Liverpool are pretty much back. Chelsea have stood still at best under Frank Lampard. The gap remains huge between the two.
1) It does not take much to transform the entire mood around a football club: just a comfortable win away at a supposed challenger to the throne, the arrival of a reigning European champion and the addition of one of the Premier League’s more versatile and underrated forwards, all at an initial expense of about £4.27.
That 4-3 at Anfield last week was utterly bizarre in that the winners and the losers essentially swapped post-match roles. The inquests were held over what Liverpool needed to improve while the nation fawned over a Leeds side that went down in a blaze of glory.
A few days, a clean sheet and some statement signings later, Liverpool are back precisely where they started: as the best team in the country. They will take some shifting.
2) Chelsea underlined that point. Even £200m worth of investment has done nothing to bridge that gap. They might become more adept at bullying smaller teams but those same issues persist when greeted with someone their own size or bigger.
Frank Lampard will continue to be furnished with new players but there must come a time when people start to wonder what it’s all in aid of. The season is two games old but Chelsea look worse. The excuses are ready-made – individual mistakes, a squad blighted by injuries – but those available were still asked to play incredibly passively and devoid of any real ingenuity beyond giving Timo Werner the ball and hoping he can carry it about 30 yards on his own.
He and Marcos Alonso were the only players to create a single chance, and both managed only one themselves. That is awfully damning.
3) Werner was electric, mind. The goals will come but against a team built around a centre-forward defined by everything but that very metric, the German fared well enough.
The worry is that his obvious pace might become a crux that Chelsea rely on far too much. In this game especially he became an obvious outlet to relieve pressure and chase aimless passes behind a high defensive line. Liverpool did not struggle then but could not quite answer every question Werner posed with the ball at his feet. He flashed a shot just wide in the first half out of nothing and forced the second-half penalty Jorginho missed. Given little service, he kept the defence on their toes.
With a more fluent attacking partnership he could wreak havoc. Hakim Ziyech could be the key. Werner rarely put a foot wrong; it was the rest of the team that left him down.
4) His battle with Fabinho was engrossing. The Brazilian rose to the challenge with a couple of excellent early tackles, with Werner getting the better of him about as often. For someone playing out of position against an elite forward, it was a fine effort.
No Liverpool player made more tackles or interceptions (both 4). He is too good a midfielder to consider a permanent centre-half but a valuable option to have in reserve when Joe Gomez and Joel Matip are out or Klopp wants some variation in the middle. It sure was fun to see Liverpool and Chelsea’s best player engage in a friendly and even skirmish.
5) Liverpool almost found the breakthrough they were seeking after 13 minutes, as Mo Salah chased a deflection down the right flank and evaded Kepa Arrizabalaga before trying to centre for Roberto Firmino. Christensen showed great awareness to cover and concede only a corner.
Opinions are so far ingrained that his situation seems irretrievable but Gary Neville calling Kepa “lucky” because his centre-half was there seemed weird and entirely narrative-driven. Had the Spaniard left the ball, Salah would have been in acres of space as Alonso failed to react. Had he dived in the likely result would have been a penalty. But Kepa pressured the ball, forced the forward wide after it spun away and bought his defenders time to reposition. As his critics embraced the pile-on and laughed at yet another mistake it was difficult to see what else he could have done.
If anything, it was Reece James who was at fault for trying to leather a misplaced Naby Keita pass into the stands instead of using the Jorginho option two yards to his left. He had no real control over where the ball was going to go. Kepa actually did well.
Thought Kepa done the right thing then. The commentators just look to pick on anything.
— CFCDaily (@CFCDaily) September 20, 2020
Reader, that did not continue.
6) That was one of few genuine early opportunities for either side. Chelsea finally had their first effort soon after, Werner capitalising on Fabinho’s miscontrol to curl a shot just wide of Alisson’s post. But they would have to wait another half an hour for their next.
Liverpool made the most of their passivity in the interim, including a 15-minute spell in which they had almost two-thirds of the ball and a couple of presentable chances. Perhaps it was too much to expect Chelsea to take the game to the champions – the chaotic 5-3 defeat in July is still fresh in the memory – but it felt altogether too cautious and susceptible to error. One falling card would bring the entire deck down and they shown little to suggest a sleight of hand of their own.
7) Any positive steps Chelsea took in limiting Liverpool were undone in a matter of seconds at the end of the first half. Christensen had few complaints when the yellow card he was initially awarded for fouling Sadio Mane was upgraded to a red.
Kepa was again condemned by the commentary team for making a “mess” by racing out of his goal to try and close the space. It might sound like a case of being contrarian for the sake of it but he ought to rank low on a list of Chelsea players when apportioning blame for that one.
Christensen, for a start, was the one who collapsed into Mane like a black hole. And there was no Chelsea player within five yards of Henderson as he found an excellent run with a sublime ball. Zouma did little more than join the viewing public in appreciating the pass before slowly turning and jogging back towards his own goal. Chelsea were entirely bypassed by a move that incorporated just three Liverpool players: Alisson rolling the ball out, Henderson passing and Mane running. These issues are systemic, not individual, and require coaching instead of signings.
