaldum and Adam Lallana, two natural attacing midfielders now drawn deeper. With Philippe Coutinho (left) and Mané (right) out wide, Klopp has moulded a midfield five of formidable speed and movement.
Lallana ventures into the box and down the channels to drag defenders out of position, while the high positioning of the full-backs allows Coutinho and Mané to drift infield and threaten the goal more directly
A structure has since emerged. Henderson has become a reasonably conservative holder tasked with moving the ball efficiently; his average of 80 passes per game is the highest in the Premier League. Just ahead, Lallana ventures into the box and down the channels to drag defenders out of position, while the high positioning of the full-backs allows Coutinho and Mané to drift infield and threaten the goal more directly.
These patterns were on display on the opening weekend, when Liverpool hammered four past Arsenal. Two of the goals came from Coutinho and Lallana after runs into the box; another originated from Mané cutting inside. The Reds have since scored five more league goals, shared between Lallana, Mané, Roberto Firmino (two) and James Milner (penalty). Not a single one has come from the player assigned the lone striker role.
Many of Liverpool’s best moves materialised when midfielders made reverse runs synchronised with those of the striker
This is not to say that the forward has become unimportant. Particularly in the last two games, many of Liverpool’s best moves materialised when midfielders made reverse runs synchronised with those of the striker.
This has been the case irrespective of who's played up front. In the 1-1 draw at Tottenham, false nine Firmino dropped deep and drifted wide to link up with team-mates, inviting Lallana, Mané and Coutinho to sprint in behind the centre-backs for through balls. While they didn't score directly from it, Mané went close on several occasions and, when Liverpool had a scintillating counter-attack goal ruled out for a marginal offside, the players who'd hared forward to combine were Wijnaldum, Lallana and Mané.
In the 4-1 win at home to Leicester last weekend, the forward role went to Daniel Sturridge, with Firmino replacing Coutinho on the left. For the first goal, Sturridge made a decoy run down the left to draw out Wes Morgan; right-back Danny Simpson also followed, leaving a gap down the middle that Firmino moved into and scored. “The movement was brilliant, everybody saw it,” Klopp said, and added: “Roberto can make exactly the same run, but if Daniel doesn’t make the run he’s not free in front of goal. That’s how football is.”
For the third goal, Sturridge got the ball to feet then played in Wijnaldum, at which point Liverpool had four midfielders, but no striker, inside the box. Wijnaldum duly found Lallana, who lashed home his second of the season. As at Spurs, there was a synchronised movement between striker and midfielder, with the latter ending up in the best position.
Following the runners
This dynamic is clearly not the only weapon Klopp will take to Stamford Bridge – the striker will surely also get chances, with Firmino and Sturridge both coming close against Spurs and Leicester respectively – but it's becoming a defining feature of his side. There will be a flurry of movement for Chelsea to deal with, and the challenge of tracking runs and preventing overloads will be significant.
In Conte’s 4-3-3, Kanté will surely have a key role in sniffing out runners in front of the back four, while Oscar’s defensive nous could be tested. Liverpool repeatedly sprinted in behind the Leicester defence, meaning Conte would take a risk if he plays a high backline.
The biggest question centres on the communication between Gary Cahill and David Luiz, should the Brazilian replace the injured John Terry as expected. As Conte will know, the defenders will have far more to contend with than whoever Klopp picks up front.