Chelsea 1-1 Liverpool: 16 Conclusions

Date published: Sunday 30th September 2018 7:53

1) Ladies and gentlemen, a moment please. It seems that Mark Lawrenson is a genius.

The tendency is to predict games between two of the Premier League’s Big Six to finish as 1-1 draws. It might be a reluctance to back either side for fear of being wrong, or simply a reflection of how close they generally are in terms of both individual and team quality. Such games are often cagey, tense, anxious.

This was not. Not even slightly. Chelsea and Liverpool are well-matched, but instead of trying to neutralise the threat of the other, they sought only to accentuate their own positives. The hosts did not defend deep in their own half for fear of being stunned on the counter-attack; the visitors did not man-mark Eden Hazard or Jorginho. They simply played to their own strengths.

This was a 1-1 draw between two elite Premier League teams, but both sets of fans and neutrals alike leave satisfied, where all too often, there is a bitter, disappointing taste left in the mouth.

 

2) Between them, the two sides made two changes to their starting line-ups. Chelsea retained the same players that laboured to a draw with West Ham, so both alterations came from the visitors. Joe Gomez and James Milner were restored, meaning Virgil van Dijk overcame a late issue to keep his place.

As interesting as it would have been to see Liverpool without their defensive leader, this was a time to view both these teams in positions as strong as possible. These were heavyweights entering the ring at no less than 90%, and the subsequent contest benefited for it. Had either side been even slightly weakened, it would have detracted from both the performances and the result. As it was, this was a more accurate gauge of where both currently are at the respective points of their journeys.

Spoiler: They’re both doing alright.

 

3) Mohamed Salah had the first shot on target, but his early effort was tame, welcomed by Kepa. One minute later came a warning that every Liverpool player failed to heed but one. Alisson reacted quickly to stop Willian when his compatriot was played clean through.

It would not be the first time. With the scores still level, David Luiz picked out an inch-perfect pass for the winger, and Andrew Robertson was caught out of position, flat-footed. Once again, Alisson stormed off his line, the pink-shirted panther thwarting Inspector Willian once more.

There were two further times when Alisson raced off his line again to put out defensive fires in the second half. He was signed for his confidence on the ball, but also for his proactive decision-making. Too often Simon Mignolet would let such moments pass him by, relying on his shot-stopping ability instead of cutting attacks off at the source. The difference is immense, and the entire defence knows that they can fall on the safety net behind them instead of fearing the worst.

 

4) Kepa deserves great credit, too. The world’s most expensive goalkeeper has been cast into the shadow of his predecessor this season, with Alisson stealing the limelight for good and bad. Yet Thibaut Courtois’ replacement is coming into his own, with just one moment of supreme brilliance soiling his clean sheet.

There was nothing Kepa could do about Sturridge’s strike. Indeed, Chelsea should already have conceded an equaliser when Mane wriggled free in the penalty area and shot towards the near post. The Spaniard’s save was remarkable, showing Alisson how to get down quickly to a low drive.

His distribution is also much better in comparison to the opening weeks. After completing 65.8% and 72.7% of his passes in Chelsea’s first two games, that rate has since been above 80% in his subsequent five appearances. Here, he completed 83.7% of his passes – more than eight teammates, five Liverpool players and, most notably, Alisson himself (67.9%).

Chelsea signed Petr Cech when he was 21; at just 23, if he continues to improve at this rate, Kepa the keeper might one day be spoken of in similar terms to Cech the Czech at Stamford Bridge. He really is that good.

 

5) Anyone connected in any way with Chelsea will be eager to forget last season. But to do so would be to overlook just how bizarre the demotion of David Luiz was. If Antonio Conte’s decision to exile Diego Costa was more notable, his choice to turn Luiz into an outcast was more questionable.

Thirty-three Premier League games en-route to the title in 2016/17 became ten matches in 2017/18. He is back in favour under Sarri, and has already proven his worth to the cause within seven appearances.

This was perhaps Luiz’s best performance in a Chelsea shirt. He was excellent on the ball, creating one chance for Willian and another for Olivier Giroud. He was also impeccable in defence, his five interceptions and two blocked shots both the highest of any player, and his clearance off the line from Roberto Firmino’s header imperative. He is back in from the cold, and was ice cool under pressure on Saturday.

