Chelsea 1-2 Liverpool: 16 Conclusions

1) It takes a particular set of circumstances for a winning team to emerge from a game with more cause for concern than the side they have defeated, and for the losing team to come out the other end with their reputation enhanced. In games between this calibre of opposition, it might be entirely unique.

Chelsea 1-2 Liverpool: 16 Conclusions

Chelsea 1-2 Liverpool: 16 Conclusions

That is the monster Liverpool have created, where the result of a first Premier League away victory against a fellow Big Six side in over a year only slightly outweighs a patchy performance. The Reds are fortunate to return from Stamford Bridge with three points, but the very nature of these long winning runs is that they become self-serving.

For Chelsea, this somehow seems the most promising and positive game of their primitive season. They had twice as many shots as Liverpool, more possession, more tackles and a better passing accuracy. It felt like genuine progress, even if the scoreline doesn’t reflect it.

 

2) Liverpool won’t mind if that is the narrative. Jurgen Klopp will not be too pleased by much of what he saw but there is a reason he spent much of last season preaching about their mentality. This display made up for a lack of quality with an abundance of character.

Last season, the Reds travelled to the Stadio San Paolo and were, by their exacting standards, dreadful. Four days prior, they had battled to a 1-1 draw at Stamford Bridge. And with Manchester City’s visit coming straight after that Napoli defeat, Liverpool were struggling to answer the difficult questions being asked of them.

This season does not carry the same jeopardy of that daunting third match – their next fixture is a tough but winnable trip to Sheffield United next weekend – yet it still explained the second-half drop-off. Liverpool were clinging on by full-time; that should come as no surprise after the effort exerted amid disappointment in Naples. So to win here provides a neat juxtaposition between what was a sensational side last campaign and one that has somehow seemingly improved in 2019/20.

 

3) That should be encouraging for Chelsea. No defeat will be accepted with a smile, a nod of the head and a handshake by this club, but Frank Lampard must be proud of his team’s efforts.

This Liverpool side took almost four years for Klopp to build. This was the 150th Premier League game of the German’s reign, and only the sixth of Lampard’s. That vast gap in experience, understanding, methods and togetherness was not evidenced on Sunday.

Rome was not built in a day, Klopp’s Liverpool was not fully constructed in a season and Lampard’s Chelsea will not be assembled in a matter of months. But this was enough of an erection to show he is capable of *something*.

 

4) Quarter of an hour passed before the game’s first shot. Safe to say it was bloody well worth the wait. Trent Alexander-Arnold’s free-kick proficiency is hardly the best-kept secret; it was still an astonishing strike.

Without Fabinho, it would not have been possible. The opening stages of this game were nervy, tense, rigid. Neither side wanted to take a risk or venture too far from their comfort zone. Were feeling the opposition out a sport in itself, both would have been vying for gold.

Then came the first moment of inspiration, a simple rift in the status quo. Fabinho controlled a loose ball, looked up and saw a gap. It was manned by Mateo Kovacic and Jorginho but there was a small space ready to be exploited. Fabinho burst through and played a quick pass into Sadio Mane, who bought the foul from the panicked Andreas Christensen, who does appear to have developed something of a shopping addiction in such circumstances.

Alexander-Arnold made the most of the situation to open the scoring, but the phantom assist was Fabinho’s. His contribution ought not go unnoticed. Nor should that of Jorginho, who raced out to block the free-kick before enacting the ‘anti-Schmeichel rule’ in making himself considerably smaller by ducking.

 

5) The response was admirable. One hallmark of Chelsea’s recent history is a non-manager-dependent ability to collectively shit themselves when letting out a defensive brainfart. It happened under Lampard at Manchester United and, to a lesser extent, against Norwich and Sheffield United.

Here, 1-0 down against the European champions early on, they stayed the course and had the conviction to keep playing their own game. In the 15 minutes after Alexander-Arnold’s goal, they restricted Liverpool to one speculative Roberto Firmino shot, while Tammy Abraham really should have scored when put through against Adrian. Chelsea both prevented the flood and almost changed the direction of the tide completely. Too often they would have been washed away previously.

