Liverpool’s trip to Chelsea ended up being more stressful than it might have been after a good start, but the Reds held on for a notable 2-1 win and a sixth straight three points.
Chelsea 1-2 Liverpool
Stamford Bridge, Premier League
22 September, 2019
Goals: Alexander-Arnold 14′, Firmino 29′; Kante 70′.
On a weekend where the gap between the Premier League‘s top two and the rest was shown in stark and brutal style by the Reds’ rivals Man City, a convincing win at a potential top-four challenger would have been a perfect response for Liverpool.
Thankfully, that’s the message Jurgen Klopp seemed to have sent the team out with, as they were on the front foot at the Bridge right from kick-off, looking to test the re-shaped Blues’ backline at every opportunity.
The midfield was quick into the challenge, the front three were mobile and aggressive; in short, there was no wait-and-see approach just because Liverpool were away from home, but a bold and bright announcement: the Champions of Europe are in town.
Chelsea couldn’t cope with it, in either midfield or attacking third, and the early lead was justified even with the home team’s sporadic counter-attacking chances.
We are the better side against most opponents, and it’s extremely pleasing when we take that mentality out onto the pitch in the first half to dictate the flow of the game from kick-off.
… and second-half survival
That said, the second-half performance at Stamford Bridge was perhaps Liverpool’s worst 45 minutes of the season.
It was sloppy in possession, defensive-minded almost from the restart and never looked like regaining control of the course of the match, meaning a stressful final 20 minutes after N’Golo Kante pulled one back.
It’s admirable, of course, and has often helped the Reds, that we stick to our 4-3-3 system regardless of the opposition, but perhaps a shift to solidify the midfield line here with an extra body in the second half would have been the better course of action, at least for the sake of the supporters’ heart rates.
Klopp did go to a back five for the final minutes of injury time, but before that the substitutions only saw Gini Wijnaldum join the attack, then – sort of – Adam Lallana. Neither his, nor James Milner‘s, introductions made any kind of difference to the Reds’ midfield display, which was overrun and lacking mobility at times.
Quite what the ponderous, out-of-form, not-match-sharp Lallana was supposed to bring to a difficult final period of the game is anybody’s guess, particularly as his last notable run-out in attack was the no-show in the latter stages of last season’s derby.
Backs-to-the-wall isn’t a style we’ve seen too often of late, but this was largely a 45 minutes spent without the ball and perhaps indicated there is still room for improvement in the team.
Aside from the goals themselves and quick rotation of positions in attack, there was a clear stand-out in the first half for Liverpool’s tempo and performance level: Fabinho.
Bobby Firmino has probably been the most impressive performer for the Reds at the start of the season, but his No. 3 compatriot isn’t far behind. The holding midfielder was right on it against Chelsea, showing his usual array of positional, physical and technical threats in a defensive capacity – but also impressing with his on-the-ball work.
A sudden powerful burst of speed and pass between the lines took out Chelsea‘s entire midfield at one point, while he was tigerish and on the front foot to protect the backline.
There is not a more impressive holding man in the English top-flight right now, whether by consistency nor ceiling.
The Reds’ spine is incredibly important to the success of the side, and Fabinho is one of the most crucial components of all.
His 77th-minute rugby tackle on Batshuayi, stopping an attack and taking a yellow card, was a particular highlight of the snide and necessary which the Reds, for too long, lacked in the squad.
Last season the Reds were the most prolific team in the league from set-piece situations, which was at times obvious to see – the aerial threat of Van Dijk and Co, the great delivery from Trent and Co – and other times hard to discern.
Some games, it seems as though every corner hits the first man, every free-kick is a shot into the wall and penalties are just a rarely spotted commodity at all, at Anfield at least.
It was great to see at the Bridge, therefore, some fantastically worked free-kick routines which gave the Reds a two-goal lead in the first half.
Trent Alexander-Arnold‘s rocket was reminiscent of Steven Gerrard’s strikes against Aston Villa or Newcastle, hammered past the wall and ‘keeper after a slight touch from a team-mate (Mo Salah in this case).
More of the same in these big games will be extremely welcome, when the details matter most and small margins separate one point from three.
Top and time to rotate
The two big fixtures of the post-international stretch are over – Napoli and Chelsea, both away – and the Reds have remained domestically untouchable, regardless of a late setback in the Continental arena midweek.
Now a somewhat kinder clutch of games lies on the horizon: MK Dons in the League Cup, newly promoted Sheffield United in the league and the free-scoring, but youthful and untested against the elite, Salzburg in the Champions League.
It’s a time for Klopp to turn to the squad, allow those who have played a mostly watching brief early on to stake their own claim for a regular spot and showcase the strength in depth in the squad…one way or another.
Shaqiri, Oxlade-Chamberlain, Gomez and perhaps one or two others will be hoping for significant minutes over these three games. Then there are youngsters – Hoever, Jones, Brewster – who will believe this represents a chance to show they are at the required level.
Whoever plays, we’ve reached a certain standard: the minimum demanded output, the only required outcome, is three victories. Last season we went out early of the cups and it cost squad players minutes on the pitch. We’ll need them somewhere along the way, so while the League Cup isn’t a priority, letting those players loose once in a while, at least, should be.
This was another good win, another good step and a tricky away game overcome, particularly after media had tried to make something out of Klopp’s recent record of one win in 12 away to the top six.
Top spot remains ours, as does the league’s last 100 per cent record and a five-point lead.