16 Conclusions: Chelsea 1-0 Liverpool

Daniel Storey

* When they were 2-0 down at Southampton on April 14, Chelsea faced the prospect of being ten points behind Tottenham and Liverpool, having played a game more than the former. The overwhelming feeling was that the players had given up on making the top four, and were playing out the final days of Antonio Conte’s reign. Some journalists even made the point that they were refusing to fight for their manager.

If the final 20 minutes of that game brought three Chelsea goals, the following three weeks have brought perfection. Beating Burnley, Southampton and Swansea is hardly groundbreaking, but on Sunday Chelsea really did give themselves a fighting chance of Champions League football next season. They are still relying on Tottenham or Liverpool making significant mistakes, but there is at least no limp finish to this season. That will help Conte’s lasting reputation too.

Most importantly, Chelsea beat one of their top-six rivals on Sunday. Their previous results against the current top six in 2018:

Arsenal (a) – 2-2 draw
Arsenal (h) – 0-0 draw
Arsenal (a) – 1-2 loss
Manchester United (a) – 1-2 loss
Manchester City (a) – 0-1 loss
Tottenham (h) – 1-3 loss

That depressing run is over, if not thanks to a blistering display, then at least a performance containing plenty of guts and fight. It is exactly those characteristics that many doubted Chelsea could still show under Conte.

 

* Most of all, this was a defensive masterclass. Antonio Rudiger and Gary Cahill started only seven league games together between August and April; one was the replacement for the other, or so it looked. But they were picked by Conte for the FA Cup semi-final after Andreas Christensen was dropped, and Chelsea looked solid. They have kept clean sheets in both Premier League games since.

Liverpool’s wonderful attacking line was kept at arm’s length. This was the first time that Liverpool have failed to score in a game in which all three of their first-choice forwards have started since January 22, and Liverpool had only five shots on target in total. Mohamed Salah failed to have more than one shot in a match for only the second time since October. Only three times have Liverpool had fewer shots in a league game this season.

Salah, Sadio Mane and Roberto Firmino played 21 passes to each other, but had only six shots between them and most of those came in the opening 20 minutes. From the moment Chelsea took the lead, their defenders allowed their opponents to operate outside the penalty area, but shut them down as soon as they got closer to goal.

 

* For Liverpool, hardly a disaster but certainly an inconvenience. Jurgen Klopp knows that victory over Brighton at Anfield on the final day guarantees his team Champions League football next season, but he picked the strongest available side at Stamford Bridge to try and get the job done a week early and thus give key players a rest next weekend. That cannot be done now. They have also gone three league games without a win for the first time since October. Nobody wanted final-day nerves.

Most concerning ahead of the Real Madrid game is that a number of players look a little puffed, and there is little on the bench to change a match in such circumstances. For evidence of how far Klopp has taken Liverpool given the squad depth, look at the two sets of outfielders on the benches:

Ross Barkley, Pedro, Willian, Christensen, Emerson, Davide Zappacosta – three players signed this season and five of the six costing more than £15m.

Jordan Henderson, Ragnar Klavan, Alberto Moreno, Danny Ings, Dominic Solanke and Ben Woodburn – one player signed this season, and one of the six costing more than £15m (in 2011).

 

* The notable absentee in the two teams was Alvaro Morata. The Chelsea striker spoke this week to offer a partial explanation for his disappointing league form.

“It has been a complicated year for me and I don’t think it’s been the best year for the team either,” Morata said in an interview with Marca. “I’ve gone through a tough year. It all started so well. Everybody loved me and I was scoring goals, but it’s different now.

“People say things to me on the street, but they don’t know what I’ve gone through. The person who does know what I’ve gone through is my wife. I would rather have torn a muscle and be out for three months than not know exactly what I had. I wanted to play and to keep scoring, but I couldn’t. I didn’t know what I had.”

It’s an interesting case, particularly given that Chelsea have not mentioned the injury much this season and Morata has chosen now to explain the exact situation. The Spaniard has started 23 league games and will probably reach 2,000 league minutes, but his revelation that he has been having injections just to play raises questions about why Michy Batshuayi was not given more time to impress.