8) Henderson, though. That pass was preposterous and incredibly deceptive. It seemed like an aimless punt, the sort of high ball Chelsea had dealt with faultlessly throughout. But as the camera scanned across the pitch it soon became clear that he had hit it perfectly. A yard or so to the left and Christensen would have had the advantage. Further to the right and Mane would have had to check his run, giving Kepa the chance to block him. But the flight carried it directly into the forward’s path and it was so flat that almost nothing could be done to legally stop him.
Thiago, watching from the bench, must have had to stop himself from running onto the pitch to indulge in those cross-field keepy-uppies. He will improve Liverpool’s midfield but the idea that he will be a rose among functional, workhorse thorns is more than a little unfair. When given the opportunity, Klopp’s trusted lieutenants can play with the best of them.
9) A word for VAR, too. If it is to be implemented – and there is a tsunami-worth of water under that particular bridge to even consider going back – then this season has shown it need not be to the detriment of the game. Paul Tierney was uncertain enough to show a yellow card, perhaps not sure of how close Kepa was to the foul, and was advised to check the pitch-side monitor.
Subsequently giving the red was the correct decision made quickly enough. For most of last season it felt as though there was a reluctance to properly review and reassess referee decisions so as to not undermine them. It had the opposite effect, making them look like foolish patsies to the real officials at Stockley Park. This was closer to how the technology should have been used in the first place. The clarity was welcome.
10) Lampard’s response was to bring Fikayo Tomori on for Kai Havertz. Another ineffective display raises the question as to whether the latter has been introduced too soon.
After 80 minutes struggling to find his way against Brighton, this was the last opponent Havertz needed. He was rushed into every decision, crowded out of every space and used more as an aerial threat than anything else. No player had more unsuccessful touches – defined as instances of poor control – for either side (4); to say he only played the first half that is actually quite the achievement.
After integrating Christian Pulisic so well last season, Lampard perhaps ought to follow a similar template. The American started three of Chelsea’s first four Premier League games but none of the next five as he acclimatised to the pace, physicality and style, as well as his new teammates. Havertz looks like he needs that same show of patience.
11) Tomori, on that note, was really good. It was enough to make one wonder why he hadn’t played since February.
“With four centre-backs last year, two will be unhappy pretty much every week,” Lampard said before the Brighton game. “It’s up to them to try and make a starting place their own, and those are just the rules at a club like Chelsea.”
It is now on the manager not to bend his own rules to the point of them snapping. Christensen has not been good enough for months, if not years. Zouma hardly engenders confidence, nor does Antonio Rudiger. Thiago Silva might well help in that regard but Tomori has surely earned his chance again.
12) The one hallmark of Liverpool’s approach was patience. Even when Chelsea were managing to keep them at bay there was no sense of panic or apprehension. Passes that were slightly too long or a little too short were greeted with applause at the idea instead of frustration at the execution. They simply maintained their tempo – Thiago was key upon his half-time introduction – and kept their heads.
The opening goal was a glorious flowing passing move, the final 15 seconds of which saw six different Liverpool players have at least one touch as Chelsea were rendered almost motionless. Firmino and Salah combined excellently to create room for Mane’s header. The Senegalese would add his second minutes later, this time forcing an actual mistake from Kepa and securing his demotion.
After Salah took centre stage last week, Mane slotted into that role wonderfully. There is still a healthy, productive and friendly tension between the two that brings out the best in the other, with Firmino the perfect foil for both. It is safe to start discussing them as one of the greatest attacking trios in history; in Premier League terms, they are already unique in their sheer longevity.
13) Poor Kepa. Sorry, mate. He is the exception to the rule of Still, how’s this for timing?
— Fabrizio Romano (@FabrizioRomano) September 20, 2020
14) Thiago could have curled one out in the centre circle before dozing off for a nap and still been praised for his impact. He was excellent and Liverpool might not necessarily have found as easy a way through without him, but this was also against a bizarrely welcoming opponent already reduced to ten men.
Those merrily quoting selective statistics will ignore not only a clumsily conceded penalty but also the fact that James Milner actually completed more passes per minute. As predictably great as Thiago was, the season is far too long to spaff such loads so early.
15) Chelsea lost 2-0 to Liverpool goals in the 50th and 54th minutes, ending with 36.8% possession. They were beaten by the same team and the same scoreline, conceding in the 51st and 53rd minutes with 36.2% possession, in April 2019.
Lampard does need time, as with any manager. He can and will point to mistakes made by Christensen and Kepa, and the fact Chelsea were one missed penalty away from having 15 minutes to equalise at home to the champions with momentum in their favour.
It is just that such stagnation will not be permitted for too long. Maurizio Sarri at least implemented a style: hit it to Werner and hope will soon dissipate any good will from the fans and owner.
16) Liverpool have now won playing poorly and well, against pressing teams and passive teams, home and away already this season, with some members of the first team yet to even approach their best. Trent Alexander-Arnold and Andy Robertson have been at around half capacity so far yet that gap to the rest only widens.
They probably should have been favourites. They surely are now. Manchester City, through no fault on their own, are already fighting an uphill battle to catch up, never mind keep up. No other team is close.