When Carlo Ancelotti left Milan for Chelsea, he could hardly have imagined that the challenge in England would include a rendezvous with his old friend catenaccio. But that was what he confronted when Liverpool turned up at Stamford Bridge on Sunday. A mere 24 hours after the Premier League had indulged itself in an orgy of goals and delinquent defending, he faced opponents who had double‑locked the back door.
These days players in England are seldom invited to perform in a line-up featuring three central defenders and two wing‑backs. A defensive line of four is almost compulsory in the Premier League, as it is around the world. Even the tactically eccentric Diego Maradona abandoned his experiment with a three‑man back line before arriving for the World Cup in South Africa last summer, although Napoli and Udinese have been employing it to some advantage in Serie A this season and Josep Guardiola used Sergio Busquets as a third centre‑half when Barcelona beat Atlético Madrid away in September.
The last prominent English manager to feature the system with any regularity was Terry Venables, and look what happened when, acting as Steve McClaren's consigliere, he brought it back for a Euro 2008 qualifying match against Croatia in Zagreb, a 2-0 defeat remembered primarily for Paul Robinson's unfortunate air-kick and secondly for a high degree of tactical incoherence. Funnily enough, Jamie Carragher was one of the three members of the reshuffled rearguard that ill-fated night in October 2006, alongside John Terry and Rio Ferdinand, with Gary Neville and Ashley Cole as the wing‑backs.
So Terry and Cole, at least, must have been amazed by what they witnessed on Sunday, when Liverpool sent out Carragher to act as a sort of libero alongside the man-markers Martin Skrtel and Daniel Agger, with Martin Kelly and Glen Johnson pushed up the flanks. Chelsea's two strikers, Didier Drogba and Fernando Torres, found themselves comprehensively smothered, most spectacularly so half an hour into the first period, when Carragher flew across the penalty area to block Torres's shot after the Spaniard had eluded Skrtel. If the first reaction to that intervention was to admire the ferocity of Carragher's commitment, the second was to applaud the tactical thinking that enabled him to get there in the first place.
It turned out that Liverpool had employed the system once before in the weeks since Kenny Dalglish replaced Roy Hodgson. That was in the 2-0 home victory over Stoke City last Wednesday, when the extra centre‑half – Sotirios Kyrgiakos on that occasion – must have come in useful to counter long throws and the Potters' tall strikers, including the newly arrived John Carew. It seems likely that the plan can be credited to Steve Clarke, the former Chelsea player and assistant manager, who was appointed first-team coach at Anfield on 10 January, two days after Dalglish took over.
All very absorbing, but the moment that really caught the attention on Sunday came late in the game, five minutes after Liverpool had silenced Stamford Bridge by taking the lead. Ancelotti responded by making a couple of substitutions, one of them introducing David Luiz in place of José Bosingwa. While David Luiz took up his station alongside Terry in central defence, Branislav Ivanovic moved across to right‑back, clearly with the intention of exploiting his pace and muscularity to make inroads into the left flank of the Liverpool defence. Two minutes later Liverpool withdrew Maxi Rodríguez and introduced Fábio Aurélio, normally a left‑back but now deployed in front of Johnson, where the threat of his own pace and long-range shooting put an immediate restriction on Ivanovic's ambitions.
It was a small enough thing, but it showed that Liverpool's coaches were thinking on their feet and capable of swift adjustment. As the recent pronouncements of Carragher and Steven Gerrard made clear, Dalglish already has an emotional hold on the dressing room. Clarke could be the man to turn them into an interesting football team once again.