Liverpool are in trouble and Jurgen Klopp looks completely out of ideas. By contrast, Thomas Tuchel has reinvigorated this Chelsea machine.
1) Hindsight is 20/20, but such a painful lack of foresight might never be more hilarious than in 2021. Bambi was bloody well asking for it.
2) This is why Roman Abramovich acted when and how he did. Chelsea were ninth in the Premier League table, level on points with a Southampton side that had a game in hand on them, when he sought to change something. Having spent hundreds of millions assembling an excellent squad the most obvious and cost-efficient solution was to replace – to upgrade – the coach in search of improvement. They were underachieving to a laughable degree and no pointing to projects, works in progress, youth development or non-application of “the basics” could alter that.
The chances always were that the appointment of an elite tactician would. Thomas Tuchel might be too boring or bland for some, both in press conferences and his preferred playing style. His face might not be the most natural fit. The scepticism over his ability to slot into this management structure was certainly warranted on the basis of his career history. But while he might not be the ideal candidate in the eyes of the media and many fans, he is precisely what Chelsea needed.
Champions League qualification would have been the remit. They are fourth, unbeaten under Tuchel and have seven points from three Big Six games since his appointment compared to two from five this season under Frank Lampard. Considering one of the many reasons for dispensing with the latter was their performances in such matches, that is pertinent. It tends to take longer than this for such decisions to be vindicated.
3) But that is testament to the aforementioned quality in the Chelsea squad. Some claimed it was too big to manage, that the academy products and expensive recruits could not possibly coexist in the same starting line-up. That egos would emerge and factions could dominate. So many of these players – Andreas Christensen, Antonio Rudiger, Cesar Azpilicueta, Jorginho – had been written off at various stages under different managers.
It is no coincidence that those issues only surface when teams start to lose; there is no talk of Manchester City players becoming irritated with rotation. Chelsea are comfortably their closest rivals in terms of sheer squad depth and strength. Tuchel deserves immense credit for instantly finding numerous systems that can maximise the talents of both the collective and the individual, but the tools he was given to work with were never as bad as was made out.
Going to be a lot of puff for Tuchel, and he's doing a good job. But this CFC squad should always have been right up there, and it emphasises the ludicrous hype of Lampard Jnr's short-lived reign.
— Adam Powley (@adampowley) March 4, 2021
4) Liverpool should be used to making history by now, but losing five consecutive league games at Anfield for the first time ever will sting. Their home form had been so imperious that when Burnley ended that unbeaten run at 68 games in January, some sort of drop-off was inevitable. When Liverpool themselves ended Chelsea’s remarkable 86-match streak at Stamford Bridge in October 2008, the Blues responded by thrashing Sunderland 5-0 in their next home game but they subsequently drew to Newcastle and West Ham and lost to Arsenal. It happens.
But this is something else entirely. A stutter has turned into a stumble has become a trip and then a full-blown collapse. The decline in results is one thing but one shot on target – in the 85th minute – is indicative of the recent disjointed, aimless displays.
This can no longer possibly be excused by scrawling ‘INJURIES’ on a piece of paper, tearily feeding it to a life-sized cardboard cut-out of Virgil van Dijk and sticking fingers in ears at any legitimate criticism. These problems have long been buried far deeper.
5) It is not too difficult to see the logic in Jurgen Klopp choosing to play Fabinho in central defence upon his return. The Brazilian excelled there earlier in the season and offers far more experience than the alternatives alongside Ozan Kabak. Rhys Williams might well have struggled in that position against the side. It is impossible to say.
Yet the longer he insists on forcing midfielders into defence when more suitable choices exist, the less sympathy Klopp elicits. It has backfired on more occasions than it has worked. Liverpool sacrifice far more in rhythm and instinct than they gain in stability when Jordan Henderson or Fabinho play at centre-half. Combine that with a continued high defensive line against a centre-forward designed specifically to exploit them, and you get what you deserve.
