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Chelsea vs. Liverpool, Premier League: Opposition Analysis

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The champions of Europe look like good bets for being champions of England come May, but are they really all they’re cracked up to be?

SSC Napoli v Liverpool Fc - UEFA Champions League Photo by Matteo Ciambelli/NurPhoto via Getty Images

The Season Just Gone

Liverpool’s 2018-19 will forever be remembered among Reds as the one that brought Number Six. Jürgen Klopp’s side overcame impossible odds to eliminate FC Lionel Messi Barcelona in the semi-final before comprehensively outplaying The Harry Kane Team Tottenham in Madrid’s Wanda Metropolitano, and thus we were treated to the unbelievable sight of Jordan Henderson lifting the European Cup. They come into 2019-20 as the champions of Europe, but not as the champions of England.

We shouldn’t forget, however, that Liverpool’s league season was the best in their history. They achieved their highest ever points total — a staggering 97, two more points than José Mourinho’s immortals won in 2004-05 — and lost only once, their epic nail-biting, nerve-shredding defeat at the Etihad being the difference between first place and the first loser spot. Manager Klopp removed any lingering doubts that he was truly among the world’s best managers, and the Reds’ awesome front three of Mohamed Salah, Sadio Mané and Roberto Firmino cemented their places in the world’s group elite of attackers with a campaign of ludicrous individual and collective quality.

It was also a career-defining campaign for wing-backs Trent Alexander-Arnold, who broke the record for assists made by defenders, and Andy Robertson, who may well be the best left-back in the world right now. With Liverpool’s front three playing with so much freedom and attacking the box with such regularity, the widemen are now integral cogs in Liverpool’s attacking machine, much like Dani Alves and Jordi Alba were for Barcelona for the last decade.

Above all else, perhaps, Liverpool’s season showed the value of buying the best of the best where and when needed. Fans the world over baulked at the sums spent on Virgil Van Dijk and Alisson Becker — £75m and £65m respectively — but after one full season each at the club, it seems a lifetime since Liverpool’s glaring, often hilarious weaknesses were at centre back and in goal. Van Dijk and Alisson turned a talented but brittle side into Champions League winners and Liverpool look better placed than ever to end their long wait for Premier League glory.

The Transfer Window

As European Cup winners with plenty still to prove domestically, there was no great need to perform major surgery on the squad over the summer. No first-team signings arrived until a goalkeeping crisis emerged on the season’s eve and free agent Adrián was parachuted in. Meanwhile, deadwood and punchlines like Daniel Sturridge, Danny Ings, Alberto Moreno and Simon Mignolet departed. Their summer business earned them a net £35m. In the unlikely event that they need reinforcements in January, the money is there.

The Season Ahead

With the Premier League’s only 100 per cent record, Liverpool are already five points clear at the top — the widest margin ever at this stage of the season. They’ve got a further two-point cushion keeping them in the Champions League qualification spots. It’s early days, of course, but they look like the team to beat, especially as Manchester City’s defence collapses and the Champions League assumes growing importance to Pep Guardiola after two awesome Premier League wins.

Liverpool have yet to face top opposition in the league, however, and after a Super Cup draw against Chelsea and a defeat away to Napoli, it could be that they’re not quite as good as the form book makes them look. As unbelievable as their attack has been, there are signs that their pressing isn’t quite as good as it was last year — despite facing massive underdogs like Norwich, Southampton, Burnley, Arsenal (lol) and Newcastle, Liverpool have only kept one clean sheet so far — and they will need to address the balance of the side and the positioning of their full-backs if they’re not to capsize under the weight of their own hype.

Tactics

On paper, Liverpool’s setup doesn’t look like the kind of platform for a shock-and-awe blitz so strong that they lose only one league game in a season and win the Champions League. It’s basically a conventional 4-1-2-3, with overlapping wing-backs, a sitting midfielder who mops up behind his colleagues and a front three that combine and interchange positions.

With the ball, they aim to flood forward in blurred mass of rapid runners exchanging one-touch passes and slicing through teams before they’ve had a chance to set themselves. Without the ball, they try to press the life out of opponents and force mistakes until they score the first goal, after which they’d want to adopt a more cautious defensive line and a more counter-attacking outlook.

It’s been ten years since Pep Guardiola introduced us to this way of attacking and around the same time since Jürgen Klopp pioneered gegenpressing as a very attacking defensive strategy. We fully understand what it is that Liverpool want to do, and yet almost every team is seemingly powerless to stop them. This is because as much as we understand what they want to do, it’s how they do it that makes them so good.

Strengths

In short: intensity. As stated above, there’s nothing revolutionary about their way of playing. It’s the fact that they play at 110% for the full 90 minutes that sets them apart. And that’s not to say simply that they have staying power — although they do — it really is that they’re as fresh and focused in the 90th minute as they were in the 1st. More than one opposition player has talked about being blown away by Liverpool’s unmatched physical and mental capacity, and if Chelsea go into this game ready to make the kinds of braindead defensive errors that have characterised the Blues without the ball this season, they’ll lose and lose miserably.

They’d still be an amazing team even if they played at 95 per cent. Mo Salah may have flopped at Stamford Bridge but he’s now unquestionably one of the world’s best forwards; Sadio Mané keeps getting better and better; Roberto Firmino has really white teeth is earning comparisons with Eric Cantona and Dennis Bergkamp. Anchorman Fabinho may be the most underrated player in the Premier League. Virgil van Dijk is obviously its best centre-back, and very probably the best anywhere right now.

While it’s a bit early in the season to be wheeling statistics out — the sample sizes are simply too small to be worth anything — rest assured that the Reds already rank highly in just about every metric that could be used here to express the scale of their domination over their opponents so far this season.

Weaknesses

The world-class Alisson is out injured and his replacement Adrián is merely very good.

They haven’t won the league since 1990.

Steven Gerrard fell over that one time.

That’s all I’ve got.

Expected XIs

After difficult, somewhat traumatic European defeats during the week, it could be that both Klopp and Frank Lampard decide to make sweeping changes to their starting line-ups. In a game of such importance, however, we should expect more conservative, cautious — read “familiar” — starting elevens on both sides.

Frank Lampard would love to have N’Golo Kanté back and Mason Mount available, but this could come too soon for them. Antonio Rüdiger will surely play after missing the Valencia game. (Ed.note: Rüdiger has unfortunately failed to recover in time.)

Prediction

Neither defence has been at its best so far and both attacks have been on fire. Neither team will be too fussed by a loss, but neither team will be too disappointed with a draw either. This has all the makings of a high-class but ultimately underwhelming early season 0-0.