Following the controversies caused by some statements from the two managers, the match between Chelsea and Liverpool on Sunday was much anticipated among the admirers of Premier League football. The two of them had a spat during Liverpool’s 5-3 win at Anfield towards the end of last season, and the media sought to reignite that flame after Jurgen Klopp described Liverpool as a club different to those owned by states and oligarchs. Frank Lampard responded by naming a number of the significant transfers Liverpool have made since Klopp took over in 2015.
Both coaches played the whole business down in their pre-match press conferences, but it did nothing to lessen the interest in seeing this new star-studded Chelsea team take on the well-drilled machine that the defending champions undoubtedly are. In the end, Liverpool walked away triumphant and took the three points to Merseyside, and the contest delivered on the promise of numerous intriguing duels.
Fabinho CAN play centre-back
Much was said about (the lack of) Liverpool’s transfer activity over the earlier stages of the window, while rival clubs (Chelsea the most notable among them) were boosting their ranks in almost every department. It all changed quickly in the last couple of days when the Reds completed the signings of midfielder Thiago Alcantara from Bayern Munich and forward Diogo Jota from Wolverhampton Wanderers.
Nonetheless, many were still adamant the Liverpool should sign a centre-back, not believing that Virgil van Dijk, Joe Gomez and Joel Matip were enough after the departure of Dejan Lovren to Zenit St Petersburg. As is his custom, Klopp avoided getting drawn into such discussions and suggested he could utilize defensive midfielder Fabinho in the role if need be, and his theory was put to the test perhaps sooner than he would’ve hoped. Both Gomez and Matip were unavailable for this clash through minor injuries, and Fabinho took the place beside van Dijk in the heart of defence.
To put it simply, the Brazilian proved his manager 100% right on this occasion. His performance was immaculate. Timo Werner, Chelsea’s new extremely potent attacking weapon, constantly had his efforts thwarted, despite often peeling away to the left (possibly to avoid dealing with van Dijk). Fabinho had four tackles, four interceptions, 12 recoveries, and 86 completed passes, more than any other player on the pitch, with an accuracy of 97%. A truly magnificent performance in an unnatural role.
Thiago fits like a glove
Speaking of completed passes, there was a Liverpool player who only played 45 minutes and completed 75, more than any Chelsea player throughout the whole match. That player is, of course, Thiago Alcantara who only completed his expected move to Anfield on Friday, two days before the London trip, and was mostly expected not be thrown into the mix so soon.
The former Barcelona and Bayern Munich midfielder came on at halftime to replace captain Jordan Henderson, at a moment when Chelsea were a man down and Klopp likely judged it was the right moment to add some creativity and control to the central area of his team. His composure and ability to dictate play from deep, well documented throughout his career, was on show once again as he helped the visitors reorganize their ranks after each attack and switch sides with minimal effort.
It was only one half of his first game at Liverpool and against an opponent reduced to 10 men, but there can be no doubt that the champions have signed a player who will have a big part to play over the course of the season as they aim to prove their deserved title in 2019/20 was no fluke.
Christensen rightly sees red
Chelsea played that second half a player short due to Andreas Christensen earning a direct red card for bringing down Sadio Mane, denying the Senegalese forward a clear goalscoring opportunity in the final minutes of the first period. Having initially given the Danish defender a yellow card, referee Paul Tierney was instructed from the VAR room to take another look at the situation, and after seeing it again, he changed his decision and sent Christensen off.
Speaking after the game, Lampard questioned the final decision, but for anyone who saw the incident with eyes clear of all bias, it was undoubtedly the right one. Christensen was the last man apart from goalkeeper Kepa Arrizabalaga and Henderson’s pass for Mane was weighed so well that it was clear the Liverpool forward would have been able to reach it first and take it around Kepa, which would have left him in plenty of space with the goal gaping undefended. Christensen’s actions were likely instinctive as he had no time whatsoever to consider his options, but even if he had, there was nothing else he could do apart from allowing Mane to score.
It was a difficult moment for the defender, no doubt about it, but it had to be a red card.
Penalty or not?
Minute 73 was passing when a rare opportunity for Chelsea to attack arose, and Werner was apparently clipped by Thiago just as he entered the box looking to work up an angle for a shot. The referee blew his whistle and pointed to the spot, and this time his decision stood. Upon closer review from several angles in slow motion, it seems that minimal contact happened which threw the Chelsea striker off balance and significantly reduced the threat of the subsequent shot.
There have been numerous debates on similar situation in recent years. Was there enough contact for a penalty? Some pundits would call it ‘soft’, but if there was contact, and there apparently was, then the decision was the right one. The only just question Liverpool supporters might feel inclined to ask would perhaps be why such penalties are rarely given when it’s Mane or Mohamed Salah who are brought down. The two Liverpool forwards are often branded by rival fans, as well as most pundits who used to play for rival clubs, as ‘divers’ when it happens to them.
But in the end, the moment proved of little consequence for the outcome of this match as Alisson Becker in Liverpool’s goal perfectly read and stopped a trademark Jorginho penalty.
Lampard has work to do
Chelsea are the club that has invested the most in the Premier League this summer so far. They’ve completed the signings of winger Hakim Ziyech, Werner, left-back Ben Chilwell, attacking midfielder Kai Havertz and veteran centre-back Thiago Silva. Ziyech, Chilwell and Silva are yet to play a competitive game in the Blue shirt, while Werner and Havertz started both league games played so far.
Werner’s quality cannot be questioned. His pace is electric and his movement smart. He is yet to produce some of the finishing ability he was known for in the Bundesliga, as well as to ‘click’ properly with some of his teammates, but all the signs of a big promise are there. Young Tammy Abraham has similar physical ability, but he can learn a lot by watching the 24-year-old Germany international in action.
On the other hand, Havertz’s contribution to the team has so far been practically non-existent. He has been deployed in a wide attacking role in both games, but he simply hasn’t been involved nearly as much as Lampard would have wanted him to be. In both games he was substituted, perhaps more notably in this one when he was the one to make way for Fikayo Tomori after Christensen’s red card.
Such issues are, of course, normal. To expect a large number of players to come, walk into a team and immediately start playing well as a unit would be folly. It’s quite clear Lampard still needs to identify the right system to get the best out of his new signings. It’s also normal that Havertz is the one who has the most difficulty in that aspect. His vast versatility makes his role in the team least clear, but that will likely change at some point soon and we’ll be seeing the exciting player who lit up the Bundesliga again. After all, he is still only 21.
But the main problem of this Chelsea team obviously remains the goalkeeper. Kepa was arguably at fault in the previous match when he allowed a shot from range by Brighton’s Leandro Trossard to slip under his arm and go in, and this time he made a completely inexcusable blunder by allowing Mane to intercept his pass on the edge of six yards and slot into the net from there – Liverpool’s second goal. Still the world’s most-expensive goalkeeper, Kepa bears a great burden through no fault of his own – he didn’t set that transfer fee himself after all. But that doesn’t change the fact that Chelsea need a man between the posts they can rely on, and he doesn’t seem to be one.
Edouard Mendy of Rennes is set to complete his move to Stamford Bridge in a matter of days, or now perhaps hours, and while he was expected to provide competition for Kepa and no more, the newcomer could find himself as Lampard’s new first choice if the Spaniard doesn’t improve double-quick. Meanwhile, Lampard was unwilling to write Kepa off after the match, saying that these mistakes are something he needs to work on and cut out from his game.
Be that as it may, it seems we’ll have to wait a while longer to see this new-look Chelsea team settled, and Lampard will no doubt be working very hard to get there as soon as possible.