E ver since Christopher Waltz (who is ironically Austrian) stole the show in his turn as bloodthirsty Colonel Hans Landa in the controversial 'Inglourious Basterds', there has been a steady production line of flamboyant, charming, disarming yet meticulously professional Germans who have won over the Anglo centric world, forever changing our perception of the archetypal arrogant, dour German. Well to be fair Jürgen Klinsmann arguably got there first but you get the gist... the hipster German manager has been the hottest and coolest trend in football for the past decade.
As if to illustrate this point, the past three Champions League titles have been won by a German manager. The most recent, Thomas Tuchel, finally stepped outside of his presumed mentor Jurgen Klopp's shadow and forged his own legacy by defeating his actual mentor, the mighty Pep Guardiola with a side that was at one stage languishing in 9th place in the Premier League.
Yet for all his recent exploits Tuchel retains a dire head to head record against his esteemed compatriot - losing 9 out of 15 matches. In their most recent encounter, Tuchel actually managed to snatch a rare win, a 1-0 victory at Anfield. Impressive as that was, the Liverpool backline featured a makeshift centre back pairing of Kabak and Fabinho. This time, Liverpool welcome back the twin towers of Van Dijk and Matip - so a sterner test awaits and a true assessment of whether Tuchel has built a side capable of blowing Klopp's men away.
In terms of selection issues, Liverpool need to decide whether to keep faith in Keita or gamble on Thiago who dominated Chelsea on his debut but otherwise has flattered to deceive. Robertson should win back his place from the exciting but vulnerable Tsimikas and Fabinho is expected to return to the starting lineup. As for Chelsea, there seems to be growing momentum for Werner to feature due to his performance at Anfield last season but Tuchel could also keep the front three that did so well for him against Arsenal. Kante should return.
Without further ado, let us dive now into the tactics and key battles which could decide Saturday's fascinating duel!
Liverpool's build up phase usually consists of Trent, Matip and Van Dijk operating as a back 3 across the width of the pitch awaiting a pass to feet whilst Robertson (or in his absence Tsimikas) bombed up the pitch almost into enemy territory. It makes sense to pull in Trent deeper due to his passing range and ability to break enemy pressing lines with his laser like through balls.
If the back 3 are out of action, Fabinho usually drops into the pivot position and comes to receive. However due to the tragic passing of his father, Fabinho has missed out on Liverpool's opening encounters. Rumours indicate he should be returning to this fixture but if he does not, Liverpool may deploy a double pivot in the deeper areas i.e. Henderson mostly comes deep but Keita at times takes up the slack. Tuchel will be watching this development keenly.
Chelsea have pressed in a 3-3-2-2 structure this season, with Lukaku marshalling the right half space and the left sided CAM pressing the left half space. Mount who is usually the right sided CAM tends to drop back and form a second wave with Kante or Kovacic - depending on who is playing. The wing backs tend to pick up either full backs or wingers depending on the game state and Tuchel's preference at that moment. Jorginho sits in front of the centre backs.
Liverpool tend to dominate possession against Chelsea especially at home and that was the case last season with a 55% v 45% split. Chelsea's PPDA was hovering around 12 which is rather high compared to their average. I suspect it to be similar or worse in this game, as Liverpool's build up phase especially with Van Dijk back and Fabinho potentially starting, will be stronger.
Expect Lukaku to block off passing lanes into Robertson and the left sided CAM to block off passes into Trent. Mount will try and sit on Fabinho and ensure he doesn't influence the game too much in terms of progression. The wing backs will probably sit deep and not want Salah or Mane getting too many 1 v 1 situations, therefore I expect Liverpool to build up generally well and once again enjoy the lions share of possession.
With Chelsea dropping back into a back 5, not to mention Mount dropping back to form a 5-3-2 structure, it is very difficult to envisage Liverpool's front three breaching that Chelsea rear-guard with ease and regularity. Alonso and Rudiger will work in tandem to protect against Salah and Trent, but with Kante also offering an extra layer of protection (due to the lack of any goal threat from Liverpool's midfield), there should be more than enough here to protect against Salah in a low block situation.
Mane faces similar obstacles on the opposite flank, but if Robertson can occupy James - he may fancy himself against the ageing yet rarely caught out Azpilicueta. Mane has picked up form and desire during pre season and looks sharp. He still lacks that unpredictable edge he once possessed - he is too mainstream a player now - and is yet to add new weapons to his game, but he is still the more likelier route to unsettling that Chelsea backline.
As for Jota - this is probably the sort of game which suits him more than a Firmino. In a game where chances will be few and far between, having a genuine goal threat or can score in a variety of ways may allow Liverpool to grab a goal even if the attack is misfiring. He also has the pace and movement to keep Christensen honest, whereas on paper the intelligent Dane is well suited to follow a false 9 such as Firmino especially in a back 3.
