My favorite part of football is how it challenges decision-making. Players have to constantly assess information around them, process it, and then make risk/reward decisions. These decisions create a domino effect, tilting that play in favor of one side or the other. In turn, reviewing these plays can be teaching points for players and fans alike.
In this past weekend’s Liverpool-Chelsea match, there was one play in particular that stood out as a great teaching tool for Liverpool – Hazard’s opening goal.
The play starts off with Chelsea moving the ball to the center-right of the circle with Alexander-Arnold tracking Hazard from behind and Henderson coming in for support from the left. Hazard has created a channel to receive a pass (his understanding of space makes him such a dangerous player) and has options around him. These midfield intricacies are integral to Chelsea’s game plan.
Lets zoom out to see Liverpool’s full defensive shape:
Liverpool’s backline is tilted toward the left with a large swath of space behind Alexander-Arnold and to the right of Gomez (he’s at the top left corner of the black square). However, if needed, he has ample time to migrate into that space, at which point VVD would pick up Giroud.
In the ensuing sequences, Hazard one-touch back heels the ball (Eden gonna Eden, sheesh) to Kovacic and turns into space. Here’s the side-view:
And now the tactical view:
Hazard, understanding space and processing things quickly, has laid the ball off quickly and immediately knows where he’s going – he’s attacking the direct line in front of him. There are two simultaneous decisions happening:
A. Both Alexander-Arnold and Henderson have gone to close down the midfield space and suffocate the attack. This decision is a sound one in my opinion. They have help behind them and can snuff out the attack here and now. Speaking of that help…
B. The CB’s are setup the same as the first picture. Gomez has Giroud off his shoulder with eyes on the play in front of him. VVD has eyes on Giroud. As Hazard starts to make his direct run, this is where I’d expect Gomez to anticipate and begin to tighten that space to close down Hazard’s run while VVD gives him a shout that he’s picked up Giroud.
That’s not what happened:
The backline, specifically Gomez, doesn’t anticipate and react to Hazard’s run which leaves them compromised (in an ideal world, Salah reads the opening for Hazard and tracks him. That’s asking a lot though). Gomez is now in chase mode and VVD is in no man’s land. However, there’s still the possibility that Alexander-Arnold can save the day. He has a key decision to make:
A. He’s the closest man to the ball and also in the passing channel. He can either close down the attacker or close down the direct passing channel.
He chooses to play the channel but doesn’t take away the direct passing lane. Alexander-Arnold has to force Kovacic to play this ball across his body or over the top to give his backline more recovery time. Instead, Kovacic has time on the ball and a direct passing channel with Hazard on a direct line to the goal and Gomez racing to catch up.
Look at the gap upon Hazard’s first touch after Kovacic’s slide-rule pass:
Hazard is a player you can’t give inches to, let alone yards.
None of this is to say that the Liverpool CB pairing didn’t play well, they did. However, each game is a learning experience and there’s two key learning points here:
1 – The CB’s have to be on high alert when a player like Hazard is on the ball, regardless of how many layers separate them. Hazard’s combination of understanding, quick decision-making, and pace leaves no margin for error. Gomez may have gotten away with not tilting quicker against a lesser player or team but it wasn’t the case here.
2 – Alexander-Arnold has to be decisive when faced with these in-between situations. He could have either closed down Kovacic or close the channel and essentially he did neither. No half measures.
Great moments to learn from early on in the season as Liverpool looks to compete for a Premier League and Champions league title.