Chelsea have a new manager, Liverpool have a new midfield, but nothing anyone does can ever seemingly stop this fixture ending all square. Never mind that, though: 16 Conclusions is BACK…
1) A great deal may have changed at Liverpool and Chelsea over the last year or so, but the outcome when they meet remains the same. An eventful 1-1 draw just about represented a reasonable outcome – and one broadly acceptable to both new sides as they head into the unknown of new eras – for a game Liverpool started and finished the stronger but which Chelsea controlled for long periods in between. And a draw is what always happens between these two anyway – this was their seventh consecutive stalemate across two-and-a-half years and three competitions.
2) The new-look nature of both teams certainly made for an exciting Super Sunday. One could, if one were so inclined, have produced 16 Conclusions at the release of the teamsheets alone. Chelsea’s back three. Liverpool’s midfield. Robert Sanchez as Chelsea’s new No. 1. Alexis Mac Allister as a number six. It’s all tremendously exciting.
Chelsea’s rebuild and brave new era is the most profound, featuring as it also does a new manager who has burned his bridges in north London to take up the Stamford Bridge hotseat, but Liverpool’s rather chaotic midfield was perhaps the most striking single element of it all.
Both these teams turning out just after Ange Postecoglou’s Spurs had entertained and amused on their Premier League bow really did hammer home the amount of flux currently in play at three of the Big Six.
We know what we’re going to get from Manchester City, but even Arsenal and United remain vaguely unpredictable quantities. Those two are clearly more likely to succeed and progress than fail and falter, but the latter remains distinctly possible. These two and Spurs, though, are far harder to predict. Which is tremendously exciting. And we’ve not even got on to the subject of Villa-spanking Newcastle…
3) The Caicedo Derby nevertheless highlighted just why both teams would very much like to wildly overpay for him. The early evidence suggested it was Chelsea’s whose needs were the greater, but before long it was undoubtedly Liverpool’s midfield looking more desperately in need of some Brighton ballast.
Chelsea’s midfield is far from perfect, with Conor Gallagher a compelling midfielder but not one who gives off the vibe of a midfield tempo-setter for a title-challenging team, but it does contain Enzo Fernandez. He was very much the best – and quite often appeared only – central midfielder on display at Stamford Bridge, and one moment fairly early on highlighted the problem Liverpool will face until that midfield has some proper steel to it. Fernandes was allowed absolutely freedom to run onto a pass and get a shot away as an obliviously jogging Mac Allister failed to notice the nascent threat. There is no chance Fernandes himself would have been so blithely unaware of his compatriot had roles been reversed.
4) The inevitable outcome of the midfield porosity was defensive uncertainty. Neither side will be entirely happy with the way they defended, with all together too much last-gaspery for comfort. Both teams conceded twice in quick succession in the first half, both were fortunate to see the second concession chalked off by VAR offside decisions whose freeze frames highlighted the disconcertingly wonkiness of both backlines. These were not mechanically sprung offside traps. They were just dumb luck that the attackers had gone a fraction too early.
5) Liverpool’s opener was fully deserved for a team that bossed the first quarter of the game as Chelsea tried to get acquainted with each other and Premier League pace against elite opposition. Fair to say Chelsea and Poch would not have chosen this game to kick things off.
The move began with the other side of the deep-lying Mac Allister coin as his quarterback’s pass fizzed 50 yards inexorably on to the boot of Mohamed Salah, whose control was instant. He had a backpedalling Ben Chilwell twisted all out of shape before squaring superbly into the space Chelsea’s backtracking defenders couldn’t get to where a positively Sadio Mane-esque run from Luis Diaz put him on hand for the finishing touch. A lovely goal that highlighted Liverpool’s easy early dominance and Chelsea’s hurried and harried struggle to get to grips with proceedings.
6) Diaz’s goal was the first between these two since January 2 2022, 588 days ago. There have been four games, 553 minutes of action, two epic penalty shoot-outs in Liverpool’s favour and four Chelsea managers between Christian Pulisic’s equaliser late in the first half in January 2022 and Luis Diaz’s goal.
7) No doubt further discombobulated by such a long-awaited goal, Chelsea were still running through treacle when Salah thought he’d made it two and maintained his own 100 per cent record of scoring in Liverpool’s opening game of the Premier League season. VAR came to Chelsea’s rescue and kept them in the game at a time when it could easily have slipped entirely away.
