Antonio Conte’s Chelsea faced a competent team for the first time this season, and it went extremely badly. Liverpool spent the first half crushing our merry delusions into dust, dominating the Blues in every phase of play and emerging with a 2-0 lead that might have flattered us. The match improved after the break, but not enough for a share of the spoils, leaving the home fans tasting a bitter, if narrow loss.
Jurgen Klopp’s side were exquisite in the first half. The midfield three of Adam Lallana, Jordan Henderson and Georginio Wijnaldum comfortably battered Chelsea’s trio. N’Golo Kante was pulled all over the pitch chasing shadows, with Nemanja Matic and Oscar always somehow exactly where they weren’t needed. Considering their dominance in the centre, in fact, it’s amazing that Liverpool didn’t create more chances. The visitors failed to go for the jugular when the defence was exposed, which at least spared us the humiliation of losing by three or four.
Humiliation manifested itself in other ways, however. It’s difficult to conceive of set piece defending more fundamentally embarrassing than the nonsense Chelsea pulled for Dejan Lovren’s goal, which featured the whole team (but most notably Gary Cahill, who was assigned the deep cross) drifting in towards the ball and leaving no fewer than four red shirts unmarked at the back post. One of them was the aforementioned Lovren, and he took advantage of the invitation with a neat finish, half-volleying Coutinho’s delivery past the perplexed Thibaut Courtois.
The Blues reacted to going behind by continuing not to do anything. Eden Hazard and Willian couldn’t get any traction going forward, while Diego Costa was up against Lovren and Premier League newcomer Joel Matip, neither of whom were in any mood to give the striker a soft landing. At no point did Chelsea threaten to do anything. At no point did they threaten to threaten to do anything.
And then to add insult to injury, Jordan Henderson scored a goal.
Some players are regularly reduced down to caricature by the football-watching public. David Luiz, for instance, is a talented but moronic defender, utterly unreliable at centre half*. Diego Costa is a snarling, [ship]-talking professional asshole. Jordan Henderson is a comically inept buffoon with no redeeming features. In some cases those public reputations are deserved, in many cases they’re not. Henderson probably falls into the second category, but even if he doesn’t it’ll be hard to insist that he’s totally pants after the strike he pulled off today.
*The pouffy-haired one was pretty solid today, incidentally.
A Liverpool throw-in deep on their left should have presented no real difficulty and indeed was easily dealt with, Gary Cahill stealing in ahead of Saido Mane to clear. Unfortunately, Cahill’s definition of a clearance appears to be somewhat sub-optimal: instead of wellying the ball into touch or at least outside of the danger zone, he came up with a comfy pass to Henderson, 30 yards out. The Liverpool skipper needed no further invitation, replying with a beautiful, swerving strike which bent around Thibaut Courtois nestled in the top corner.
1-0 was bad enough but 2-0 seemed a mountain to climb, even if Chelsea did have a full 45 minutes to get themselves going. If anyone was expecting changes at the break, they haven’t been following Antonio Conte’s substitution policy very closely. It was the starting lineup who were going to have to salvage things, and in their defence they made a quasi-credible show of it.
Perhaps standards were set too low after the inept first-half performance, but the blues were far more coherent after the break. Kante stopped getting yanked around everywhere, the wingers started linking with their fullbacks properly, and Liverpool were reduced to chances from the counterpress rather than possession. That’s not to say that the Blues were competent by any stretch of the imagination, but they at least performed a reasonable impression of a football team.
False hope arrived in short order. David Luiz got a spark going with a challenge high up the pitch, and eventually Branislav Ivanovic’s uncontested cross found Hazard in space. Mane, rushing back to help his defence, clipped the Belgian, who probably should have gone down and protested for a penalty. Instead he opted for a pretty useless pass. The moment had gone, but for the first time Chelsea had done enough to scare their guests.
They’d do more than scare them shortly thereafter. Matic, anonymous before the interval, undressed Lallana near the centre circle and went on a marauding run forward, playing a neat one-two with Hazard and finding the byline. Faced down by Matip and Henderson, the Serbian cooly avoided a pair of sliding tackles before teeing up Costa to poke home.
A comeback looked vaguely plausible at this point, and it’s not hard to close your eyes and imagine what might have been had Costa met his 67th-minute chance with any real authority after being fed by Oscar. Unfortunately the ball wasn’t quite right for him, and although Simon Mignolet made a bit of a meal out of his scuffed shot the goalkeeper was able to hold on.
That would, depressingly, turn out to be as close as Chelsea got to an equaliser. Mignolet and the Liverpool defence were kept busy by the Blues, who looked quite dangerous after the far-too-late introduction of Cesc Fabregas, Victor Moses and Pedro, but Chelsea never again got a real sight of goal.
In fact it was the Reds who came nearer adding to their total. James Milner, put through by Coutinho, saw his cross partially blocked by Ivanovic. The deflection was a decidedly unhappy one, sending the ball looping over David Luiz to land right on top of on Divock Origi. Courtois, however, was delighted by a shot he had any hope at all of stopping, and clawed the point-blank header off the line.
There was plenty of action in the dying seconds, notably through a Fabregas passing bombardment, but it was at best futile action. Liverpool killed off every attack before they became shots, and after three minutes of stoppage time emerged as worthy winners.
Chelsea are in the dangerous part of the schedule now, and while dropped points are more or less inevitable, it’s the nature of this performance that’s cause for concern. The first half was an atrocity, and the second wasn’t nearly good to make up for it. Conte has his work cut out.