Frank Lampard learned from the best how to deal with an opponent like Liverpool: park the bus, control the game, manufacture a Chelsea win any way you can.
Chelsea have scored 11 goals (only two teams have more) and allowed 11 goals (only one team has more) over five Premier League games this season. Liverpool have a +11 goal differential. Perhaps not surprisingly, the Blues have also not kept a clean sheet this season. However, they have conceded the fourth-fewest number of shots this season, even fewer than Liverpool.
For the most part, Chelsea are giving up high-value shots: from close range and at angles that favour the shooter. The Blues need to deny these opportunities to Liverpool, a team that can create such opportunities quite easily, especially against a shaky defence screened by a defensively weak midfield. The shift to the 3-4-3 (which would be a 5-3-2 or 5-4-1 against Liverpool) has helped, and the potential return of N’Golo Kante will give Chelsea another defensive boost, but Frank Lampard should consider a method almost synonymous with the club: parking the bus.
If the Blues had their full defensive unit at full fitness, they may be able to match Liverpool’s offence man-for-man. However, even if Antonio Rudiger and N’Golo Kante play on Sunday, they will be somewhat short of their best level. More importantly, Chelsea are not yet ready to take on Liverpool’s offence unit-vs-unit. Liverpool have too much cohesion and chemistry built over the last few seasons.
But the Blues do have just enough people to stymie Liverpool in the box. If Rudiger is available and Lampard wants to park the bus, he can partner Rudiger with Fikayo Tomori and Kurt Zouma. Andreas Christensen has been best in a sweeper-style clean-up and support role. Despite his willingness to go into one-on-one battles, he does not have the physical size, strength or resiliency necessary to park the bus.
The Blues will also need three centrebacks to park the bus effectively to control the aerial game in the box. None of their midfielders have the height to protect the defence from the air. Cesar Azpilicueta, too, has the willingness but not the build, and Marcos Alonso has the control but not the ruggedness necessary on for this approach to defence. Both should still be in the lineup, but they will be of limited value protecting the centrebacks and Kepa Arrizabalaga from crosses or set pieces.
The biggest risk to parking the bus is that it is not as easy as it looks. Among the many reasons the game against Manchester City in early 2018 is so misunderstood is people thinking it was somehow an easy, lazy approach for Antonio Conte and the side. Maintaining that much structure and rigor against an opponent like Manchester City and Liverpool requires a high level of discipline, motivation and cohesion. Lampard has provided the team with one of the three – motivation – but they have not shown much of the first and last.
The other risk is the uncertainty of the Blues’ ability to strike on the counter-attack. Pedro and Willian are of dubious value on the counter given their speed and finishing sense. Tammy Abraham showed in his third goal against Wolves how effective he can be alone up top on the break, but Liverpool’s defence – particularly with Virgil van Dijk coming out to match him – will be a much different challenge.
Among the many lessons Lampard learned from his 11 Chelsea managers was how to use a tight low block with all but one or two players solidly behind the ball to stymie any opponent. Parking the bus may not be popular with fans on either side, but it is effective. It gives Chelsea their best chance to win by not letting their opponent get too far ahead.
It’s probably too much to ask for a Liverpool player to slip and allow Tammy Abraham to pounce on a loose ball. But Abraham staying patient at the top 3-6-1 could be the chance for a football-saving upset.