Few post-mortems of Chelsea’s sixth league defeat of the season will be as kind to José Mourinho’s side as this one. Let’s get that out of the way from the off.
While most of the post-match media frenzy has propagated the narrative of an abject Chelsea side, played off the park by a far superior Liverpool one – led by a supposed star-turn from Philippe Coutinho – the truth is rather more prosaic.
In reality this was a pretty even game in which chance creation was at a premium for both sides. Chelsea’s chosen strategy of sitting deep and counter-attacking down the right through Willian was reinforced by Ramires’ early goal.
The target of Chelsea’s play – Liverpool’s Alberto Moreno – couldn’t have picked a worse time to get caught day-dreaming at the back post. The opprobrium Moreno directed toward former boss, Brendan Rodgers, during the week, looked particularly ill-judged and ill-timed when the Brazilian midfielder ghosted in front of him to connect with Cesar Azpilicueta’s left-wing cross.
For the remainder of the half – until the goalscorer’s pathetic lunge allowed Coutinho in for his Fergie-time curler – Chelsea looked very comfortable indeed in soaking up Liverpool pressure. Such as it was.
Jurgen Klopp abandoned his creatively dysfunctional 4-3-2-1 formation this afternoon, in favour of the 4-2-3-1 he used most regularly at Dortmund. With Christian Benteke deemed unfit to start, Roberto Firmino and Adam Lallana took turns to lead the line. Neither looked convincing in that regard.
James Milner, fielded on the right, was the focus of much of Liverpool’s play during the first half. Although Lallana hit the target upon connecting with one of Milner’s crosses in the 25th minute, they were largely ineffective – in the absence of the big Belgian target man. That strike was one of only three shots on target before Coutinho’s leveler. None were clear-cut opportunities by any stretch of the imagination.
Meanwhile, Willian continued to break down the right. And Liverpool players continued to try and break him. The Brazilian drew ten fouls over the course of today’s game – six more than any other player. Coutinho earned himself a spot in Mark Clattenburg’s book for a cynical first-half foul on Willian. Emre Can and Lucas were incredibly lucky not to meet the same fate.
Indeed, it took until the second half for both Lucas and Can to find their respective ways into the book for hacking Willian. The foul that finally did for Lucas was his fifth. His sixth was a clear-cut cynical hack on Ramires to prevent a counter-attack. John Obi Mikel had been booked for something very similar, moments earlier. Clattenburg bottled it. Mourinho simply laughed and applauded sarcastically from the touchline. Although, his response may have been more muted had he seen Diego Costa’s red-worthy kick at Martin Skrtel on the hour-mark. The Spanzillian doesn’t like being marked out of the game very much.
Chelsea’s now-customary defensive nerves were palpable right from the beginning of the second half – with Gary Cahill having a couple of particularly hairy moments in his area early on. Yet, it was the home side that created the only real chance prior to Coutinho’s 74th minute second. Unsurprisingly, it stemmed from a Willian-led break down the right. Lucas arrived late to brilliantly block Ramires’ resulting effort.
Liverpool finally introduced a genuine out-and-out striker, moments after that chance. It was Benteke’s arrival – and the direct outlet he provides – that swung this game in Liverpool’s favour.
The Belgian beat Azpilicueta in the air to knock-down Sakho’s long ball for Coutinho. Once again, the Brazilian was allowed to shoot from the edge of the area. This time the ageing John Terry was culpable for not getting out to him quick enough – the ball taking a helpful deflection off the former England captain on its way into the net. Somehow, despite performing quite poorly in general play, Coutinho had two goals to his name and was well on his way to getting his mitts on the man-of-the-match award.
That piece of misfortune obviously forced Chelsea out of their collective – and brittle – defensive shell. Mourinho introduced fellow Jorge Mendes client, Falcao, to join Costa upfront. Unfortunately, Eden Hazard, was not around to aid in the charge. Hazard was unceremoniously hooked on the hour mark, after failing in both the number ten role and his customary left-wing slot. What price the Belgian winger joining Cesc Fabregas – he of the one assist in eleven games – on the dropped list in midweek?
Chelsea’s new-found openness allowed Liverpool to wrap up the contest. First, Alberto Moreno forced a great save from Begovic after a rapid counter-attack down the left. Then, substitute Jordan Ibe, went close after another fast-break, during which the Chelsea midfield were caught red-handed walking back into position after Kenedy gave up possession in the middle.
Finally, the knife was inevitably twisted. Terry was again culpable – failing to close down Benteke quickly enough after the striker had collected an Ibe pass in the box. While a deflection off Gary Cahill helped the big target man’s strike on its way, Chelsea can have no complaints given how avoidable that strike was.
Mourinho behaved in a typically bizarre fashion post-match. It’s difficult to have any sympathy for a man who comports himself in such a fashion. But it is possible to see that his team were slightly unfortunate to lose today. Prior to that individual error from Ramires in the dubiously extended first-half period of stoppage time, Liverpool looked very unlikely to break Chelsea down. And subsequent to that opener, Liverpool continued to look bereft of incision in the final third – despite the nervous disposition of the Chelsea defence. The arrival of Benteke – aided by a fortunate deflection – swung the tie in Liverpool’s favour, forcing Chelsea to throw caution to wind and get caught a third time.
This run of form has undoubtedly passed the point of crisis for Mourinho and Chelsea now. Their season has unraveled spectacularly. Any hope of defending their title is gone. But confirmation bias is a terrible thing. The gap between hosts and visitors was far slighter than many would have you believe today.