Well, here it begins, our first matchup of the season against the friends from the north, the mighty Liverpool Football Club and the raucous nation of Scousers. By my calculations, we have faced each other in all competions at least 30 times in the past 7 years. If there are any two English teams who know each other better over that, I’ve yet to see it.
Both teams find each other in similar rebuilding situations, but their projects are decidedly at opposite ends of the spectrum. While Chelsea sit 2nd in the table and have ambitions to win the league, Liverpool are sitting in 12th and are probably going to do well to qualify for Europe.
We know all the headlines by now. John Terry returns from his four-match suspension. Fernando Torres meets his former club and has looked tepid in the past against them. Liverpool always raise their game against us as if this was another cup final for them. However, let’s look deeper because this Liverpool team, I believe, is much different to the ones we’ve faced in the past.
This season, Liverpool find themselves in a very similar situation to us in terms of rebuilding an aging squad.
Liverpool are going through a very similar transitional period to Chelsea at the moment. Gone is the legendary manager Kenny Dalglish, who in his second turn at the helm guided them to their first piece of silverware since they won the FA Cup in 2006. Gone are many of the players that over the years have tormented us, Maxi Rodriguez and Dirk Kuyt being the most recent departures. Aging and seeing his role reduced, the local boy Jamie Carragher, who’s yet to truly been replaced, and the aging factor of their inspirational leader Steven Gerrard.
In steps Brendan Rogers, the former Chelsea youth team manager under Jose Mourinho, and he’s been given the task of rebuilding a Liverpool side that once expected to qualify for the Champions League in the top four but in recent years, has looked further away from that aim.
The comparisons don’t end there, as Rogers preferred philosophy is one of short, rhythmical passing build-ups through the midfield in order to create chances. The difference is that while our philosophy may be more Barcelona, the roots of Rogers passing game is closer to that of the old Scottish style that wasn’t quite tiki-taka but was a pass and move system that revolutionised the early game.
It is interesting to see how the two sides mirror each other this season, yet find themselves on opposite ends of the table for various reasons.
Liverpool’s passing system is the way that Rogers wants to play, but is it really their best way forward?
The interesting thing that I’ve noticed is that Liverpool aren’t really a team that are built, just yet, for a shorter passing game and building from the back. Neither of the two center backs have looked entirely comfortable on the ball so far, and Gerrard’s default position when in trouble is to either launch himself forward into the attack or sit deeper and ping 50 yard balls, which he’s capable of doing.
Both problems, however, disrupt the overall play of that system because as we’ve seen, if your center backs can’t get the ball to the midfield with some level of ease, it pretty much kills any hope of building an attack right then and there.
I’ve actually thought that Liverpool looked a much more dangerous outfit when they tried less to impose their passing on their opponent and more on counter attacking when the need arises. I thought the switch to a 3-5-2 worked well for Rogers against Everton and regained control of that match. However, it also highlighted another major problem with Liverpool at the moment.
Liverpool’s relative inexperience in the wide areas could prevent them from beating Chelsea in their weakest area.
Chelsea’s big weakness in recent matches is that teams have realised that you can sit deep and counter behind the advancing fullbacks, most notably on the left where both Ryan Bertrand and Ashley Cole are less physically-imposing specimens of man than Branislav Ivanovic on the right. Both Manchester United and Shakhtar Donetsk were able to exploit that space, and the question going into this match is whether or not Liverpool can, as well.
I submit that they can, but it will be a difficult proposition. The biggest issue for Liverpool in the wide areas is either experience with a lack of overall talent, Stewart Downing, or great talent with a lack of experience, Raheem Sterling and Suso. Rogers has gone with the latter, preferring the gifts of Sterling and Suso in the wide areas, but it’s when they counter that they show their inexperience in decision-making.
Every time Liverpool looked to counter against both Newcastle and Everton, the lack of a final ball from the wide areas was noticeable. It’s hard to expect two youngsters to slot into the squad when neither has really played at the top level yet. Due to the other options being Jordan Henderson and Downing, Rogers made the right call.
Luis Suarez is their clear danger man, and the man on who their best chances of winning rest.
Make no mistake about it. He may throw himself to the floor, appeal to refs for a foul before he’s really even fouled, and in general, be an annoying character to have to face, but Suarez is a brilliant footballer. Some of what he can conjure up for chances on his own is truly breathtaking stuff that only a few people on the planet can do. The problems with Suarez are two-fold, and they have nothing to do with the accusations that he dives and tries to con the refs.
The first problem with Suarez is that Liverpool are almost entirely dependent on his goals. If Suarez doesn’t find the means to score, no one else in the team is going to. That’s reflected in the fact that Liverpool’s second leading scorer is Own Goal. In fact, if you take out Own Goal, Suarez has scored 10 of Liverpool’s total of 26 goals in all competitions.
The second problem is that Suarez isn’t really a natural finisher. He has 10 goals, but he’s probably created at twice as many chances that he’s spurned either by rushing the shot or generally just missing the target. The key to Liverpool is to find out what Suarez shows up; the Suarez who can skin three defenders and walk down the byline and score, or the Suarez that walks down the byline after skinning the defenders and fires it into the stands or pulls the ball back to no one.
Liverpool’s biggest question marks surround their defence.
We’ve always known that the goalkeeper Pepe Reina had a howler in him every match. However, he’s usually been steady enough to make the big save to make up for the howler. As Brad Jones is finding, making the big saves is something that the current Liverpool goalkeeper must do as the defence in front of him is not terrific.
Since the arrival of Rogers and his desire to play passing football from the back, Martin Skrtel and Daniel Agger have not looked comfortable when asked to play it out from the back, and it’s showing in their overall play. They’ve been caught out of position many a time, and the way the let Manchester City back into their early season meeting is a case for how uncomfortable they are.
The fullback situation isn’t much better as Rogers has not been impressed with Jose Enrique on the left, thus he’s converted Glen Johnson to a left back and introduced youngster Andre Wisdom to right back.
We all know about Glen Johnson. He was the fullback that Mourinho exiled to Portsmouth because he couldn’t defend, preferring to play two holding midfielders there, Geremi and Lassana Diarra. Wisdom is a bit of a newer player, but if his performance at Everton is any indication, Eden Hazard should be looking forward to it. Kevin Mirallas gave him an absolute beating in the first half before succumbing to injury, and you could argue Hazard’s a much better player.
All in all, that Liverpool backline has as many question marks surrounding it as Chelsea’s does.