 

6) Were VAR aftercare support systems to be established, the inevitable London branches would be particularly busy after this weekend. After Tottenham saw 2-0 evaporate into 1-1 and eventual 2-1 defeat, Chelsea experienced the inverse scoreline change with the exact same result.

The technology and its benefits have been debated beyond comprehension and enjoyment, but one unheralded aspect of its introduction is rather less clear and obvious than the rest. The effect it can have on both teams is unquantifiable but no less important.

An overturned goal, whether the right or wrong decision, shifts momentum drastically in these circumstances. Before, when calls were made within a matter of seconds by the on-pitch officials, the impact was smaller. Now, with the wait until even after goals are fully celebrated, boosts and blows are magnified.

Tottenham conceded within two minutes of thinking they had taken a two-goal lead. It took roughly the same amount of time for Chelsea to have their hard-earned drawing position converted to a harsh deficit. That swing of momentum is unpredictable, unmanageable and really can change the entire course of a single game.

 

7) The biggest injustice – although it was offside, so that might not be the best term to use – is that Chelsea’s ‘equaliser’ came after their best, most positive and fluid approach play of the entire 90 minutes.

Emerson is the more stable, sensible left-back, but his first-half injury necessitated the introduction of the more attacking Marcos Alonso. He combined brilliantly with Willian and Mason Mount – whose flick to the Brazilian was ludicrous – to create the cross from which Liverpool panicked and Cesar Azpilicueta ‘scored’.

Mount’s backheel was shown to be marginally offside in the build-up as he was running towards the halfway line. The officials were completely just in ruling it out. But the move did at least show a flash of Chelsea’s innate ability leaving an elite defence for dead.

 

8) It also showed why Liverpool have adopted a slightly different defensive tactic to last season. On the eve of the game, Klopp stated that “wrong decisions on the pitch; strange circumstances, not a different approach” were to blame for his side keeping just one clean sheet all season. But as keen as he is to downplay any difference, the high defensive line the Reds now employ is surely a byproduct of VAR. Where slight offsides might have previously gone unpunished, a perfectly-executed trap will always catch its prey now, as seven Chelsea offsides to Liverpool’s one attests.

Klopp’s addition of a throw-in coach was derided by many, but it showed his willingness to expand and alter what is already close to a winning formula. This change – to the Premier League’s best defence – is high risk, high reward and a clear case of quite literal marginal gains.

 

9) Having said that, it was all worth it for Lampard’s brief look up at the stadium screen to see the narrowest of margins that his side had just been punished by. The wry smirk and tilt of his head towards the ground that followed was perfectly executed.

That image went to show that you need three things to ordinarily beat Liverpool in the Premier League: a brilliant performance from your own team as a unit and as individuals; for them to suffer an off-day (or for you to force it); and a fair amount of fortune. Chelsea delivered the first point in spurts, only enjoyed the second on occasion, and Firmino himself would have been proud of their no-luck finish.

 

10) It was the Brazilian who compounded Chelsea’s misery by doubling their deficit. Azpilicueta barged into Georginio Wijnaldum on the left, another clever free-kick routine created enough space for Andy Robertson to deliver the out-swinging cross and catch the defence off-guard, and Firmino scored the unmarked header.

That was one of two shots he had all afternoon, while Mane and Mohamed Salah pitched in with just one apiece, both off-target. Chelsea actually did a remarkably effective job of nullifying Liverpool’s attack in open play, but their own frailties from dead-ball situations were exposed.

And that is the problem with facing Liverpool: they have so many different ways to score against you. Manchester City have one that has been perfected to the point of ridiculousness, while their main title rivals have a few more weapons in their arsenal.

 

11) As a specialised position, goalkeepers have always received specialist treatment. They can collapse under the slightest pressure in their own area from an opposition player, safe in the knowledge that, more often than not, a free-kick will be awarded. It has always been an infuriating aspect of the game.

