Chelsea-Liverpool: Sturridge’s wonder strike fitting end to very enjoyable Premier League clash (1-1)
In an entertaining game between two of the Premier League’s finest, Liverpool were the more dominant team, but Chelsea had the better chances. Why both managers will be fairly content with what they saw on Saturday.
This Premier League season is, and will be, really fun, y’all. Five teams out of the ‘Big Six’ utilize an attractive, offensive-minded playing style – sorry, José. The mid-table section seems strengthened by the arrival of Wolverhampton Wanderers and the unforeseen transformation of Watford. And, most importantly, it sure seems that this year’s title race will not be one of the one horse variety like last season.
The main reason Manchester City will not have another cakewalk season like last year is that Liverpool and Chelsea both have looked pretty strong so far. Under the guidance of new manager Maurizio Sarri, Chelsea have quickly transformed into Napoli 2.0-with-better-individual-players – which is a very good thing for the Blues. Klopp’s Liverpool have improved massively on the defensive side of the ball, with a definitive ‘first four’ in Trent Alexander-Arnold, Joe Gomez, Virgil van Dijk and Andrew Robertson – which is a very good thing for the Reds.
On Saturday, only five of the twenty-two players who started in the Carabao Cup meeting between these two teams at Anfield in midweek got the starting nod again.
Liverpool started in their usual starting eleven, which meant that new signings Naby Keïta and Fabinho had to make way for a midfield consisting of Georginio Wijnaldum, Jordan Henderson and James Milner.
Liverpool’s positioning and general movements in possession.
Maurizio Sarri also clearly has a favorite starting ten, with the wide right position being the only spot where there is room for heavy rotation between Willian and Pedro. With Pedro still out injured, Willian started.
Chelsea’s positioning and general movements in possession. Liverpool’s wingers were pressing very smartly.
Aggressive Liverpool press rattles Chelsea in opening stages
The first quarter of the game showed the biggest difference between Klopp’s Liverpool and Sarri’s Chelsea: the sheer amount of time the German manager has had to form his team to his liking in comparison to his Italian counterpart, who only arrived at Stamford Bridge this summer.
This gap in experience within a certain playing style was evident in the first twenty minutes of the game. In contrast to some of the marquee matchups Liverpool have played the past years, Klopp did not tone down the aggression in pressing one bit. In fact, Liverpool doubled down on it.
Liverpool’s defensive line was set up very high. Wingers Mo Salah and Sadio Mané at the same time cut off the short passing option from the center of defense to the fullback and the easy entry-pass into the attacking midfield with their smartly positioned pressing runs. Striker Roberto Firmino alternated between pressing the center-backs and cutting off the passing lane to deep-lying playmaker Jorginho. And Wijnaldum and Milner were constantly lurking to jump the high diagonal balls from keeper Kepa Arrizabalaga to the full-backs. All these different pressing mechanisms ‘gelled’. Something only a team with lots of experience with each other playing in the same style can do.
With the Liverpool press working well in the opening stages, Chelsea did not have the chance to get into Sarriball mode. They did not play the high amount of short, vertical passes, combined with depth from the smart runs of the ‘third man’, that we have already grown accustomed to when Chelsea play.
Liverpool’s press resulted in a handful of chances. Three times, a Chelsea loss of possession in their own half resulted in a Liverpool shot in the first fifteen minutes. The biggest problem for the visitors was the finishing form of their golden boys Mané, Firmino and Salah.
The Egyptian especially did not ‘bring his shooting boots’ to Stamford Bridge on Saturday. Liverpool fans should not worry too much about Salah’s dip in form, though. True, his finishing was off today. But his speed and dribbling caused left-back Marcos Alonso all kinds of problems.
Individual brilliance puts Chelsea on track
The 22nd minute of this game marked a shift in the balance of play. David Luiz found Willian in the back of Robertson with a truly astonishing long ball. The Brazilian was not able to finish, because of some quick reactions by his countryman Alisson, who timed his rush towards Willian perfectly.
Three minutes later, Luiz’ brilliant long pass seemed to trigger a reaction that eventually led to the opening goal. When Luiz got the ball in the build-up in the 25th minute, Milner aggressively left his midfield slot to press the Brazilian defender, without checking if co-midfielders Wijnaldum and Henderson were in position to cover the space he vacated.
