Even in the aftermath of Chelsea’s resilient second-half defensive display at Anfield following Reece James dismissal, there was still a nagging feeling the Blues had missed an opportunity.
In the first half Chelsea’s new-look front three of Mason Mount, Kai Havertz and Romelu Lukaku at times terrorized the Liverpool defence, only to come away with one goal from a set-piece. The feeling of missed opportunity has been a regular theme in recent seasons and has to become a thing of the past if Chelsea hopes to seriously challenge for the Premier League title.
Chelsea’s MLH – which I discovered is the abbreviation to a company called ‘Major League Hacking’ in Manhattan which sets up student hackathons. For the purposes of this piece, Tuchel has a lot of reason to believe Mount, Lukaku and Havertz can hack a lot of Premier League defences this season.
The major frustration from the first half at Anfield was that on several occasions the wrong pass was selected in the final third to put daylight between Chelsea and Liverpool.
Context should be given in defence of these early growing pains, Chelsea are only 3 games into their Premier League season. For Mount, Lukaku and Havertz the draw at Liverpool was only the second outing for the trio – Mount was the only one to start all three of the league contests so far.
The first two games have seen slightly altered approaches for Chelsea’s attack from Tuchel. Against Arsenal, with more space to operate in and superiority in wide areas, Chelsea in possession looked more like a 3-2-5 with both wing-backs Reece James and Marcos Alonso helping to occupy The Gunners back four.
A rare occasion the three were narrow was in the build-up to Lukaku’s opener, Mount on the right and Havertz left as Lukaku barged Pablo Mari out of the way to score his first for the club.
The front three were pretty fluid with Mount and Havertz regularly dropping deeper to receive possession from the back-three and orchestrate play from deeper. The luxury Tuchel has with the German and English internationals is that they are incredibly versatile, technically excellent and are two of the best at exploiting pockets of space vacated by others.
Lukaku provides the perfect focal point to remain central and receive balls into feet with his back to goal. The 28-year-old also has the physicality to occupy multiple defenders at once to create space for his peers, which is the dream scenario of Mount and Havertz to buzz around. Lukaku is no slouch when it comes to speed himself, as he showed against Arsenal in the second period, drifting to his favoured right channel to create further overloads.
All three were involved in the build-up to Chelsea’s second goal. Mount eventually playing the crucial pass for James to finish.
Mount could have also assisted Lukaku’s second of the day with an expertly chipped cross onto the head of the Belgian only prevented by Bernd Leno’s strong left palm.
Arsenal certainly made their jobs a lot easier with their uncoordinated pressing and narrow back-four, but it demonstrated how Chelsea’s attack can act like a chameleon depending on what Tuchel’s game plan requires.
Against Liverpool, the trio operated much closer together. The large distances we saw in North London were gone as Chelsea looked to remain in a more compact 5-2-3 shape to limit spaces for Klopp’s men to exploit. The Blues main aim was to quickly counter and keeping the trio close meant they were not constantly outnumbered by red shirts as they lacked the natural assistance of James and Alonso.
It is also far to assume Tuchel was not as comfortable to see such numbers venture forward with the threat of the back three being isolated by Liverpool’s attack.
6 minutes into the game it was clear Joel Matip was going to struggle to contain Chelsea’s trio as an amazing backheel flick prompted a foul from Matip as Lukaku and Havertz remain in close proximity.
Several times following Havertz’s brilliantly headed goal from a corner, the three were able to isolate Liverpool’s centre-backs after Chelsea’s defence and midfield smartly played through the hosts press.
The best, and most frustrating example, was in the 34th minute when Romelu Lukaku turned Matip on the halfway line and drove forward, flanked by Mount and Havertz bearing down on Allison’s goal.
The selection of pass from Lukaku and choice to finish from Mount can both be questioned as Havertz was open inside the box. Though what should give supporters encouragement is against such good opposition, the three were so regularly able to find these opportunities, and with the quality present, it should not take long for these bugs to be ironed out.
The bigger frustration should be with the way Reece James dismissal on the stroke of half-time deprived us of getting to see another 45 minutes with the trio exploiting more space with Tuchel’s originally intended game plan.
Even if we overly focus on the decision making this early in their relationship, in terms of productivity, the three have already contributed together in the final third when present on the pitch. Lukaku against Arsenal. Mount assisting James goal in the same game, and Havertz scoring at Anfield.
Every opponent will be different, but these two approaches probably give us an early look at how the favoured three will be used by Tuchel moving forward. For games where Chelsea are more dominant and feel more confident to push up the pitch with their wing-backs, the split-striker against Arsenal may become customary. Havertz and Mount likely having the freedom to drop deeper as James, Alonso or Chilwell maintain attacking numbers further up the pitch.
When Chelsea come up against opposition comparable to them and is able to force their wide players back, you will see MLH remain close together, attempting to orchestrate rapid counter-attacking opportunities.
We all know the plethora of options the European Champions that can alter the look of the attack with Timo Werner, Hakim Ziyech, Christian Pulisic and Callum Hudson-Odoi all waiting in the wings. But at the moment, it is hard to see MLH not becoming the preferred trio in a majority of games and has the capability to be one of Europe’s most feared.