1) ‘Is Jurgen Klopp a Messiah or a myth?’ asked one prominent website in February 2018. It is a headline that, little over 12 months on, seems almost certainly satirical, the sort one might find in a particularly uninspiring version of The Onion.
Yet such questions were genuinely being asked with Liverpool three months removed from a Champions League final. That Klopp had matched predecessor Brendan Rodgers’ record of 70 wins from his first 135 games in charge was being used as a stick to beat him with. Not long before that, Klopp’s reign was even being unfavourably compared with that of David Moyes at Manchester United.
Those detractors have been silent – or, rather, silenced – for some time. Klopp has now won 112 of his first 200 games as Liverpool manager, has recorded the club’s fifth-highest English top-flight points tally in a single season with four games still to play, and has equalled their record for most league wins in a single campaign.
He is neither Messiah nor myth; he is just a damn good football manager. Liverpool cannot change that for the worse over their next four league games, but they can make it an awful lot better.
2) Not that this was a performance to delight a manager who demands no less than his messages to be heeded to the letter. There were moments, especially at 2-0 up, when Klopp was apoplectic on the touchline as his players threatened to be carried away on the wave of an immense home support.
Liverpool played better with the scores level than they did in the ten minutes after earning a two-goal advantage. Passes went awry, Roberto Firmino started attempting random Rabonas and Andy Robertson was still charging recklessly into the Chelsea area to leave the hosts completely exposed to the counter-attack. Their game management was terrible until they eventually settled.
But it was endearing, and the result of a collective release of colossal pressure after a few days of build-up. That Klopp will be eager to eradicate such emotional play exemplifies just how high his and Liverpool’s standards have become.
3) Chelsea were unfortunate in that an excellent first half was cancelled out by two suicidal second-half minutes, at which point a result seemed beyond them. They still had their chances but know all too well the pain of failing to capitalise on a situation.
Maurizio Sarri will likely be hammered for his team selection and tactics as even the worm appears to have turned against what has actually been a respectable debut season at Chelsea. But it is worth remembering that he delivered a starting line-up with Ruben Loftus-Cheek, Callum Hudson-Odoi and Emerson Palmieri, that the Blues were the better side in the first half, and that playing Liverpool at Anfield really is the most difficult fixture of this Premier League season.
Some defeats can be blamed on the manager. Others see players, either as individuals or the collective, shoulder responsibility. But there are a handful of losses throughout the season that can only be attributed to one thing: the opposition simply are – and were – better.
Chelsea lost to a team today who were just better. That doesn’t mean Sarri should be sacked or CHO & Ruben should be dropped. It just means at this moment in time we are not at the level to compete with the very best
Stop being so reactionary..
— Con (@ConnCFC) April 14, 2019
4) It was actually quite refreshing to read the general consensus when both sides announced their starting line-ups. Liverpool kept faith with the usual goalkeeper, defence and attack, supplementing it with an energetic and physical midfield of Fabinho, Naby Keita and Jordan Henderson. There was cause for optimism.
But the same could be said for Chelsea, with Sarri resisting the temptation to recall Marcos Alonso while keeping faith with Loftus-Cheek and Hudson-Odoi.
There were inevitable complaints at Eden Hazard being deployed as a false nine, but the narrative often ignores that Chelsea have won four of the six Premier League games he has started in that position this season, with the Belgian scoring three and assisting four goals. It worked against City in December, and with the alternative being Gonzalo Higuain or Olivier Giroud offered on a plate to Virgil van Dijk and Joel Matip, it made perfect sense. Even those who disagree with Sarri’s management and coaching could surely understand the justification.
5) It also allowed for a more pragmatic, organised and diligent Chelsea approach. As brilliant as Hazard is and as regrettable as it may be, playing him in his favoured left-wing position necessitates a degree of sacrifice either to his or his side’s game. There are matches in which his lack of protection for a full or wing-back is not worth the risk.
With Hazard as the focal point, Chelsea enjoyed a fine first half. The Belgian was the only outfielder not to make a single tackle, interception or clearance for the visitors in the opening 45 minutes, and while his natural attacking talents were somewhat neutered, his movement constantly occupied Liverpool. The space he created was crucial on the counter-attack for Willian in particular.