They were not. Who did fill this open zone, was Eden Hazard, who dropped very deep to collect the ball. Hazard brilliantly backheel-flicked the ball into Mateo Kovačić. The Croat set-up a one-two with Jorginho in the center of midfield, which meant that he collected the next ball facing the Liverpool goal. From here, he was able to launch a wide open Hazard down the the left flank.
The Belgian magician was left unmarked, because Alexander-Arnold tried to compensate for Milner’s aggressiveness with even more aggressiveness. At first, the young right-back followed his man Hazard into midfield. But after the Belgian’s flick into Kovačić, Alexander-Arnold decided to leave Hazard and press Kovačić. This decision created an open running lane for Hazard on the left, who outpaced Gomez and finished neatly in the far right corner with his left foot.
Liverpool responded well to this strong stretch from Chelsea. In the 32nd minute, Salah was able to dribble keeper Kepa, but saw his right-footed finish cleared from the goal line by Antonio Rüdiger. Salah got this chance through a very classy lob pass by Firmino, who – by his lofty standards – otherwise had an invisible game.
Liverpool keeps preferring the right, Chelsea the left
Liverpool preferred to play through the right side of the pitch. The passing connection from a high-positioned Alexander-Arnold to an in-cutting Salah is something that keeps working for Liverpool. Salah will always have a speed advantage and combining this with a slick-passing fullback who can launch him deep is a very lethal weapon to have.
In contrast, Chelsea’s most reliable passing pattern happens on the left side of the pitch. Alonso’s high position and deep runs, Kovačić’ ability to drift wide or drop back next to Jorginho, and Hazard’s non-human skill-set when able to drift freely work really well together.
Chelsea’s right side is of course defensively more solid, with César Azpilicueta at fullback and N’Golo Kanté as the right-sided central midfielder constantly guarding for potential counter-attacks in case possession is lost.
Surprisingly, Liverpool started to create better chances when the focus in possession shifted more to the left flank in the second half. In the 58th minute, Firmino won a second ball on the left edge of the penalty area, and found an inward cutting Mané, who saw his shot stopped in athletic fashion by Kepa.
Chelsea’s answer to this big chance came from Hazard, who was launched deep by a quickly taken free kick from Kanté that caught the Liverpool backline off guard. Again, Alisson made a crucial one-on-one save by leaving his goal line very early.
Xherdan Shaqiri, who was subbed in for Salah in the 66th minute, failed to take an open shot at Chelsea’s goal, resulting from another nice cross from Robertson. The Scottish left-back was able to whip the ball in because of some nice positioning of Milner, who dropped back to the left of Van Dijk, inviting Chelsea to press his Dutch teammate. Van Dijk was able to take advantage of the space left in behind with an accurate long ball.
Liverpool’s biggest chance of the second half came from a quick change of flanks. Shaqiri found Milner open on the left side of the penalty box with a lofted pass. Milner’s cross found Firmino, whose header was cleared from the goal line by Luiz, probably the best individual performer on the day.
The deserved equalizer came fifteen minutes later, in the 89th minute. Last-gasp attacking substitute Daniel Sturridge scored his second wonder goal against his former employer Chelsea this week. This time, he rifled the ball in the top right corner from 25 yards out with basically no run-up to his shot.
That Liverpool needed an absolute wonder strike in the final minutes to level the score, can be seen as an enormous compliment for Chelsea’s team defense. Chelsea’s medium-height, 4-5-1 shaped defensive block worked well enough to mostly restrict Liverpool to half-chances all game long.
This was the first game since the Community Shield loss to Man City where Chelsea could not dominate possession. And this time, their defense held up enough to gain an important point. For Chelsea fans, it is nice to know that their team is able to play in an alternative style as well.
We football nerds – and by ‘we’, I also mean you, because, c’mon, you have made it this far into this analysis – tend to value process more than result. Even though Liverpool did not win this game, from a process point of view, they put in another strong performance in a top game.
When Salah, Firmino and Mané regain their normal form, Liverpool will reward themselves for these types of performances with three points instead of one.