Chelsea 1-2 Liverpool: 16 Conclusions

Date published: Friday 16th September 2016 11:09

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* Well well. If Liverpool’s trampling of Leicester and four-goal haul at Arsenal suggested they could be this season’s entertainers, beating Chelsea in their own stadium will only add to the giddiness on Merseyside. Since Klopp joined Liverpool they are the Premier League’s top scorers, and the Premier League’s top away scorers in 2016.

This was similar to the performance of 2013/14 Liverpool, but with some of that attacking genius traded for less kamikaze defending. Chelsea were shocked into submission by the sheer intensity of the attacks, and the quality of the press again came to the fore. This was, to coin Klopp’s own phrase, heavy metal football, but with added tuneful finish as Liverpool closed out the victory.

We are still a long way from labelling Liverpool as title challengers, but after Manchester City they have been the second most impressive Premier League team this season. Klopp spoke before the campaign about there being no more excuses for under-performance, no more talk of transition. On this evidence, he had every right to be confident.

 

* Yet this was not a victory earned solely through the excellence of Liverpool; Chelsea were rotten to the core during the first half. This was a display reminiscent of the last days of Jose Mourinho, a group of insipid, uninspiring players failing to perform as a team. Willian was busy but Diego Costa isolated, Gary Cahill and Branislav Ivanovic shambolic and Nemanja Matic almost entirely ineffectual.

You can understand why Antonio Conte would choose to sit back and invite Liverpool pressure in the early stages of the game, but that plan only works if the defence is competent enough to deal with that pressure. Chelsea’s inability to stop Liverpool scoring early was a problem exacerbated by their failure to change gear when it was needed.

After three straight victories and one point at Swansea that should really have been three, Conte looked to have Chelsea’s players all pulling in the right direction after last season’s misery. Three steps forward, two more back.

 

* Before the game, the pundits on Sky Sports hammered David Luiz for sending a tweet 45 minutes before kick-off. Jamie Carragher said that Luiz should be dropped to the bench, while Thierry Henry blamed his teammates for not stopping him.

Are we not ignoring the fact that most international sportspeople have minions to run their social media accounts? When Lewis Hamilton ‘tweets’ during F1 races, I don’t presume he’s doing it at 180mph. Also, even I’ve managed to work out how to schedule tweets. It’s the future; I’ve seen it.

The weird anti-Luiz points continued five minutes later, when Graeme Souness accused Conte of not fancying the defender by not waxing lyrical about him in his pre-match press conference. Souness might want to read these quotes:

“At 29, he is at a fantastic age to become one of the best defenders in the world,” said Conte last week. “You can always improve and I’m seeing great commitment from him.

“He wants to play for Chelsea. This is a great opportunity for him also to improve. I repeat: he has good characteristics to become a fantastic defender.”

 

* The first surprise came with the team news, and the lack of Roberto Firmino for the visitors.

“I’ve been quite hyperactive since I was a child,” Firmino told the Daily Mail this week. “I don’t like to stop. I do have moments when I like to relax but I’m always moving and that has always been the case since I was a boy. Nowadays that is the only way you can play football.

“You have to go on full on from the first minute. All of us have our qualities that add to the team. But our manager wants each of us to be like a runner. Don’t stop. Never stop.”

Until you get laid low by a groin problem, that is. Firmino has been the star of Liverpool’s early season, but his absence saved Klopp a difficult selection dilemma. Philippe Coutinho took his place in a like-for-like, positionally at least.

 

* Yet Klopp must have been cursing the loss of Firmino, for no Liverpool player can truly replace his blend of work rate and attacking skill. Coutinho and Daniel Sturridge provide the latter, but fall short on the former.

Firmino’s work rate last season was easily overlooked, but it’s been a striking element of Liverpool’s 2016/17. He has totalled more than 70 sprints in every league game so far, the only Liverpool player to do so. Against Tottenham he made ten more than any teammate, against Burnley six more.