It also shows that Morata must be keen to see the end of this debut season in England. He spoke of being abused in the street and finding it difficult to get to terms with English refereeing. Given that he is still to reach 25 top-flight starts in a season and turns 26 in October, there must be concerns about his physical problems since arriving at Chelsea.

 

* Given Morata’s issues, signing Olivier Giroud in January was the perfect fillip for Conte. Before Sunday, the Frenchman had scored all six of his league goals this season from the bench, but got his first when starting against Liverpool. He is far from the perfect striker, but there are few players in Europe who you would rather have six to ten yards from goal with a headed chance.

Which all makes his Arsenal sale so utterly farcical. Even if Giroud didn’t perfectly fit into Arsenal’s style – and even if they had signed a striker last summer and another in January – selling a player to a rival is a massive risk. Selling to a rival who are competing with you for a top-four place tips the balance against it being a good idea. Particularly when the fee was just £18m.

Had Arsenal told Giroud that he could leave the club but only for another European club, it would have tested quite how much he desired the first-team football that may get him a World Cup starting spot. This was the easy way out for him and for Chelsea.

 

* In 16 Conclusions on Wednesday evening, I described how Liverpool played ‘active’ football rather than ‘passive’, and the start of the match demonstrated this perfectly. While Chelsea were happy to sit back and react to the match situation, Klopp’s side played as if they were at home. They forced the tempo of the game, dictating its pattern.

It doesn’t always go badly, but this is the frustration that many Chelsea supporters have had with Conte this season. After the manner in which Chelsea won the title last season, with a change of formation that seized control of the campaign, they have sleepwalked their way through too many league matches since. Thankfully, they improved for the middle third of the game before sitting deep again for the final 30 minutes.

 

* This is a statement of fact rather than a criticism, because by goodness he deserves a dip, but Salah’s form has tailed off in the last three matches. He looked tired during the home game against Stoke City, and wasn’t exactly influential during the second leg in Rome either. Against Chelsea, the zip was lacking.

The best thing for Klopp to do now is to give him a rest ahead of the Champions League final. If Salah is indeed showing signs of late-season fatigue, the chances of him picking up a muscle injury will increase. Klopp knows only too well how vital he will be to their chances of lifting the European Cup.

 

* Still, in a season where Salah’s goalscoring exploits have been truly extraordinary and he has created plenty of chances for his teammates too, it’s good to find one thing that he isn’t good at. The dive to earn a yellow card in the first half was truly awful.

 

* Eden Hazard regularly gets tarred by the Chelsea brush, subjected to accusations that he downs tools whenever a manager is under pressure in order to get them sacked. You will remember that he was one of the Chelsea ‘rats’ from that infamous homemade banner.

He doesn’t deserve that. Too often with Hazard, the focus on what he is not (Lionel Messi) rather than what he is (one of the best creative players in world football).

But Hazard’s best attribute is not his chance creation or dribbling, but the physical resilience that facilitates those strengths. Time and again he is fouled by those looking to unsettle or injure him. Time and again he puts up with it and time and again he comes out on top. Even in the latter stages of big matches, he has the energy to sprint from a standing start and fly past players.

Against Liverpool, Hazard was again the game’s best attacking player. Only one player on the pitch (Victor Moses) created more chances, only two Chelsea player had more touches of the ball and none (as is typical) was fouled more often. Almost every time a Chelsea attacker finds space in the final third from open play, it is because Hazard has created it.

 

* Like his Belgian international teammate Kevin de Bruyne, Hazard’s strength is best demonstrated when he has the ball trapped under his foot, with three opponents trying to dispossess him. They swarm around him and try to jostle him off the ball, but with two flicks of his boot he moves the ball this way and that, all the while fending them off with his upper body strength.

This isn’t just about physical strength, but mental resolve too. It’s a sacrifice for the greater good despite it hardly being enjoyable.

Twenty years ago, players with the skills and creativity of Hazard were targeted by opposition managers because they didn’t fancy it. Foreign players didn’t like the cold, didn’t like physicality and didn’t like adversity. The stereotype is dead.

 

* Sunday morning’s gossip columns again linked Tiemoue Bakayoko with a move away from Chelsea this summer, but also put a spanner in the works of a potential exit. The Sun on Sunday reported that Borussia Dortmund were prepared to walk away from a deal for the Frenchman due to an asking price of £53m. That does indeed seem ridiculous.