Chelsea completed 22 tackles in the first half at Anfield, at least three more than any other team in the first half of a Premier League game this season. It was when that intensity and focus dropped – they made just eight tackles in the second half, and none from the 46th minute to the 56th when Liverpool won the game – that their resolve was finally broken.
6) Chelsea posed the biggest threat before then. Mo Salah had the first shot of the game from a sixth-minute volley, but Liverpool largely toiled with the Egyptian enduring one of his more frustrating displays.
Instead it was N’Golo Kante constantly breaking the midfield lines, Hazard testing Alisson after turning Matip and Willian being released by a sensational David Luiz pass only to shoot wide that served as a reminder of Chelsea’s inherent threat. Had Willian squared for Hazard in that final situation on the half-hour mark, the discussion might have surrounded a perfectly executed counter-attacking performance.
7) But the combination of Fabinho and Keita ensured Liverpool always retained a foothold. The pair have started just six games together in central midfield in all competitions, with the League Cup third-round tie against Chelsea in September their only defeat.
With the only previous wins in that sextet of games coming against Porto, Bournemouth and Southampton, this was a significant statement and the first sign that Klopp’s vast summer investment was justified.
Keita continued his excellent recent run with an assured and innovative performance, while Fabinho was irrepressible. The Brazilian completed the most passes (78) of any player for either side, leading Liverpool for distance covered (11.69km) and tackles (4), one of which was absolutely sensational from behind on Hazard in the tenth minute.
To match a master of the art like Kante blow for blow is no mean feat. That Keita is finally approaching Fabinho’s level of impact bodes well.
Woods, Federer, O Sullivan & Fabinho. So many sporting legends alive at the same time. Appreciate them.
— DaveOCKOP (@DaveOCKOP) April 14, 2019
8) The other member of that midfield triptych was equally influential. As the last remaining regular member of Liverpool’s previous title-challenging team, one might presume that Jordan Henderson still bears the scars of that collapse. But the captain seems as motivated as anyone to heal them.
His late-season position change might yet prove to be one of the most pivotal decisions of the entire campaign. Klopp would not have relented without a phenomenal defensive midfielder in Fabinho’s mould to cover, but Henderson has benefited from a more advanced role. His cross for Sadio Mane’s opener was perfect and only possible with slightly more freedom.
Having not created more than one chance in a Premier League game all season, he laid on two against Chelsea (and three against Porto in midweek). Having failed to score or assist a single league goal since October 2017, he has one goal and two assists in April 2019 alone. Liverpool’s captain let them down against Chelsea at Anfield five years ago, but no-one was more inspirational than the skipper this time.
9) It took all of 142 seconds for Liverpool to double their lead. Salah had been exasperating in the first half, completing just one of his attempted seven dribbles and even offering a quite woeful dive. But the best players can turn at any point in any given match. And he most certainly turned Emerson Palmieri before unleashing a 25-yard rocket past Kepa in the 53rd minute.
Liverpool’s two goals were diametric opposites: one an unmarked header at an open goal from six yards out; the other a long-range effort from an angle. Yet they did bear one similarity. Mane’s opener came from Matip breaking the lines with a pass from central defence, while Salah’s goal came directly from Van Dijk’s ball over the top. The centre-halves will cherish their clean sheet, but their ball-playing abilities were integral to securing the victory.
10) What a response to those dickheads, by the way.
“I wouldn’t personally agree with it,” said Raheem Sterling in midweek of walking off the pitch as a reaction to racist abuse. “At the end of the day, I would rather go and win the game because that would hurt them even more. They’re trying to get you down, if you do walk off the pitch as a group then that makes them win. If you score a goal to win the match, then that’s even a better feeling which beats them.”
There is no particular right answer (there are numerous wrong ways) in terms of how to deal with one of football’s most depressing and growing problems. But the sight of Salah celebrating his sensational goal as he did – and the thought of those Chelsea ‘fans’ having their entire days ruined as a result – was delightful.
11) “I don’t know and the players don’t know what happened in the second half. I cannot explain it. We were in control of the match and we played very well so we needed to continue but we didn’t defend at the start of the second half. We changed the system but it was the same. The problem was mental on the pitch, so the system and the tactics are not important.”