Liverpool’s league record without Firmino starting since Klopp took over should also have made supporters gulp. They had taken just nine points from those ten matches, beating Watford at Anfield but losing to Southampton (a), Swansea (a) and Crystal Palace (h). Coutinho and Sturridge were going to have to beef up their running. Or Adam Lallana could just take on the extra workload…

 

* Conte might pride himself on defensive organisation, but he has a job on to continue that reputation in England. Chelsea started the game in sleepy, lazy fashion, and were punished after just 17 minutes.

Ivanovic was the guiltiest party, giving away a brainless free-kick on the right wing by steaming into the back of Georginio Wijnaldum, thus allowing Coutinho to deliver a set-piece into the area.

When the ball was crossed to the back post, there were four (four!) unmarked Liverpool players in the area. Dejan Lovren connected with the ball, and his slightly untidy shot bounced into the floor and past Thibaut Courtois.

A special shout-out must go to Cahill, who was proven guilty by slow-motion replay. Cahill clearly spots the four unmarked players in red, then runs forward to the only Liverpool player who was marked. Top work.

 

* The least you’d have expected from Chelsea was a response, but Liverpool merely continued along their merry way. The first goal came from poor defending, but the second stemmed from a quite magnificent strike from Jordan Henderson.

If the quality of Henderson’s curling effort into Courtois’ top corner surprised you, you are forgiven. The Liverpool midfielder has endured a nasty case of Coutinho-itis in the last couple of seasons, whereby shots are regularly sent off target from range to the frustration of supporters.

Before Friday, Henderson had taken 50 shots from outside the box in the Premier League since the beginning of 2014/15. Only 20 of those shots had been on target and only three of those ended in goals, with my fuzzy memory telling me at least one was deflected. Too often have we seen Henderson holding up his hand in apology; at Stamford Bridge, he did so in triumphant celebration.

 

* After half-time, you once again expected Chelsea to surge into the game, presumably after Conte had headbutted three of his players, set fire to two others and screamed so close to the faces of the rest that they could advise their manager on his dental hygiene. Yet again the home side were lacklustre, earning nothing but the moans and groans of the Stamford Bridge crowd.

True to the first-half form, Chelsea’s lifeline came not from their own play but the defects of Liverpool. Matic finally surged up from central midfield before playing the pass out wide, but both Lallana and Henderson spotted his run and failed to track it. Joel Matip made his only mistake of the game by selling himself, and Matic found Costa. The Spaniard is your new top scorer in the Premier League.

 

* Despite his role in the goal, in the first hour of the match Matic didn’t make a single tackle or win a header. So what is it that he’s doing?

If the answer is to pass the ball from deep, let Cesc Fabregas do it better. If the answer is to drive forward with the ball, he’s not doing it often enough to warrant his place. 2014/15’s auto-Matic is now stuck in neutral.

 

* Forgive me for the pedantic gripe, but can we please get to grips with the advantage laws?

The rule is reasonably simple, and is as follows: ‘The referee allows play to continue when an infringement or offence occurs and the non-offending team will benefit from the advantage and penalises the infringement or offence if the anticipated advantage does not ensue at that time or within a few seconds.’

The issue is that referees seem far too eager to play the advantage rather than award the free-kick, and the second half saw the perfect example. Liverpool attacked on the counter, and Lallana was fouled on the right wing, 35 yards from goal. Craig Pawson played advantage, but the move was slowed down by the challenge and ball played back towards half way.

Having scored from a free-kick in a similar distance out before the break, surely Liverpool would prefer the set-piece? I understand the desire to keep the game flowing, but in that case the attacking team were penalised. That’s the opposite of the rule’s intention.

 

* Previous Liverpool teams – even previous Liverpool teams under Klopp – might have wilted after conceding that goal, resorted to sitting on the edge of their box and aimlessly hitting it long to relieve the pressure, football’s ultimate false economy.

But, and it made you rub your eyes, Liverpool did none of those things. Instead they regrouped, re-energised and carried on doing exactly what had worked before. Passes were played short and to feet. Opposition players were closed down and forced wide, making Chelsea hit the ball long and from wide areas. Substitutions were used to relieve those who had done much of the work. 