6) On that high defensive line: all six of Jorginho’s long balls were accurate, as were each of N’Golo Kante’s five. Timo Werner was caught offside four times, had two chances from running in behind after a quarter of an hour and only had a first-half goal taken away from him for foolishly having arms. Chelsea showed their hand almost immediately when it came to their game plan on the counter-attack, yet Liverpool were insistent for 90 minutes that they must be bluffing.
It always seems a little ludicrous to question a brilliant and experienced manager’s tactics from the comfort of one’s living room on a knackered old laptop, but Klopp surely saw that Chelsea were successfully targeting Liverpool in one specific area, yet he failed to really react at any point.
7) It was compounded by Fabinho’s apparent and understandable lack of fitness. He was exposed so often as Chelsea exploited that ball over the top for Werner to chase. Trent Alexander-Arnold offered him approximately no help for Mason Mount’s goal but Fabinho has rarely looked so mortal when defending one-v-one as he did when the Chelsea forward dropped a shoulder, a burst of pace and a wonderful finish.
Klopp spoke of having better “options” to choose from in midweek with more players becoming available to him. Moving Fabinho back into midfield must surely be his priority, strengthening the defensive side of that position while offering far better protection to the defenders behind him.
8) Mount will get the plaudits for that winner, as he should. It seems strange to suggest a 22-year-old with 13 England caps and three goals brought to mind a 20-year-old with three England caps and two goals, but that ability to see the space and create something from precious little out wide with a sudden change of direction and injection of energy was very Phil Foden. Those detractors have fallen strangely silent when it comes to a player often mentioned in the bracket below the Manchester City academy product, Jack Grealish, Bukayo Saka or even sometimes James Maddison. Only a fool would not include him in that conversation.
And he is very much a teacher’s pet, as if that was ever an insult. The key is that he even does the homework that the substitute sets. Mount must be a manager’s dream.
Andreas Christensen and Mason Mount yet again
— CarefreeYouth (@CarefreeYouth) March 4, 2021
9) After extolling the virtues of finally using him in central midfield as the world-class spoiler he is, perhaps we should have expected Kante to provide the decisive 40-yard assist all along. It was a sumptuous pass from a player rarely mentioned with regards to his ability on the ball.
There is a reason for that: his use of possession was otherwise hardly stellar and reflective of a player trying to force quick transitions. Yet Kante shone in that defensive role, pressing predictably tirelessly and neutering Thiago four days after utterly anonymising Bruno Fernandes. Where Maurizio Sarri and Lampard both saw an elite player they could re-engineer, Tuchel simply accepted the “gift” he was given.
10) And good lord, Jorginho. There was one point in the second half when he turned two Liverpool players on the edge of his own box to cap a commanding display at Chelsea’s heart. The trademark metronomic passing was crucial but no player managed more than his five tackles or three interceptions: this was as good a defensive performance as you are likely to see from a player long regarded as too lightweight to prosper in this division.
It must have taken remarkable mental resolve and resilience for Jorginho to turn things around at Chelsea, from the emblem of the dreaded year under Sarri to a symbol of Tuchel’s togetherness. And as if to further prove the point about their squad depth, Chelsea dominated the midfield with the wonderful Mateo Kovacic only playing ten minutes.
11) Not that they faced too much competition in that regard. Georginio Wijnaldum, Curtis Jones and Thiago just did not work as a combination. The first two are a little too similar in style at times – Jones evading four Chelsea players to keep the ball in the first half was press-resistance that would make Wijnaldum blush – while Thiago is suffering for playing in between roles. He needs to have a little more freedom but also would benefit so much from confident forwards making the right runs.
It is strange how perceptions change: James Milner coming on for the final ten minutes of a game at Anfield once signalled a Liverpool side consolidating an already healthy lead. On Thursday it was a desperate attempt from Klopp to force some energy into a flagging team. Watching him furiously press Chelsea’s centre-halves alone as they passed patiently in the 86th minute was just sad.
