What were we truly expecting? The interim appointment of Bruno Saltor was as pointless as a circle, knowing that there would be very few new ideas implemented by a coach whose sole coaching experience lies in being an assistant to Graham Potter after being graduated from player in 2019 at Brighton. The greatest trick that Potter ever pulled was convincing the fanbase he didn’t exist... In all seriousness, expecting the goalscoring fortunes of the club to suddenly change virtually at all, even against a seemingly (at the moment) hapless Liverpool, would have been unreasonable.
For as ceremonious as it theoretically should be as the most featured match in the Premier League era (our 62nd league meeting), the last four in all competitions have been goalless draws - this was our fifth consecutive winless game at the Bridge against Liverpool and neither of us are lighting up the charts this season, and particularly Chelsea against ‘big’ clubs. Considering their poor run of form, Jürgen Klopp decided to make some changes to his attacking unit that had only scored one goal in their previous three matches - surprisingly it was Mohamed Salah who started on the bench.
Saltor did, however, integrate a tactical change, giving both N’Golo Kanté and Mateo Kovačić starts alongside a deeper-lying Enzo Fernández in the midfield while keeping the back three and wingbacks. Adding to the midfield meant that dropping one from the front three was necessary, and it seems as though João Félix and Kai Havertz are the perpetual starters despite their (especially the latter) propensity to create but not finish chances.
That decision in the midfield meant that this game was largely controlled and dictated by Chelsea, and it was a wise decision to break down their midfield and defense, especially without Virgil van Dijk. It seemed strange for Saltor to play Kanté in one of the more box-to-box roles given how much running was required from that position and knowing that he had just come back from injury, not to mention it limits the offensive qualities of Fernández. It also would have maximised Kanté’s knack for sniffing out danger, but he did do well in the box-to-box role regardless.
Creating chances doesn’t for the most part seem to be a problem, but completing chances is only an humourous objective. It wouldn’t take even 15 minutes for us to prove that comprehensively. Both circumstances are created from two ways to get through Liverpool’s midfield and behind their high defensive line, by quick and transitional passes either through their lines or over the top.
The first circumstance is in the 5th minute and prompted by Kanté forcing a turnover and then finding Kovačić in a small amount of space. Kovačić plays a one time pass that gets behind their back line and then thankfully follows the play into the box. Havertz takes it down the flank and goes the cross deflects to an unmarked Kovačić around the penalty spot. Had he taken it with his first or even second touch, he may have scored. Instead, Alisson is able to get a touch to the ball as he tries to dribble around the keeper and the chance is lost. Kovačić isn’t known for his finishing, but not taking the shot on at all is unacceptable and possibly an unwanted side effect of the team’s emphasis on possession. That decision would cost us .71 xG.
The second instance is in the 12th minute after Ben Chilwell made a glorious arched run to beat the high line while staying onside and caught a well played ball from Kalidou Koulibaly. Chilwell picks out a wide open Havertz, who apparently also isn’t known for his finishing, because from inside the six yard box, he doesn’t make ample contact to get the ball past Alisson. That decision would only be .53 xG lost, but that pattern would also continue through the match.
While our chances were clearly well-beyond what Liverpool were creating, our defensive effort was equally notable, winning 24 of our 35 tackles (19 of which were in our defensive half) but also intercepting the ball 12 times (9 in our defensive half.) While their offense has given a poor return, it is still commendable to keep them so easily at bay, and it is nice to see how influential Wesley Fofana has been (8 tackles, 5 interceptions) not just in this game but in all those in which he has played a part lately. Moreover, our ground duels won map is astonishing, and it seems like our aggression and grit was just significantly more determined than Liverpool’s.
In fact, our pressing has been ramping up significantly in recent weeks, and according to The Analyst, we are now far and away the highest pressing team in the league...and yet all that pressing has produced only 9 more shots than the teams who press the least. With Frank Lampard coming back in, one thing that he may want to address is our impetus. We have resorted back to the slow an intricate sequences of passing, and are trending towards the Manchester City style without the same end product.
Especially now, with a midfield that should be able to provide ample cover, we should embrace quick transitions and less familiar passing schemes to prevent teams from setting up defensively. We do not play well against a low block or a defensively organised unit, but we far too often let them assemble themselves to adequately dull our threat. There were audible groans around Stamford Bridge when, after a turnover at 63:50, Cucurella carries to establish a base in the opposition half and immediately turns to pass the ball back and play through more comfortable sequences. We need to get uncomfortable.
And much of what should make that midfield cover is what we saw, with the trio essentially dominating the match. Enzo Fernández has been tremendous since his arrival, and in such a pivotal position while seeing so much of the ball, it wasn’t expected to be such a seamless transition to the Premier League. One critique I have of him is that his long balls over the top seem to travel incredibly slowly, and therefore they appear to sometimes be underhit. Especially when going over a high back line like Liverpool’s, longer is better than shorter because it still releases the target player, and those lofted passes aren’t releasing the player often enough.
Although Fernández was only 12/16 on long passes according to FB Ref, he did complete 10 passes into the final third and 9 progressive passes. It is still laudable that he is going for those passes, and that is helping our ability to move the ball well such as we did with Jorginho as the metronome. Passes out of and through midfield are a great alternative to our emphasis on all attacks coming through our wingbacks, allowing us to essentially attack on all fronts.
The nil-nil scoreline with vastly different xGs does raise the question of which team’s lack of scoring is more damning - how many chances we blundered or the bare minimum they created? Saltor did take a cue from Potter and noted that “they gave everything.” I think it is time they started to give nothing and take everything, because, at this point, we’re giving away nothing but points. Our goals tally is record-shattering, and not in a good way.