There were moments of danger, of course. Fabregas had a chance from a free-kick after Eden Hazard had ‘drawn’ a foul, and Costa fired straight at Simon Mignolet. Yet the Belgian did not have to make a single diving save in the match; Liverpool soaked up the pressure with ease.

For all Liverpool’s entertaining (11 goals against Chelsea, Tottenham, Leicester and Arsenal), it is that second-half resilience that will please Klopp most. That’s what makes great seasons, rather than just great results.

 

* Just what was going on with Conte’s substitutions? After such a dire first half, the expectation was that a change would come at the break, with Matic the likeliest candidate for the chop. Yet not only did Chelsea’s manager forgo that chance, he waited until the 83rd minute to make a change.

When Conte finally did so, it was the first triple substitution in the Premier League since November 2015 (Norwich against Chelsea). Even more odd was the lack of Michy Batshuayi, Conte instead bringing on two wingers and a central midfielder but having just one striker on the pitch.

Batshuayi and Costa have only spent 24 minutes on the pitch together in the league. In that time, they have contributed three goals and one assist between them. Why on earth did Conte not use his most obvious option?

 

* Although there seems to be a wave of ill feeling against him and a determination that he will be a failure, Luiz was actually pretty great on his return to Chelsea (I’m banning the phrase ‘second debut’ because it’s oxymoronic).

The Times’ Matt Hughes tweeted during the first half that Luiz’s distribution had been ‘appalling’, but at that point Luiz had completed 20 of his 23 passes. By full-time his pass completion was 91.7% (hardly appalling), he’d had more touches of the ball than any other player on the pitch and he had been comfortably Chelsea’s best defender. Criticism of Chelsea players is due, but Luiz is exempt. Now you can get back to Twitter, fella.

 

* Yet Luiz does not win the award for the game’s best defender; that falls to Matip. The Watcher column praised Liverpool’s central defender for the ease in which he has settled into Klopp’s system; Friday night produced more of the same.

In fact, this was persuasive evidence that Matip and Dejan Lovren might be the perfect defensive partnership for Liverpool. The Croatian is the no-nonsense defender (four tackles and seven clearances, both team-highs), while Matip is the ball-player. His pass completion rate of 95.3% was the best in the match.

Matip spoke in the build-up to the game about his refusal to become flustered by opposition strikers, and he dealt with Costa impeccably. His only mistake (selling himself on Matic) did play a part in the goal conceded, but these are early days. While £34m David Luiz is 29, Matip cost nothing and is just 25. Swoon.

 

* The second Liverpool player to be singled out for praise is Nathaniel Clyne, until now not even mentioned. That sums up a night in which the right-back went about his defensive business with calm efficiency, and still found time to roam down the right flank with Lallana covering him.

Clyne has not really kicked on during Klopp’s tenure, despite conventional wisdom dictating that he would flourish under a manager who places such importance in his full-backs (and their attacking impetus). The England starting place has been lost, yet against the best wide player in the league, Clyne excelled.

Before Friday, Hazard had taken 16 shots in four league games this season, and created ten chances. Against Liverpool, he made one chance and failed to have a single shot, on or off target. Job done.

 

* But the last word must go to Lallana, who continues to improve his reputation under the perfect manager for his skill set. The pre-match worry may have concerned the absence of Firmino, but Lallana took that as his cue to run even more than normal.

Nobody in the match covered more ground than Lallana, and nobody made more sprints than his 76. Last weekend no player in the entire league ran further, yet six days later Klopp’s Duracell bunny was only too happy to buzz around like a fire-fighting bluebottle again.

In any other season and under any other manager, Lallana would be annoyed at failing to create a chance for the second game in a row, the first time that has happened when starting since August 2015. But under Klopp, being the hardest worker is not a booby prize given patronisingly to the non-achiever. Lallana is not only persona grata at Anfield; he’s one of Liverpool’s most important players.

 

Daniel Storey

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