12) Thank Christ someone – anyone – did score, thus rendering the disallowed Werner goal moot. It was silly. The handball law is daft and has led to some absolutely baffling offside calls this season. And as for that incident early in the second half when Roberto Firmino crossed the ball against Kante’s arm, no penalty was the right decision. But it does feel slightly unfair that attacks can break down in such moments, even with no intention to play the ball on the defender’s part. Perhaps Arsene Wenger can pitch some sort of indirect free-kick law to reflect the nature of the situation while he is relentlessly lobbying for kick-ins to become a thing.
13) Chelsea’s only regret will be that Werner did not get the goal his game deserved. Liverpool struggled to cope with his pace and movement all game, with the German proving he perhaps should have started against Manchester United at the weekend to hone in on their similar lack of pace. Then again, he would not have been as fresh as he was here in that case.
Any frustration at his inability to score ought to be tempered by how effective he was. The touch from Ben Chilwell’s long ball in the 11th minute was exemplary before firing just wide of Alisson. No more than five minutes later his best chance came after Cesar Azpilicueta hooked the ball back into the box, but Werner chose to chip when a side-footed finished was more appropriate.
A couple more opportunities presented themselves in the second half to no avail, but most strikers would say there is only cause for real concern once those chances dry up. Werner is getting into the right positions and making the perfect runs. For as long as any lack of goals does not come as a detriment to the team, he will and should play regularly. Don’t be surprised if he bursts into life next season.
14) It does feel a little disingenuous to point to Liverpool’s first shot on target coming in the final five minutes, with their first-half xG of 0.07 absolutely not a licence to thrill. Neither statistic reflected their biggest chance of all, which characteristically failed to actually produce an attempt.
Mo Salah’s ball was exquisite. Sadio Mane’s run was flawless. But his air kick when unmarked and about six yards out after half an hour summed up Liverpool: they are still so capable of doing everything right and acting on instinct until the decisive moment.
There is no real quick fix for that. Salah was probably justifiably angry at being substituted on the hour mark due to, as Klopp put it, the “intensity”, when either Firmino or Mane could easily have made way instead. The sight of Diogo Jota for the first time since early December will surely help just freshen things up in attack; it is not because of injuries that Burnley and Newcastle have scored as many Premier League goals as Liverpool this calendar year.
15) That Salah substitution was quite something. There was a suggestion that Klopp had already reminded him to track back a few minutes prior as Chelsea started to exert pressure, but removing the Egyptian from the equation entirely felt drastic. Firmino had been awful up to that point and Mane had not offered a great deal on either flank. Neither are in stellar form, yet the Premier League’s top scorer was sacrificed instead of his manager making a tactical switch to maximise the talents of his best forward. Salah’s agent wasted no time in stoking the fire and honestly, who can blame him?
Another bizarre decision was naming Naby Keita in the matchday squad without using him. Liverpool needed that drive and creativity from deep to unlock a tight Chelsea defence that was happy to sit back and defend a lead. How strange that Milner’s relentless pressing out of possession didn’t unsettle them into conceding.
Salah created Liverpool’s best chance of the game after lofting a brilliant pass over the top for Mané.
Liverpool didn’t create a big chance after he was subbed off on 62 minutes.
— Premier League Panel (@PremLeaguePanel) March 4, 2021
16) “The amount of points shows how big the gap is. But it has to be the ambition to close it as fast as possible.” That was the pre-match message from Tuchel, who will be under no illusions as to how high and quickly the bar will be raised at Chelsea. The short-term objective is Champions League qualification yet these will be the last months he can enjoy as manager without being expected to deliver a title challenge.
It seems preposterous considering how dominant Manchester City look, but that starting XI was signed for £277.3m and the three substitutes that came on cost £169m. It is a wonder that fourth and a losing effort in a cup final was ever seen as good enough. This is exactly what Chelsea always should have been capable of.