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Chelsea vs. Liverpool, Premier League: Opposition Analysis

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Premier League leaders Liverpool visit Stamford Bridge in the first heavyweight battle of the season. Are the Reds the real deal?

Liverpool FC v Southampton FC - Premier League Photo by Alex Livesey/Getty Images

The Season So Far

Liverpool’s perfect record of six wins from six sees them setting the pace in the Premier League. In most of their wins they haven’t been at their awesome best, but they’ve done enough to get the three points. While most bookmakers understandably have Manchester City as odds-on favourites to retain their title, Liverpool are widely seen as their nearest challengers and rightly so: victories away to media darlings Tottenham and at home to the Harlem Globetrotters Paris Saint-Germain have confirmed that Jürgen Klopp’s side are in Europe’s elite class, and dreams of a first league win in a generation are growing in the red half of Merseyside.

Generally, they look a better, more mature side than they did last season. Several key players, most notably Mohamed Salah, Roberto Firmino and summer signing Naby Keita, haven’t quite produced their best, most explosive form, but as long as results remain as positive as this no-one will care. Realistically, it’s only a matter of time before the three of them produce the fireworks they’re known for and lift Liverpool to their peak level – this is one of the main reasons why the Reds are so fancied to stay in the top two positions.

The lion’s share of the credit must go to Jürgen Klopp, whose gurning, high-energy, passionate touchline style understandably rubs some observers up the wrong way, but whose expertise on the training ground and whose team-building is second to none. Their recruitment must also be lauded in the strongest possible terms: in Keita and Alisson Becker, as well as Fabinho and last season’s additions Salah, Virgil Van Dijk and Andrew Robertson, the Reds have shrewdly addressed their obvious problems and slowly but surely built a team capable of beating anyone. It seems only just and fair that such good work is rewarded with silverware.

The Season Ahead

Liverpool’s principle challenge will be making sure they don’t succumb to the pressures of managing expectation and of keeping pace with Manchester City. Based on their ability, cohesion, organisation and sheer firepower, the Reds should blow almost every opponent they face this season out of the water easily enough — the question is whether they can do so every week for ten months without stumbling at any point.

If objectives are to be achieved in the Premier League and the Champions League — as finalists last season, Liverpool will be expected to go deep into the tournament again this time around — Klopp will have to rotate the squad extremely well to make sure everyone stays fresh both physically and mentally. They appear to have the requisite strength in depth in most areas, but even the most optimistic of Reds’ fans will shudder when they remember that at various key moments this season, they’ll still be relying on Simon Mignolet, Dejan Lovren and Alberto Moreno. As Chelsea’s midweek Carabao Cup victory at Anfield showed, certain members of Liverpool’s second string are a few levels below everyone else in the squad.

Tactics

Over the last couple of seasons Liverpool have added several strings to their bow without changing their general approach. The intense, vertical, high-pressing 4-3-3 remains in place, with an interchangeable front three combining in the channels while overlapping full-backs and midfield runners come from deep. The sitting midfielder is still controlling the tempo, orchestrating attacks and hitting long diagonals from deep to move the opposition around. The centre-backs are still tasked with backing up the press, playing a tight, man-to-man style and winning duels. Nonetheless, this is not the same Liverpool we saw last year and it’s almost unrecognisable from the side of two seasons ago.

First and foremost, Liverpool have a far stronger starting eleven now than they did then, and this allows them to be more adventurous conceptually and builds greater collective trust — it’s no longer the case that the forwards do everything possible to make sure the Reds win, while the defenders and goalkeeper do everything possible to make sure they don’t.

Secondly, more of the “automations” so important in top-level football have been mastered by this team. Their tactical display away to Spurs, in which they shifted from a high-pressing 4-3-3 to a semi-pressing 4-3-3, and then to a 4-2-3-1, and then back to 4-3-3, almost at will, showed an extremely impressive level of cohesion and collective understanding amongst the players. They now know when exactly to press, when to block passing lanes and force long balls, when to sit back and when to change formation.

This tactical flexibility may sound like a minor detail, but it’s all-important when small gains across the board are required to catch up to and overtake the Manchester City juggernaut setting the standard. Less than a year ago they lost 4-1 away to Tottenham and looked massively inferior — this time they won 2-1 and looked in control for the majority of the game.

Strengths

Only Manchester City and Chelsea have taken more shots than Liverpool this season and only City have hit the target more often. Only Manchester City have a higher Expected Goals (xG) total and, indeed, only City have scored more goals. Only Manchester City and Chelsea have allowed fewer shots on their goal and yet both have conceded more goals. Indeed, Liverpool’s goals against and Expected Goals Against (xGA) figures are the best in the division so far. This is a team which can now defend as well as it can attack.

And boy, can they attack. Mohamed Salah set a new record for goals scored in a thirty-eight game Premier League season last time out, and again leads the division for xG this season. He might not have converted every chance that has come his way but he should return to the top of the scoring charts before long. In Roberto Firmino and Sadio Mané, Liverpool have the perfect compliments for Salah — unpredictable, hard-working and supremely talented as individuals, and close to unplayable as a collective.

At the back, the additions of Alisson, Van Dijk and Andy Robertson have removed Mignolet, Lovren and Moreno from the starting eleven, and with them the constant threat of spontaneous combustion. Liverpool’s excellent defensive work — only four teams have made more tackles, only one has won more offsides, and only Manchester City have played less football in their own final third — can no longer be undone by boneheaded individual errors.

A significant advantage they have over Chelsea here is tactical flexibility. As previously stated, they’re a few years down the line with Klopp now and the players fully understand when to make minor tactical changes without needing to be told to, and those minor tweaks frequently bring major gains. Chelsea are still starting out with Maurizio Sarri, and it’ll be some time before Sarri’s Chelsea are as fluent and proficient as Klopp’s Liverpool.

Weaknesses

Given that Liverpool have won every meaningful game they’ve played this season, only conceding goals in the league due to a freak goalkeeping error and a single poorly defended corner in which everyone committed to the front post and left the back unattended, it’s hard to see a genuine weakness in this team. The same vulnerability at the back post was evident in the PSG game, when advancing Thomas Meunier fired in a missed cross from the other flank, but we’re still only talking about two goals here.

Without a glaring weakness to pinpoint, Chelsea must remember that they themselves are coming off the back of a hugely impressive start, and have their own unique, eye-catching and progressive way of playing, which has so far maximised the talents of their players. Eden Hazard is equally as unplayable as Mo Salah, and in a tight contest like this one, one moment of genius, like the one we saw just a few days ago, could give the Blues all three points.

Expected XIs

No surprises on either side.

Prediction

This is Maurizio Sarri’s first major test as Chelsea boss. The Blues can certainly beat Liverpool on their day, but one suspects the players need a little more time under the Italian’s guidance before they can outplay an outfit as mature and as awesome as this Liverpool side. 2-1 to the Reds.