Torres provides selection puzzle at worst possible time for Chelsea

  • @ianherbs

Carlo Ancelotti has always admitted to a certain amnesia about Liverpool. "I don't remember. It was a difficult moment, for sure," he said on the eve of his first encounter with them as Chelsea manager 18 months back, when reminded of a certain night in Istanbul when the boys from the Mersey gave his Milan side an object lesson in how tactics can change the course of a game. "Difficult moments can be good and help you improve," Ancelotti also said of that 2005 Champions League final, though the evidence of the latest defeat to this doughty foe suggests he still has some learning to do where tactics are concerned.

There were many reasons for Liverpool's win, which now means Kenny Dalglish has recorded more Premier League points than any other team since he arrived back in the manager's dug-out. The performances of Lucas Leiva and Jamie Carragher were among them and, as Carragher reminded us yesterday, it helped that Liverpool had the training ground knowledge of how to play Fernando Torres. "I have played against him in training, fantastic player," Carragher said. But Ancelotti's failure to spot the clues as to how Liverpool would approach their task at Stamford Bridge on Sunday also forms part of the picture.

The word "clues" suggests some kind of cunning plan by Dalglish, though it was rather more obvious than that. Liverpool provided a sneak preview of the 3-5-1-1 system that suffocated Chelsea's strikers, by using it against Stoke City at Anfield last Wednesday night.

What was designed to meet an aerial threat from the Potters also happened to be the perfect deterrent for the most enviable two-man strike force in the league. When Dalglish posted a teamsheet including the names of Carragher, Daniel Agger and Martin Skrtel at 3.15pm on Sunday, he sensed his central defence could take a striker each and have a sweeper left over to cover. He was right. Chelsea lacked the width to exploit that system: Ashley Cole and Jose Bosingwa just couldn't get up the pitch. Even Torres had to admit that his former manager had got the strategy right. "Liverpool played a good game, with three at the back," the Spaniard said yesterday. "We were not expecting that and maybe they took advantage."

This rather bears out the reputation Ancelotti always had in Milan – as a manager with a rare ability to motivate and relax his players but less capable of responding to events with a radical solution to change a game. "The comparison was often made between him and Fabio Capello," one observer said yesterday. "Capello was the one capable of making that vital snap decision. Ancelotti was not."

The Chelsea manager did change formation to 4-3-3 eventually on Sunday, though that solution excluded Torres from the fray. And should the new acquisition have started the game in the first place? Probably not. Everyone at Anfield knows Torres can be an introspective soul who doesn't respond when the tide of events go against him. His 29 touches in 66 minutes at Stamford Bridge, fewer than any other outfield player, told a story.

Dalglish, keeping his own £22.8m striker, Luis Suarez, out of the fray, again looked the smarter man but Chelsea's seventh defeat of the season wasn't all about their strike force. It is hard to avoid the suspicion that Petr Cech's verbal attack on Branislav Ivanovic in the first half had repercussions when their mutual indecision allowed Raul Meireles in. That kind of civil strife doesn't occur on a football field occupied by Manchester United.

Ancelotti may also reasonably contend that Michael Essien and Frank Lampard are not fit; both were very much shadows of their title-winning selves, as was Cole, on Sunday. But the question for Chelsea, as they stare up the precipitous slope to a regained title, is how they might quickly fit their strikers together for less tumultuous afternoons than this.

If Ancelotti did not have enough on his hands already, then the prospect of preventing Torres disturbing a formation that was settled and beginning to perform – as Andrei Shevchenko did when he, too, arrived on a Roman Abramovich whim five years ago – is a new task. Given that neither Torres nor Didier Drogba can be deployed on either side of an attacking three, the only solution appears to be perseverance with the 4-3-1-2 diamond. But this formation was shattered last October when Jose Bosingwa, one of the two wingbacks this system demands, was injured. Adopting the diamond would also mean jettisoning the 4-3-3 formation which served Ancelotti so well in last season's successful title push.

The good news is that Bosingwa is back and potentially ready to produce the bursts of pace which Paulo Ferreira so lacks, in tandem with Cole. Chelsea, don't let it be overlooked, are no further behind United today than they were before Sunday's defeat and they must play them twice. Of course the title race isn't over. But February is a time for refining a title-winning strategy, not redefining a team.

Ancelotti, who also finds himself bestowed with two left-side central defenders given that David Luiz's stronger side happens to be the same as John Terry's, will be dreaming of midfield diamonds before next Monday's visit to Fulham. There is a strong case for Florent Malouda, the casualty of Torres's appearance on Sunday, operating on the left side of Lampard in front of Essien and Jon Obi Mikel, with Anelka at the top behind the striker. Ramires also stakes a claim, having been successful on the right side of one with Benfica and Brazil.

Liverpool, meanwhile, find themselves breezing along. Meireles is scoring goals at a greater rate than he ever managed for Porto, while the way Dalglish's players are stringing together potent passing moves (13 passes for Sunday's goal, 30 for the best one at Wolves) suggests the manager has removed the complications from their football. Six points separate Chelsea from Liverpool, a club Ancelotti once again probably wishes he could forget.