But it works the other way, too. Adrian faced no competition for a high ball as the first half came to an end. He sprang into the air, leading with his knee as no player around him even left the ground. He clattered into Abraham as a result, with the striker subsequently needing treatment.

The argument that ‘it would be a foul anywhere else on the pitch’ is obviously moot, as this does require a little more nuance. But it was a completely unnecessary action that endangered someone’s safety.

 

12) It was unclear where Chelsea’s inspiration would come from. Abraham had missed his chance, Mount was willing but too often unable to force the matter, while the openings Willian created with his dribbling were wasted by his refusal to release the ball quickly enough.

If Azpilicueta creating more chances than any player (4) doesn’t quite sum up an attacking performance that depended on unlikely sources, then substitute Alonso coming second on the opposite flank with three key passes might help. In case that fails to, consider N’Golo Kante’s brief, award-winning turn as Eden Hazard.

The Frenchman collected the ball, turned, burst forward and, with an inexplicable lack of back-lift, found the top corner through a crowd of players and an inspired Adrian to give Chelsea hope.

As shocking as it was to see, the difference he made to this side was anything but. To consider him a mere defensive shield, a Claude Makelele clone, is to disrespect such distinctive brilliance. There is no player quite like him, no such potent combination of energy, tenacity, enthusiasm and dexterity in existence. Maurizio Sarri might have been onto something, you know. He has bestowed upon Lampard a multi-faceted midfielder instead of a mere imperious intercepticon.

 

13) Fikayo Tomori kept pace with Kante as long as he could in terms of the race to become Chelsea’s best player. There is no shame in coming second there.

It has been completely underplayed just how well the 21-year-old has acclimatised to this level in these circumstances. His most recent Premier League appearance before this season came as a substitute right-back on the final day of the 2015/16 season. More than three years later, he looks at home in the top flight. Salah got the better of him once but was otherwise shackled: an achievement which should not go underestimated considering the upheaval around him at centre-back, even just in this match.

 

14) That Kante goal is sure to be one of many highlights poured over in slow motion from numerous different angles at Melwood this week. Klopp will not be particularly pleased with how four players failed to assess or address the impending danger.

Fabinho was far too easily turned by Kante. Virgil van Dijk was far too easily distracted by the decoy run of Abraham. Joel Matip, otherwise excellent, was too slow to push out, and Jordan Henderson was in the wrong place at the wrong time.

It summed up the innate – but, as aforementioned, vaguely forgivable – second-half sloppiness that almost cost Liverpool all three points. After half-time, they had three shots to Chelsea’s nine and 39.7% possession. The introduction of three defensive, hard-working players in James Milner, Adam Lallana and Joe Gomez for Mane, Henderson and Salah typified Klopp’s thoughts.

 

15) It required Liverpool to show a more defensive side than they have had to in recent weeks. And I really might well be alone in suggesting that they won in spite of Van Dijk rather than because of him, with Matip the Batman to his Robin.

Adrian was also excellent, but Matip marshalled the defence. Van Dijk was more at fault for the Kante goal, completely misjudged a cross from which Michy Batshuayi should have done better, played Mount onside for a chance late on and did not exude the same calm as usual. But he is tall and shouts a lot so will be described as ‘imperious’ and ‘commanding’ in subsequent player ratings.

 

16) Might the result have been different had Chelsea introduced their most expensive forward? The work-rate of Willian was understandably favoured over the individualism of Christian Pulisic from the start, but this felt like the sort of game where a £57m winger could have made the difference.

It seems strange to think that the American has not played at all this month, and there is perhaps an explanation that only becomes obvious from watching him in training each day. It might be a case of Lampard simply sticking with what he trusts in either former teammates or academy graduates he has previously managed and is more familiar with. But after Pulisic impressed against this very same opponent in the Super Cup, not even a cameo substitute appearance seems strange.

Matt Stead

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