 

6) The expectation was that Chelsea would dominate possession while Liverpool soaked up the pressure, waiting for any and every opportunity to pounce on the counter-attack. This was the pass-masters against the press-masters, styles that mesh together perfectly for entertainment.

Yet it was Liverpool who enjoyed most of the possession in the early stages, and Chelsea who hunted in packs, seeking to hit them on the break. The opener came when Joe Gomez and Alisson were ruthlessly pressed in possession to the point where Virgil van Dijk saw just one option: to clear his lines and strike the ball deep into Chelsea’s half.

Within 15 seconds, the Blues led. Marcos Alonso headed the ball down, N’Golo Kante stabbed it to Luiz, Hazard flicked his pass into Mateo Kovacic, who played a one-two with Jorginho before picking out Hazard’s run from deep. The Belgian found perhaps the only area of the goal out of Alisson’s reach, and Chelsea were 1-0 up. Liverpool had been given a does of their own counter-attacking medicine.

 

7) Make no mistake: Hazard’s goal was as impressive as his strike in midweek, if not more so. This was born not from individual brilliance but from seamless teamwork, and a lightning-quick transition from defence to attack. This was intricate, incisive, one-touch football, elevated by an electric finish.

That it required five components to work in telepathic union, as opposed to the team relying on one phenomenal talent, should delight Sarri. As wonderful as Wednesday’s goal was, this was irrefutable proof that his message is getting through.

 

8) Hazard’s opener added an extra layer of intrigue. This was the first time Liverpool had been behind in the Premier League this season, and only the second time they had conceded in the first half of their last 13 league games. The other occasion? At Stamford Bridge in May.

So this was a long-awaited test of how this team reacts to adversity. Yet not a great deal actually had to change. Liverpool had been on the front foot with Salah, Mane and Firmino having four shots between them before the goal. The problem was wastefulness: Chelsea were far more ruthless, scoring with their third effort on goal.

Six minutes after the Blues took the lead, Liverpool had their best chance. Another moment of defensive indecision allowed Firmino to play Salah in behind, and the Egyptian held Alonso off before rounding Kepa. But the angle was difficult, and Antonio Rudiger recovered to clear off the line.

It might have been easier for Liverpool if they had started poorly, forcing Klopp into a change of system or personnel. As it was, they were doing everything right until the crucial last touch.

 

9) Part of the issue might well have been in midfield, where Liverpool found themselves in an unfamiliar position. The trio of Milner, Jordan Henderson and Georginio Wijnaldum were outshone by Chelsea’s three, and could not link as efficiently with the forwards as usual.

Their creativity was lacking. Milner, Henderson and Wijnaldum created one chance between them, and the only Liverpool midfielder to have a shot was Naby Keita, on for 13 minutes as a substitute. Chelsea have perhaps the best and most varied midfield options in the entire Premier League, so losing out to them in that area is no cause for concern. But it does suggest that Keita, when he is fully fit and available, should start against such opposition.

 

10) With 66 minutes gone, and Liverpool still desperately searching for an equaliser, they removed their biggest goal threat. Salah scored 44 goals last season, but is understandably struggling to scale such heights again.

The Egyptian had more shots than any player (4) despite his early substitution, and is still finding the same positions that saw him shatter records just months ago. To that end, there should be no concern. And his missing chances is nothing new: he did so at quite the rate last season. Yet after failing to score in 12 of his 36 league appearances (33%) in 2017/18, he has now been off the scoresheet in four of seven games (57.1%) this season.

The irony is that Liverpool created better chances after Salah was removed. Had the Egyptian been in Xherdan Shaqiri’s shoes when Andrew Robertson’s cross found him unmarked, the Reds would have been level.

 

11) And they really ought to have been. Shaqiri’s chance was striking, as it was one of the first times Robertson had broken from his defensive shackles and contributed in attack. The Scot struggled to contain Willian, and Trent Alexander-Arnold found it equally difficult to silence Hazard. The teenager was at fault for Chelsea’s goal, pulled completely out of position as the Belgian sauntered through.

