Chelsea return from their voyage to Azerbaijan on Wednesday night and head to Anfield on Saturday evening to take on Liverpool.
The Blues landed back in London in the early hours of Thursday morning after their 4-0 victory in Baku against Qarabag and had just one day of training prior to Saturday’s match.
Fortunately for manager Antonio Conte, no new injuries occurred during the midweek, and Chelsea will welcome back Victor Moses from a hamstring injury that has kept him out since mid-October, though he will only be fit enough for a place on the bench.
Liverpool, meanwhile, also endured a journey to the continent, facing Sevilla on Tuesday night. Having gone 3-0 up in the first half, the Reds surrendered three goals in the second half to draw 3-3 with the Spanish side.
Manager Jurgen Klopp will want to prove that Tuesday’s result was just a minor setback, and a win against Chelsea will go a long way to doing just that.
Complaining about scheduling can be a smokescreen, but in this case, Antonio Conte might have a point.
It never seems quite right to complain about fixture congestion and how the fixtures are scheduled, but for the second time in two months, Antonio Conte is once again pointing out a few discrepancies.
Just two months ago, Chelsea recorded a tremendous result in the first match in a European competition at the Wanda Metropolitano against Atletico Madrid on a Wednesday night. Three days later, Chelsea faced Manchester City at Stamford Bridge in the late kickoff on Saturday, and their performance suffered.
Of course, City are flying in the league and were playing great football back then, but Alvaro Morata limped off with a hamstring strain after 20 minutes, and Chelsea looked sluggish compared to their opponents who had played on Tuesday and had an extra day to prepare.
This time, Chelsea’s trip to face Qarabag on Wednesday night covered a distance of nearly 5,000 miles and have once again had one fewer day to prepare than their opponents. It’s a cruel reality of fixtures being rearranged for television, but a key point in this match will be how well the Chelsea players can recover from that trip.
Fortunately, Rashad Sadygov’s 19th minute red card and two first half goals essentially ended the contest after the first 45 minutes, and Conte was able to rest Eden Hazard and N’Golo Kante while the second half seemed like a friendly at times.
Liverpool’s best chance to win the match is to rely on their front three plus Coutinho.
The strength of Liverpool this season clearly lies in their front three. In the past couple of seasons, Sadio Mane has been the key cog in the Liverpool attack with his pace and ability to run in behind. When he was absent last season for the African Cup of Nations or was missing due to injury, Liverpool’s attack suffered. This season is a different story.
The signing of Mohamed Salah from Roma in the summer transfer window has proven to be a success for Liverpool thus far, with Salah taking a lot of pressure off of Mane and leading the Premier League with 9 goals.
That’s a far cry from the player that joined Chelsea in January of 2014 to add to the squad depth, but failed to make an impact in a side that included Hazard, Oscar, and Andre Schurrle ahead of him in the pecking order.
Salah’s two and a half seasons in Italy with both Fiorentina and Roma have clearly made him a better player, and he’s simply made a Liverpool attack that looked great at times last season even better.
The danger with Liverpool is the runs behind. While he doesn’t get the plaudits that his attacking partners receive and his finishing might be lacking at times, Roberto Firmino really is the glue that makes the Liverpool attack work. He’s not a traditional striker, rather one that likes to drift around looking for pockets of space and sometimes dropping deeper.
That movement becomes key for Liverpool’s attack because Firmino uses his movement to disrupt a back four in attempts to create gaps between the defenders and allow Mane and Salah to make diagonal runs through the gaps in order to get behind defences, and in Philippe Coutinho, they have a player that can find those runs.
The true test on Saturday will be whether or not those three can disrupt the Chelsea back three. In the past, Liverpool have struggled to create chances against that formation.
Against Tottenham just a month ago, Liverpool struggled to create chances against Spurs 3-5-2 and were picked off repeatedly on the counter attack.
That’s likely the formation they’ll come up against on Saturday when Chelsea visit Anfield, and it will be up to Jurgen Klopp to find a better solution.
Antonio Conte’s new solution: 3-5-2.
Antonio Conte’s tactical brain has struck once again. Last season, it was the switch to a 3-4-3 that brought about a change in Chelsea’s fortunes. This season, after some inconsistent form and results, a switch to a 3-5-2 seems to have made another difference.
However, the real change started against Atletico Madrid when Conte first fielded a side with Hazard and Morata up front together and Cesc Fabregas, Tiemoue Bakayoko, and N’Golo Kante in central midfield. It worked wonders that night when Chelsea really dominated the Spanish side in Madrid, but injuries to Kante and Morata derailed any plans for a serious switch to that system until after the 3-0 defeat at Roma.
With Chelsea again back to full strength, the 3-5-2 has again returned, and the Blues have won their last three matches, including a 1-0 victory at home over Manchester United.
Conte will likely use this formation again on Saturday against Liverpool, especially since Liverpool deploy a three-man midfield. Last season in two matches against Liverpool, Chelsea often struggled to gain any sort of control. The 3-4-3 played last season often ended up as a back five because Chelsea’s midfield were outnumbered and overrun.
The switch to the 3-5-2 should give Chelsea the numbers in midfield to hopefully keep from being overrun, especially since Liverpool like to press the ball. In addition, it’s become very good for Chelsea because it gets their two most creative players, Hazard and Fabregas, more involved.
Fabregas was never the most athletic of players, and he’s always played better in a midfield three since he tends to get exposed in a midfield two. In this 3-5-2, Fabregas is given licence to try and get on the ball and dictate play. In a sense, Fabregas is occupying a similar role to the one Conte used for Andrea Pirlo in the Juventus 3-5-2, but the difference is that Fabregas is playing in the space between midfield and attack, rather than playing between midfield and defence.
With Hazard basically being given a free role behind Morata, in this formation, Fabregas and Hazard are basically the ones running the game, with Kante sitting a touch deeper and Bakayoko doing what he does best by playing box-to-box.
Against Liverpool, it will be important that Hazard and Fabregas get a chance to get on the ball because Liverpool are susceptible to the counter attack. Chelsea’s counter attack has been devastating under Conte, and the addition of a third midfielder to play box-to-box gives Hazard and Fabregas more chances to initiate the counter, as well as control the tempo in the centre of the pitch.
(3-5-2) Courtois; Azpilicueta, Christensen, Cahill (c); Zappacosta, Kante, Fabregas, Bakayoko, Alonso; Hazard, Morata