Another big match is on the cards for Chelsea on Saturday at lunch time. After fixtures against Manchester United, a local derby against QPR, and a trip to Slovenia, the Blues turn their attention back to domestic matters with a trip to Anfield to face Liverpool less than seven months after that infamous match last season.
Back then, the narrative was much different. Liverpool had the title in their grasp and a possible victory over Chelsea had the supporters ready to plan the celebrations for them winning their first title since 1989-1990. However, those plans were put on hold as a Chelsea side shorn of numbers by injury, suspension, or otherwise, went to Anfield and put on a clinic of how to defend en route to a 2-0 victory. To rub more salt into the wound, the opening goal from the visitors came from a slip by captain Steven Gerrard that allowed Demba Ba a free run on goal; a moment that has since been immortalized in song.
This time, Chelsea will enter Anfield as the team that looks to be the champions elect. Despite this being just the 11th match in the league this season, Chelsea’s form has made it very difficult to see who will overcome them and their 4-point lead to win the league. To make matters worse, no team who finished in the top four last season are within 6 points of the league leaders, and Chelsea themselves have not met defeat in any competition. Just as Chelsea did to them last season, Liverpool will hope to put a dent in their title chances, albeit an early one, but to do so, they’ll have to improve on their current form, which has seen them win just 1 match in their last 5 in all competitions.
The two teams couldn’t be more different from the last time they met.
Since last season, the cast of characters for both teams has changed. For Chelsea, gone are the likes of David Luiz, Fernando Torres, Samuel Eto’o, and the goal scorer on the day, Demba Ba. For Liverpool, a raid on Southampton’s spine of Adam Lallana, Rickie Lambert, and Dejan Lovren has occurred and the addition of Mario Balotelli, but more importantly, Luis Suarez has headed off to Barcelona. Because of these change in the squads, the Liverpool team and the Chelsea team, stylistically, do not resemble the teams that took the field last April in a title-deciding match.
For Chelsea, it was more about who was brought in, rather than who left. Last year, Jose Mourinho spent much of his time bemoaning his lack of strikers, but this season, he’s got one in Diego Costa, who is something of a goal drought, having not scored in his last two appearances. Cesc Fabregas also joined over the summer after being told he could leave Barcelona, which solved Mourinho’s complaint about a lack of creativity in the final third when teams sat deep. With Costa having scored 9 goals in the Premier League this season, nearly as many as Eto’o, Torres, and Ba mustered all of last season, and the 9 assists from Fabregas, Chelsea are now the team having scored the most goals in the league this season.
For Brendan Rodgers, it’s more about who left than who came in. The departure of Suarez has left a massive hole in the team, one that I don’t think Liverpool had fully expected. Yes, it has been more obvious with the absence of Daniel Sturridge, but in a lot of ways, Liverpool may not have learned from Tottenham’s mistakes with the Gareth Bale transfer. Rarely do you sell your best player and get better, but like Tottenham, Liverpool have brought in a lot of players to strengthen the squad but lack that one special talent that made the difference like Suarez. As it stands, Liverpool have had an indifferent start, with only the match against Tottenham resembling anything near their best.
The absence of Luis Suarez goes beyond his talent. It’s changed a lot of how they play.
It’s simple to say that the talent of Suarez is the only thing that’s missing, but that’s hardly the case. What made Liverpool so successful last season at Anfield was their ability to play with a pace and an aggressiveness at the start of a match that caught the opponent cold and saw them basically kill the game within 30 minutes. Part of that may be down to having to play just one match a week, but part of it comes down to the personality of the players.
Like him or hate him, when Suarez played, he played as a man possessed. Every time he lost the ball, he would chase back for it as if losing it to an opponent was an affront on his being. Every match that he started, he charged out of the gates for 90 minutes with an intensity and focus that made it seem like it was his last day on Earth. Whether it was a match against Real Madrid or against Bournemouth, he brought that same mind-set.
I believe that mentality trickled down to a lot of the players, and they all matched that intensity. Without him, it seems like the fire that he possessed is gone from the Liverpool team, so much so that they appear to be sleepwalking a lot. While Gerrard may still be the inspirational leader of the team, Suarez may well have been the heart and soul of the team, and without that, they’ve lost a bit of an edge.