I suspect Chelsea to be more mindful of being camped in the opposition half against Liverpool than they would their average opponents. Nevertheless, in every game of football there will be moments to catch the opponent on the counter and regardless of who plays in Chelsea's CAM role, the left wing back whether it is Chilwell or Alonso will be their furthest attacker down the left flank thus isolating Rudiger.
Rudiger is a very difficult defender to beat 1 v 1 and he has the athleticism to keep up with a Salah. Pepe was able to wrongfoot him at times, but Salah will struggle to take him on down the line... his best chance is to slalom inwards as soon as possible and force Rudiger to pass him on to someone else. If he can find himself running at a Jorginho then Chelsea might be in trouble but it is highly likely Kante will be deployed a little deeper than usual to give Rudiger a chance of delaying the Egyptian and bringing the Frenchman back in support.
Whilst Tuchel is happy to mix up his pressing tactics according to the opposition, Klopp rarely does unless forced to by the diminishing stamina reserves of his players. Furthermore the bigger the game, the more aggressive the press and this was evident in their last encounter against Chelsea where despite the loss - the Reds were able to win the ball a mammoth 36 times in Chelsea's defensive third.
Liverpool's front three was able to push on to their centre backs and their full backs pushed on to Chelsea's wing backs. Their three man midfield pushed onto Chelsea's midfield two and that Chelsea's only way out was to try to take on Liverpool's centre back duo. Fortunately for Chelsea, they were up against Kabak and Fabinho but they won't have such a luxury this time. On the other hand in Lukaku they have more of a focal point...
Now much has been said about Lukaku's return and he is undeniably an improved player. However his hold up play and touch against the better sides is still not quite up to scratch. Now in Tuchel's system, he is more likely to be played to feet and in the right half space... where he prefers to receive it, but if Liverpool press high and Matip or Van Dijk stick tight to him, he can't use his physicality to bully them as they are both monsters in their own right. Thus he may struggle in this fixture.
Whilst Chelsea do have an aerial threat in Lukaku to cross into, Liverpool do not have Pablo Mari in their backline. They have Van Dijk and Matip. Now the big Dutchman may be feeling his way back from injury but he is more likely to be caught out in transition than he is in a low block with players around him.
Werner if he is selected will face a similar issue against the low block. He caused Liverpool nightmares in the last fixture but that was against an untested duo and he killed them mostly in transitional situations. If he does face off against Trent in a 1 v 1 duel, I do not expect him to wreak havoc as his close control dribbling and flair is limited and the Liverpudlian should have enough defensive capacity to deal with it.
The Chelsea players with the greatest threat from low block situations are Mount, Havertz and Pulisic. Players who can strike from range, commit players and drift into pockets of space under the radar. But this is not a game where Chelsea are likely to play against a low block, this is a game that is more likely to be decided in transition and therefore it seems more likely that Werner comes in.
Probably the most important phase of the match. Liverpool at home, rarely hold back and will look to camp out in opposition territory. In their previous encounter, Liverpool made 27% of their total passes in the opposition third - in stark contrast to Chelsea's 16%. I expect a similar pattern to envelop in this match, thus providing Chelsea with ample space in which to counter into.
Van Dijk in his prime would give Liverpool the bedrock to impose their front foot game without any fear that they would be caught with their pants down. He would especially eat a player like Lukaku for breakfast, someone who lacks the elite guile and technique to trouble him. However this is a rusty tentative version of the big Dutchman and with Lukaku in the shape of his life, this could be a more even match up.
Werner is always a major threat on the transition but he could have his work cut out against Joel Matip, arguably Liverpool's most in form centre back of recent times. He has not really had a chance to work with Lukaku in tandem so it would be strange to see them thrown together in a big game, but on paper both operate in the opposite half spaces and would not get in each others way.
Chelsea are a team undoubtedly on the up. Reigning European champions, new additions from last season beginning to settle in and the latest addition in Lukaku fitting in seamlessly. Liverpool despite their positive start still have the air of staleness about their line-up and their tactics. There does not seem to be any new ideas or new personnel - the belief seems to be that all that was wrong last year was the absence of Van Dijk.
This game like most big encounters will be settled either through set pieces or transitions. For me Liverpool look more vulnerable on the transition but at the same time I question whether Chelsea's forwards have that elite mentality and cutting edge to make their presence felt, even against a rather battle-weary Liverpool centre back pair.
Prediction… If Liverpool are to win, Jota or a set piece will be the route to goal - I find it difficult to envisage Mane and Salah getting on the scoresheet here. For Chelsea, much will depend on how rusty Van Dijk is. If he is not the same force, he could be vulnerable but if he's anywhere near 80% - this game will end in a stalemate. Overall am edging towards a stalemate.