Chelsea - Liverpool FA Cup Final Recap: A Lesson in Tactics and Psychology

on May 06 2012 12:35 PM

It is fascinating that abstract concepts like "frame of mind" or "momentum" can play such an integral role in the outcome of sports that are by nature tangible affairs. In the simplistic model of sports, one logically infers that when two teams face each other, the winner will naturally be the team with the superior combination of talent and tactics. If a team with inferior talent has superior tactics, then it has a great chance of defeating a more talented opponent. This is why sports emphasizes and ingrains a culture of teamwork and inspires a plethora of clichés from "there is no 'I' in team" to "we need to be on the same page/buy into the system".

While this model is (obviously) exceedingly naïve, it does provide an insight into why sport as a genre is ubiquitously popular. If sports were so logical and straightforward, they would be boring. Plain and simple. It takes those elusive notions of psyche, toughness, belief, confidence and luck, combined with talent and tactics to generate the magical moments in sports that mesmerize us. And at the professional level, where there isn't a (relatively) big difference in talent or tactics, these concepts play an exponentially larger role in determining the fate of a match.

What does this have to do with the FA Cup final you ask? Well, everything! The reason Chelsea beat Liverpool 2-1 is all of the above. Botched tactics, inferior talent, experience, confidence, changes in momentum and resiliency were a few of the abstract and concrete characteristics on display in a textbook case of how a numerous factors can affect the events of an FA Cup final. Let's examine a few of these:

Talent: Chelsea's starting line-up clearly "out-talents" Liverpool's. Honestly, aside from Gerrard and Suarez, Liverpool fields a barely recognizable squad featuring cast-offs and young up and comers who are known more for their hustle and industry than any skill or creativity. And this is coming from a Chelsea fan whose team plays with all the spark and excitement of a lecture on thermodynamics.  

Tactics: Liverpool and Chelsea both come out in identical 4-5-1 formations aiming to (forgive the use of more clichés) keep things tight, compact and narrow to make things difficult for the opponent.

On paper it would seem that the tactics should at least cancel each other out except that Chelsea had edges in both the experience and the confidence categories. They have essentially played 4-5-1 for the past few years and know how score goals and support Drogba up front despite playing in a fundamentally conservative and defensive formation. This has been ingrained in them from the Mourinho years. The fact that this is apparent to any run of the mill Chelsea fan but not Kenny Dalglish, manager of Liverpool is quite shocking.

So naturally, Chelsea commanded the game for close to 60 minutes, taking a 2-0 lead through Ramires and a beauty from Drogba. Liverpool's 4-5-1 formation was for all intents and purposes a 4-5-0 with Suarez so isolated that even the most faithful Kopites singing "You'll Never Walk Alone" didn't ring true. This was compounded by Liverpool playing the first 60 minutes with the tentativeness (tentativity?) of a tightrope walker without a safety net below.

They say in soccer that 2-0 is most precarious lead. Drogba had just put Chelsea in front (becoming the only man to score in 4 FA Cup Finals) when all of a sudden, in a reversal of tactical nous, Dalglish one-upped DiMatteo in the managerial chess match.

Kenny Dalglish introduced Andy Carroll who instantly rescued Luis Suarez off his isolated island. Meanwhile, Roberto DiMatteowho I've praised earlier, made a rare tactical blunder and introduced Meireles for Ramires, instead of subbing out Kalou.  Big mistake. Chelsea's midfield was no longer compact and it was now Drogba's turn to be trapped on the isolated island up front without the offensive surges from Ramires.

As a result the momentum and aggression swung in Liverpools favor as they besieged the Chelsea goal and pulled it back to 2-1 thanks to Carroll. Chelsea was barely hanging on and reverted back to "we are playing against Barca, all hands on deck" defensive mentality epitomized by this stunning save from Petr Cech. Luckily for Chelsea, there wasn't enough time left for Liverpool to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat.

Liverpool should've played Carroll alongside Suarez from the start and adopted a more attacking philosophy. They could have won this game over a more talented team, by using more effective tactics and having more purpose. I will never understand why Liverpool played with the goal scoring intent of a student afflicted with senioritis before a term paper deadline. Why not attempt to score goals and win the damn Cup? Clearly the last 30 minutes showed that they were more than capable. They simply ran out of time. It's not just Liverpool, most teams routinely use these negative tactics which rarely succeed. Conversely, it is even more puzzling to me why teams in Chelsea's position, dominating the game and up 2-0, quit on tactics that were clearly succeeding and switch to a 'prevent defense' to simply run out the clock. Invariably, they let the other team in and give them hope, momentum, confidence and all the intangibles that play a huge role in swinging the outcome of the match. In the end, Chelsea was scrambling for their lives to try and save the game.

Is that how you wish to 'win' a Cup? It's time for managers to think outside the box and 'play to win', rather than trying 'not to lose'. It's not a question of talent anymore, its tactical know-how alongside intent and attitude. A simple change in philosophy and outlook can go a long way. The intangibles matter more than ever. No wonder they consider a 2-0 lead to be precarious...except there is no logical reason for it to be that way.