Bakayoko’s future at Stamford Bridge probably depends on the assessment of Conte’s successor, but the final few games of the season allow the midfielder to generate some goodwill ahead of the summer. To be frank, he could do with some.

Against Liverpool, Bakayoko was much better. He looked sharper in possession than we have seen previously, managing to avoid getting caught on the ball as so often this season. The passing was more accurate too, boasting the second highest completion rate of any Chelsea starter despite occasionally looking for probing forward passes.

The pass for Giroud’s goal was a fine example of the improvement. Too often this season, Bakayoko has attempted longer balls forward that have gone astray, forcing him inside his shell and into merely playing simple balls five or ten yards in length. Here, he lofted a pass with fade 40 yards across the pitch to Moses, whose cross found Giroud’s head.

 

* Mane is a wonderful player, but there are times when he is as frustrating as he is brilliant. Twice in the first half he was presented with the ball on a counter attack and passed up the chance to play in a teammate too easily. One did bring a brilliant challenge from N’Golo Kante, but it was still Mane’s loose touch that allowed the tackle to be made.

The issue is that Mane takes lots of touches while dribbling forward, preferring to keep the ball far closer to his feet than, say, Leroy Sane might. That means he can often take one or two too many touches, and either get the ball caught under his feet or play his way into tighter spaces than necessary as opponents catch up with him.

It’s a very small criticism, but one that stems from a compliment. Mane has so much potential that it’s infuriating when he doesn’t quite make the most of it.

 

* Can I reveal one of my football fetishes, please? Thanks. When a home player receives the ball (usually in defence or midfield), and the crowd scream “man on” as an opposition player runs forward in the player’s blind spot. There was a wonderful example during the first half, when 30,000 people helped out Cahill.

I love it so much, a piece of pure football pantomime and the only time when football really has any audience participation in the flow of the match. Of course the player’s teammates will also warn him of the danger, and professional players have brilliant situation awareness anyway, but I love the idea of everyone helping out an international sportsman in unison.

 

* Trent Alexander-Arnold has gone from Liverpool youngster to first-team fixture in the space of six months through doing many excellent things, but this was not a day to remember. If the defensive questions about his game are mostly eradicated when playing in central midfield, that position requires more of him down the wing. Particularly when Salah drifts infield to create space for him to overlap.

The overlapping part was fine, but against Chelsea Alexander-Arnold’s crossing was dismal. On three separate occasions he put the ball into the stand behind Thibaut Courtois’ goal when given the chance to find any one of three teammates in the box, Once is never and twice is always, but three times was bloody infuriating for the watching Klopp.

 

* A the game drew to a close, rumours surfaced of Liverpool agreeing a £62m deal for Nabil Fekir of Lyon. The Frenchman would be another in the attacking midfielder/forward mould rather than a traditional centre forward, which might well fit Klopp perfectly. Liverpool’s manager played dumb post-game on reports of a deal being done.

Liverpool certainly need someone, because Solanke is not the answer. That might sound incredibly harsh about a 20-year-old, but he needs a loan move away from Liverpool for the entirety of next season to get some minutes and goals under his belt. If the Rangers connection works with Steven Gerrard, so be it.

Right now, Solanke is totally unfit for purpose. His first touch is lacking, his finishing is poor and he offers far less than Danny Ings in the penalty box. When you are chasing a game against a high-class defence, Klopp needs far, far more.

 

* But the final word must go to Rudiger, comfortably the game’s best player. The German has taken time to settle into life in English football. He reportedly got on Conte’s bad side after criticising the team’s inability to kill off matches, blaming the manager’s tactics for the problem:

“For me, it’s not easy to explain. I don’t understand why after 1-0 we always drop and let the opponent get more ball possession. Like the last weeks again, we gave them a gift.”

Yet while Morata, Zappacosta, Danny Drinkwater and Bakayoko have all struggled, Rudiger is easily the most successful of Chelsea’s summer 2017 signings. Only five Chelsea players have played more Premier League minutes, but most instructive is that Rudiger has started in 13 Chelsea clean sheets in his 25 starts. Without him, they have kept three in 12 games.

Daniel Storey