Alan O’Brien Follow @alanob2112
Daniel Sturridge may never score a more unlikely goal, but the parity his stunner restored certainly felt more than earned. This is a different Liverpool, far removed from that which failed to beat a ‘Big Six’ side on the road last season. Tottenham Hotspur had already been vanquished on foreign soil before the Reds extracted this late, late point at Chelsea. Still unbeaten, Jurgen Klopp’s troops are now genuine contenders to Manchester City’s seemingly untouchable throne.
Parallels with the recent win at Wembley were there for all to draw. The same ultra-compact midfield press — that so stymied Spurs’ diamond — was on show again from Liverpool. Chelsea, still a work-in-progress under Maurizio Sarri, found the Italian’s desired vertical passes exceedingly hard to pick.
As against Tottenham, Klopp sought to win possession high up the pitch and exploit space behind the opposing full-backs. Or, in this case, full-back: Cesar Azpilicueta largely held his position, while Marcos Alonso prevailed upon Mohamed Salah’s indolence to bomb forward at will.
Following on from the left-leaning patterns-of-play he oversaw at Napoli, Sarri also prefers his new charges to favour the left-flank when building up attacks. The overlapping Alonso, a revelation so far under the Italian, is integral to this plan — allowing Eden Hazard to drift liberally into central areas.
Hazard and Kovacic
And here, Hazard’s natural tendency to come inside was more pivotal to the success of Sarri’s plans than ever. Cognisant of the fact that Liverpool, far further down the development road under Klopp, would likely dominate possession, Sarri eyed transitions as a possible route to glory. Never a willing defender anyway, Hazard was instructed to assume dangerous number-10 positions when Liverpool were on the attack. Mateo Kovacic, therefore, drew the short-straw job of shuttling out to Trent Alexander-Arnold — and keeping one eye on Gini Wijnaldum, too.
Lumbered with an unbearable load, the Croatian midfielder nonetheless performed marvelously. His ability to ride the Liverpool counterpress proved particularly impressive; Kovacic finished his 81-minute stint with a game-high 98% pass-completion rate.
Sarri’s tactical boldness paid off handsomely for Chelsea, leading directly to Hazard’s opener. After N’Golo Kanté won a customary second-ball, both Kovacic and Hazard helped their side to weather Liverpool’s instantaneous counterpress. In the process, Hazard had drawn Alexander-Arnold into midfield, an area into which the Liverpool right-back had no business advancing. The in-form winger duly spun in behind his still-raw marker to skin Joe Gomez down the inside-left channel and execute a difficult left-footed finish.
Between the Blues’ lines
Hazard’s deployment was not without its risks, however, mainly thanks to the knock-on effects on Kovacic’s defensive positioning. Dragged all over the shop, the Croatian often left the inside-right pocket open for Salah, whose final-action execution was genuinely appalling. Klopp’s decision to hook the misfiring Egyptian, just moments after conceding a free-kick from which Hazard should have scored, drew much derision from Liverpool fans. But, in truth, it’s difficult to argue with the German’s decision — particularly given the recent form of his replacement Xherdan Shaqiri.
Salah also missed a glorious chance to equalise before half-time, after rounding Kepa. Antonio Rudiger cleared the resultant strike off the line, sparing the blushes of his teammates, whose ineffectual press presented Roberto Firmino with a through-ball opportunity. Salah, therefore, wasn’t the only one getting space between the lines. As seen against both Manchester City and Arsenal, Sarri’s side are struggling to press cohesively at the moment, with the back-four reluctant to step up accordingly. Liverpool failed to cash in on the space that disconnect created, and Salah was the prime culprit.
Still, Liverpool were desperately unlucky to trail at half-time, with the paltry total of four touches Chelsea managed in the Reds’ penalty area painting an illustrative picture. Yet, at the same time, the visitors were also fortunate not to be two goals down at the break. Willian should have scored when released in behind Andy Robertson by a David Luiz diagonal. The Brazilian centre-back repeated that feat twice more during the second-half, and such a technically-accomplished defender represents a real boon to Sarri as he seeks to quickly inculcate ‘Sarri-ball’ into his new charges.
No catenaccio mojo
By the time Salah deservedly got the hook on 65 minutes, it was beginning to look like Liverpool had missed their chance. Chelsea’s midfield eschewed any intent toward pressing after the break, choosing instead to drop deeper and minimise space between the lines. And, in scenes reminiscent of the same fixture last May, when Liverpool comprehensively failed to cancel out Olivier Giroud’s first-half winner, the visitors duly huffed and puffed. Only an untimely slip from Azpilicueta, allowing Robertson in behind, unexpectedly opened the floodgates. Shaqiri, running diagonally off Alonso to get ahead of Luiz, should have converted the Scot’s cross.
Already, Chelsea appear to have lost the catenaccio mojo instilled in them by Sarri’s predecessor, Antonio Conte. The Blues looked uncomfortable defending their own penalty-area from thereon, and even though Sturridge conjured his equaliser from nothing, it felt like justice had been served. Allowing Milner to pop up free at the back-post on 72 was particularly egregious from Chelsea’s beleaguered backline, as only a goal-line clearance from Luiz denied Firmino a headed leveler.
Of course, Chelsea are not alone in apparently knowing only how to play in one way. And, despite restoring parity in the penultimate minute of regulation, Klopp’s side again found it difficult to see out the game. Having reorganised into a 4-2-4 on 87, by replacing Milner with Sturridge, the German’s hasty reversion back to 4-1-4-1 was far from perfect, and Alonso should have headed home a last-gasp Hazard corner.
That would have been incredibly harsh, however, as Liverpool more than justified the note of caution Sarri sounded last weekend. “They are a step ahead of us at the moment”, the Italian said of Klopp’s side, directly after Chelsea’s deadlock at West Ham United. So it proved on Saturday evening, when two almost-identical systems locked horns, and Liverpool’s unsurprisingly looked the most fully-realised.
But, remember: it has taken Klopp three years to reach this point. Sarri, meanwhile, is not a million miles away after only seven league games. This may be Liverpool’s year to challenge Manchester City’s seemingly inevitable hegemony, and next weekend’s showdown with the champions is a tantalising prospect. But if Chelsea stick with Sarri — a big if — they too are bound to be a title-hunt fixture for years to come. Is the ‘Big Six’ about to give way to a ‘Big Three’?
Follow the author, Alan O’Brien, on Twitter: Follow @alanob2112