Blues legend Pat Nevin was at Anfield on Saturday where he spoke to key personnel in the impressive performance. Here he analyses how the Premier League point was secured and reveals how one Chelsea player proved a Mo Salah prediction right on the day…
It isn’t often a team gets a draw and is immediately congratulated as being the real deal and serious title contenders by most commentators, but that is exactly what happened to Chelsea at the weekend.Thomas Tuchel rightly said that playing in front of the Kop end at Anfield may be the toughest place in the world to survive with 10 men for 45 minutes without leaking a goal. He is not wrong with maybe the same period at the Etihad these days being the closest to that test.The second-half clean sheet underlined the team’s defensive capabilities, but it also made the incredible team spirit and amazing group work ethic clear to anyone who was watching. After the game I asked Cesar Azpilicueta how he felt and the birthday boy openly admitted it was an exhausting shift, though you wouldn’t have believed it by his calm, smiling exterior.
This work rate would be taken as a given by most fans but compare it with the capitulation by Arsenal earlier in the day against Manchester City when Xhaka was sent off again. There are a few reasons why the performances were so different, including the defensive abilities of individuals, but the tactical decisions made in these moments are as crucial as anything.Everything was against Tuchel when Reece James was sent off. Down to 10 men, the hard-fought-for lead wiped out and the Kop preparing themselves to bay for the winner solidly for the next 45 minutes. The only thing in the manager’s favour at that moment was it happened just seconds before the half-time whistle. It gave him 15 short minutes to develop a plan and consider his substitutions as well as the tactics.
There were a few options. He could have gone to a back four, allowing the most common formation in the circumstances, 4-4-1. It is infamously hard to break down, but that would mean changing the defensive line-up that has worked so well over the last few months. It was hard on Kai Havertz to have to make way after playing so well and scoring the opener, but it was either him or Mason Mount who had to sit out the half to allow Thiago Silva to come on. Mason’s incredible work-rate made him the obvious choice to leave on.
Defensively it was now a 5-3-1 and if you are Liverpool hoping to find some space, I guess their hearts must have sunk. That is still a very formidable back-two lines to find a way through.If we were at home and were either behind or even ahead, I guess Thomas would have looked at it differently, but in the circumstances it was the perfect decision. For 15 minutes Liverpool raised the tempo, tried everything and pinned us back. At the game however, you could see the real belief wain from the Reds quite quickly after that.Even the home crowd which had been ear-splitting in the first hour got noticeably quieter by the minute. In contrast, the decibel levels from the Chelsea fans never dropped and they out-sung the scousers more and more as the minutes ticked by. There was the odd hairy moment but in reality, the Chelsea fans’ songs told the story - ‘Is this a library’ - and at the end they were asking the question - ‘Had someone rung a fire alarm?’ as the locals left early in droves. The locals didn’t see the funny side but they could see the truth, they had been outmanoeuvred.Even though we were severely hampered by having to make two substitutions at half time, one of them the best defensive midfielder on the planet in N’Golo Kante, there was an assuredness about the manager’s thinking, even if he did admit to me that those first 15 minutes after the break seemed to last a lifetime.
There is no definitive way to approach going down to 10 men. It is different in every situation, and I guess there were very few correct answers on this occasion, maybe only one and Thomas found it.When you do get a result like this after that sort of effort against the odds, every player on the field knows he has done a great job on and off the ball. The team sheet was littered with heroes and no single player can be congratulated over any other, but I will single out Toni Rudiger for consideration.I was sitting next to a reporter who openly supported Liverpool and hadn’t seen this Chelsea team in the flesh too often. We got to chatting before the game and on the subject of Rudiger, I told him that ‘I could not remember a player ever getting by him on a one-on-one.’ I added that this was unlikely to change today. ‘What even against Mo Salah?’I was bold. ‘Yes, even against the brilliant Mo.’ Once again our manic marker didn’t let me or anyone down. The game still had 20 minutes to go when the die-hard Red leant over and said, ‘No one even looks close to getting past him!’
One day someone will, nobody is perfect, but he must be just about the hardest guy in the business to beat just now. A huge part of my job in my career was to go past people and I am not sure if I have witnessed many better at stopping even brilliant players in those one-on-one scenarios, from back then until right now.It was great to see the calm assurance of Thiago Silva settling back into the defence beside Toni and looking like he had never been away. So, while we enjoy the international break and the delight of being nicely positioned in the league, it is worth remembering that football can be harsh.Reece James was outstanding and had one of his best days for the club against Arsenal last week, scoring one and creating the other. This week he was unluckily sent off, a rollercoaster that any player can find himself on, but he will be back, and nobody blames him.Another defender, Kurt Zouma, has left after sterling service and lengthy periods when he was considered as a first-choice in that defence. We wish him the best (except when he comes back to the Bridge) and thank him for his efforts. He never gave less than 100 per cent but sometimes even that is not enough in the rarefied surroundings of the current Chelsea squad.