Liverpool’s defence is now a massive weakness.
Last season, Liverpool’s defence was a mess, conceding 50 goals, far more than any other team in the top 5. However, it was masked, largely, but the goal-scoring of Suarez and his ability to link up with Sturridge for goals. This season, without Suarez and Sturridge’s goal totals, Liverpool’s problems in defence are magnified.
While Rodgers addressed that weakness by bringing in Lovren, Alberto Moreno, and Javier Manquillo, the defence hasn’t improved at all. Lovren had a great season last year at Southampton, but has failed to replicate that success this season. Meanwhile, last year’s signing, Mamadou Sakho, has been planted firmly on the bench despite showing some promise last year in limited appearances. Even more mystifying is the decision to allow Daniel Agger to go. While it appears that circumstances caused his mind to be made up last year, he was the most talented defender in that Liverpool back line, despite being underappreciated.
We’ll see what defence Liverpool choose tomorrow, but when Kolo Toure is being considered to start over Lovren after one good performance at the Bernabeu, you know that defence isn’t your strong suit.
Liverpool have yet to find the right balance in midfield this season.
Last year, Rodgers settled on a midfield diamond with Raheem Sterling playing off Suarez and Sturridge and Gerrard in the deep-lying position in the midfield. It worked a treat last year, allowing the front two the freedom to attack, while masking Gerrard’s declining pace. However, the injury to Sturridge this season has meant that Rodgers has resorted to playing one up front a lot and trying to decide how to deploy Sterling, Coutinho, and Jordan Henderson.
For the most part, it hasn’t worked. Sterling has often been shunted out to the wide areas, which has blunted his ability to run at the heart of the defence, putting them on the back foot and giving the strikers space. Henderson has not yet showed that energetic drive from midfield that he showed last year when he was playing a very effective box-to-box role. Coutinho hasn’t really pushed on in his year and a half at Liverpool, showing flashes of brilliance but also showing a lack of consistency that keeps him from joining the elite.
More worrying is the form of Gerrard. The captain of the side played brilliantly in that Andrea Pirlo-esque role last season. But this season, teams have figured out how to play against him. Because of Liverpool’s lack of runners in the channels and beyond the strikers, many opponents are simply sitting someone on Gerrard to mark him out of the game and trying to play around him because he’s not a natural defensive midfielder. It’s worked for opponents on a number of occasions this season, and is important because it allows you to attack that weak back four.
So what does this all mean for Chelsea?
First of all, I don’t think that Mourinho re-invents the wheel in this match. Despite having the better team on paper, I don’t think he goes out to attack Liverpool from the start. While I don’t expect a performance as defensive as the last meeting, I don’t expect him to set up to attack with too much aggression. Instead, I expect him to try to possess the ball in the midfield and final third and wait for a mistake. With the players available for Rodgers, I don’t know that there’s anyone outside of Sterling that threatens the Blues with their out-and-out pace the way that they did last year, so I don’t think Chelsea should worry about being picked off on the counter. However, I do think you have to worry about being too gung-ho about your attack.
The big thing is this match is what to do about Gerrard. We’ve seen in the past that Mourinho is not afraid to man-mark Gerrard out of the game, and I think this season, he’s got the perfect player to do so. In his first season at Chelsea, one of Oscar’s best performances that year was his performance in the first meeting with Juventus. That night, Oscar completely took Pirlo out of the game, and even scored after one of the most ridiculous pieces of skill I’ve ever seen. Two years later, I can’t see why Oscar wouldn’t be able to do the same thing against Gerrard and more, particularly given that I think Pirlo’s overall movement to find space is light years ahead of Gerrard’s.
All in all, I think the only thing that beats Chelsea is Chelsea. Liverpool are certainly good enough to get a point from this match at home, so that will be a concern. But if Chelsea surrender all 3 points, I think it’ll come down to the complacency and lack of focus that were shown in the last two matches. However, once Chelsea went down to Maribor, the focus improved. If they carry that into Anfield, Liverpool should be worried.