Liverpool’s full-backs have rarely been so ineffective, and certainly not both of them in the same game. The good news is that they still managed to create three chances between them. But on this occasion, they failed to strike the balance between defence and attack. They are fortunate that it did not prove even more costly.

 

12) As the clock ran down, it seemed as though Liverpool were to suffer their first league defeat of the season. It was not through the want of trying. They had huffed and puffed, blowing down the houses Chelsea had made of straw and sticks. But faced with the one of stone, they had no answer.

At least, that would have been the case last season. Liverpool’s most regular substitutes in 2017/18 were Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain (18 sub appearances), James Milner (16 sub appearances) and Dominic Solanke (16 sub appearances). Two midfielders and one non-scoring striker were Klopp’s most relied-upon weapons from the bench.

But a summer of investment has improved both their starting line-up and their squad options. Against Chelsea, Joel Matip, Alberto Moreno, Fabinho, Naby Keita, Shaqiri and Daniel Sturridge could all be called upon: a rescue team signed for a cumulative £133.45m is nothing to sniff at.

 

13) So it proved. Liverpool threw on Shaqiri after 66 minutes to provide a new attacking dimension, Keita after 78 to drive from deep and force the situation, and Sturridge after 86 in the hope of producing some magic. Klopp’s Plan B may as well have strolled onto the pitch with a cape, top hat and cane.

Sturridge was given scraps and turned it into a feast. It was the footballing equivalent of feeding the 5,000 (give or take) Liverpool fans with five loaves, two fish and four minutes. His goal was sublime, utterly typical of Sturridge in that it wasn’t typical at all: there are few players more capable of such unpredictable brilliance. And there are few teams able to keep such a brilliantly unpredictable player in reserve.

 

14) Chelsea had actually averted the initial danger. Keita burst forward from midfield but the move broke down with Luiz’s interception, and the ball fell to substitute Ross Barkley. He ceded possession instantly, panicking in his attempts to clear and launch a counter-attack, and just giving the ball straight back instead.

No-one could have predicted what would happen as a result, with Shaqiri laying the ball off and Sturridge dipping a sensational strike over Kepa from 30 yards. But it came from such a preventable situation. Chelsea had almost put out the fire before Barkley stumbled in spilling gasoline everywhere.

 

15) It was a shame, for Chelsea’s midfielders had been excellent in possession prior to that. Jorginho was the heartbeat and Kovacic the brains of the operation. Kante, as ever, was the lungs. But he was so much more too.

I raised questions of the Frenchman’s suitability in this system after a poor performance against West Ham, yet this was an emphatic response. It was Kante’s quick-thinking that released Hazard from a free-kick in the second half, and his pass that also released Willian in a similar situation. His ability on the ball has always been underrated, and perhaps Liverpool themselves were guilty of that as well.

It remains strange to watch his defensive game nullified. He did not make a single tackle, interception, clearance or block in 90 minutes for the first time in his Premier League career. And it remains the case that, against weaker sides more intent on sitting back and defending, he is not the best option. But this was a reminder of his excellence in games against the elite, were it ever needed.

 

16) “They are a step ahead of us at this moment,” said Sarri last week. “We have to work then, maybe, in one year we will be at the same level as Liverpool.”

The Italian’s insistence on preaching patience is understandable. This is one of the biggest stylistic changes Chelsea have undergone in their Premier League history, and these players have adapted phenomenally under the circumstances. But every revolution comes with its difficulties, and that is surely still to come.

Which makes it even more impressive that, against a team much further ahead in its development, Chelsea more than held their own. The work-in-progress came within a matter of minutes of beating the near-finished article – very much an achievement in itself.

To those who expect Chelsea to follow the same pattern of finishing as champions one season (2014/15 and 2016/17) before collapsing in the next (10th in 2015/16, 5th in 2017/18) and switching managers, think again. The Blues have too many obstacles to the Premier League title this season, but that is not the point. If they are this good in Sarri’s first two months in charge, just imagine how high their ceiling is.

Matt Stead

 

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