Maurizio Sarri was speaking after his last visit to Merseyside, but the point remains. Chelsea were excellent in the first half against Everton last month, exerting their control with 11 shots to the hosts’ three, before conceding an early goal in the second half and falling to a 2-0 defeat. This was not quite the same pronounced and prolonged collapse, but the scoreline and the concerns remain the same. An explanation is still not forthcoming.
12) The most frustrating aspect for Sarri was Liverpool’s aforementioned game management in the aftermath of their second goal. After keeping the door locked throughout the first half they burst out to pounce but left it open as they were celebrating.
Hazard had two huge chances in the space of as many minutes, coinciding with his switch to the left after Higuain’s introduction. He hit the post with the first and forced a routine save from Alisson with the second. Liverpool were relieved to return home to find trespassers who had tripped over their own shoelaces mid-burglary.
There will be those who suggest Chelsea should have been level, ignoring the fact that the second opportunity does not present itself if the first is converted; the butterfly effect is a thing. But the Blues did not have another shot until stoppage time, with Liverpool hurriedly locking the door and barricading the windows. The chance was gone.
13) The substitutions were key. In the 13 minutes after Liverpool’s second goal, the hosts had just 50.9% of the possession as they gradually lost control and the game descended into an end-to-end affair. Georginio Wijnaldum was then brought on for Keita in the 66th minute, with Klopp’s side boasting 66.5% of the possession thereafter.
As excellent as Keita was, the situation called for a calmer, more reserved head. Wijnaldum – and the substitution itself – slowed the game down. James Milner came on for Henderson to reinforce the point 11 minutes later, while Xherdan Shaqiri was essentially used as a stoppage-time pawn to grant Salah a standing ovation. Liverpool abandoned the chaos; the once-twisted fire starters poured cold water on any lingering embers as soon as they could.
14) Sarri helped in that regard. His first substitution was forced and potentially turned the tide as Andreas Christensen replaced the injured Antonio Rudiger. The Dane quite understandably struggled to adapt to the pace and rhythm of the match, coming on just five minutes before half-time.
To his credit, Sarri reacted as quickly as he could after Liverpool raced into the lead. But the slow, methodical Higuain coming on for Hudson-Odoi felt like an admission of defeat, capped off when Loftus-Cheek made way for Barkley with a quarter of an hour remaining. Giroud or even Pedro would have been more useful; two of Barkley’s five touches were clearances.
Klopp made the perfect sub at the perfect time with Gini Wijnaldum coming on to counter the Chelsea pressure, which he did. He killed the game. Sarri brought on Barkley for RLC when we needed goals.
THESE ARE THE MARGINS. #CFC
— Kristian Sturt (@FootieWriter) April 14, 2019
15) Taking Hudson-Odoi off was understandable. This was the first time he had more Premier League starts to his name than international caps and his inexperience showed. Robertson had no difficulties in dealing with the teenager; Willian benefited from Emerson’s attacking support, but that has never been Azpilicueta’s strength, nor was it his remit here.
The reasoning behind taking Loftus-Cheek off was less apparent. He had the highest passing accuracy (94.3%) of any starter and no Chelsea player gained possession on more occasions (8). One instance saw him win the ball from Fabinho on the halfway line before launching a failed attack that he himself restarted when outmuscling Van Dijk in Liverpool’s area. Chelsea needed that physicality, and desperately missed it when he went off.
16) As if to enforce the point that Klopp was eager to stress on Friday, both the performance and the scoreline mirrored that of five years ago. Liverpool temporarily allowed the occasion to consume them, but only when the task at hand was more or less complete.
The pre-match narrative was typically overblown, with no Liverpool players from the 2014 game featuring half a decade on. But that should take nothing away from what was an emotional, poignant occasion. Playing on the eve of the 30th anniversary of the Hillsborough tragedy added yet another tear-soaked layer to this veritable onion of a match.
Liverpool paid their respects beautifully but retained their focus, even with City having beaten Crystal Palace earlier in the day. These “mentality monsters” Klopp has created will not let up.
Oh, and Mark Lawrenson is a genius.