8) Another newbie on this opening Premier League weekend was Peter Drury as Sky’s new main man for Super Sunday big games in place of Martin ‘And It’s Live’ Tyler. His was a very Drury performance, which you will therefore either have loved or hated. “They walked through many a storm last season, Liverpool. But ended it with their heads held high.” A classic Drury line, and the best of his pre-prepared stuff, dropped in nonchalantly at a timely moment with none of the clanging and clunky “NOTICE WHAT I DID THERE” performance that Drury can be guilty of at his most parodic. Whatever your views on Drury, though, it was undeniably and objectively funny to watch him waste all his prepared Salah opening-day goal lines on a strike subsequently ruled out.
9) Perhaps Chelsea were reinvigorated by not slipping further behind. Perhaps Liverpool were knocked out of their stride by it. Perhaps it was both. Or neither. What certainly did happen was that Chelsea began to find a foothold in the game and found there were some fraying edges in Liverpool’s team to be picked at. By the time the equaliser came, Chilwell’s hopeful header back into danger catching everyone bar debutant Axel Disasi sleeping, it was well deserved.
10) Moments later, Chilwell – like Salah before him – thought he’d gone from provider to goalscorer. But Chilwell – like Salah before him – was to be correctly if irritatingly denied by VAR. Irritating in both cases because such was the confusion in the defensive line behind which the attacker was running that such millimetre precision in flirting with the offside line was not required. A particular shame in Chilwell’s case as he found himself in the most unlikely position yet took his ‘goal’ with delightful aplomb. There are few strikers who have succeeded in sitting Alisson on his backside as Chilwell did here, and vanishingly fewer left-backs.
11) In the second half, Chelsea grew stronger. Chilwell and the less famous footballing James sibling Reece became the game’s key figures. Whether or not Pochettino persists with a back three, it’s not hard to see how important this pair could become to the success or otherwise of his Chelsea reign.
Whether technically wing-backs or full-backs they both provide the necessary width and attacking thrust Poch’s style requires of his wide defenders and more importantly the quality. In James and Chilwell he has his Walker and Rose.
12) As long as James’ body doesn’t let him down. The sight of James leaving the field yet again, passing the captain’s armband to his fellow wing-back, is a worry and a frustration. In the last two seasons, James has been ruled out by 10 separate spells of injury or illness and missed 45 games as a result. He, Chelsea and also England would dearly love to see that record improve.
13) Salah’s substitution with 15 minutes to go was greeted with anger by the Egyptian and saw the end of his opening-day scoring record. A shame, because we were genuinely interested to see what Drury would have done? Freestyle it, or just repeat the previous content like the disallowed goal hadn’t happened. Salah had been Liverpool’s best player when they were running the game, hitting the bar, setting up the opener and coming within a Stockley Park line of scoring himself but had faded with his team.
Harvey Elliott came on in his place and had an invigorating effect on Liverpool. He was lively and direct on the ball and along with Darwin Nunez had Liverpool looking by far the likelier late winner. There are issues in midfield that need urgently addressing, but what Liverpool don’t lack is attacking, game-changing options. With Elliott, Cody Gakpo, Dominik Szoboszlai and Mac Allister they have the attacking midfield area well stocked. The new midfielder who comes in, whoever it ends up being, really can be a purely defensive option. Liverpool are still always going to have five predominantly attack-minded players on the pitch at any one time and they really will need relatively little assistance.
14) Liverpool’s midfield problems were highlighted by their chaotic pass stats. The lack of control Liverpool were able to hold on the game was shown by only one starting player nudging into the 90s for pass-completion percentage, and that being Luis Diaz for hitting red with 18 of 20 attempts. That Szoboszlai-Mac Allister-Gakpo can’t really work week in, week out as a Premier League midfield three despite all their many qualities should be obvious enough, but is hammered home by two of them hovering around the 80 per cent mark. It put strain on Liverpool’s defence and saw too many attacks breaking down at source.
15) An encouraging debut for Chelsea striker Nicolas Jackson. You’d always want a goal to round off the performance, especially given the close-range chance he blazed over the bar, but overall his performance was a net positive. He certainly provided the attacking focal point that Chelsea have lacked for some time now and they will be a better side for having a proper striker to work around than just chucking a load of assorted attacking players at the pitch and seeing what happens. It seemed to have a pleasing effect on Raheem Sterling too, who produced one of his best performances since making the switch to Chelsea last year.
16) And in mandatory hostage-to-fortune areas, we are duty bound to end with a snap prediction on how these two teams will fare. Both are works in progress both in personnel and style, but Liverpool are clearly further along that road. Chelsea will surely end the season better than they start it as long as the owners show faith and patience in the man they’ve brought in to turn their fortunes around. Neither look top-four finishers on this evidence, but that’s not to say that they can’t make the necessary improvements to get there. It really is tremendous fun to have so many teams starting this season who we struggle to predict. With this pair there are so many possible outcomes and it’s wildly difficult even to decide which of those possibilities feels the likeliest right now.