A familiar feeling descended upon Liverpool fans as Willian’s failed cross looped over Mignolet and into the back of the net. Once again, a combination of lack of composure and sheer bad luck had served to deny the hosts all three points; the end result was no doubt respectable, but the all-too-common circumstances in which the win slipped away make it hard to appreciate the value of a point. Nonetheless, there are certainly positives to be taken – Klopp’s men were five minutes away from getting a win against the champions while resting two of the team’s key players, suggesting that the squad is finally equipped to handle the congested winter fixture list. Moreover, the league table reveals that Liverpool remain firmly in the hunt for a Champions League spot – anything from second to sixth is realistically up for grabs, with the teams occupying those positions moving amongst themselves almost weekly, and this is likely to remain the case for essentially the entirety of the campaign.
The team selection for this big game certainly raised a few eyebrows. There was consensus that Mane and Firmino could benefit from a rest – Mane has twice been thrown back into action off the back of injuries, and Firmino’s role in Klopp’s team necessarily results in vast amounts of energy being expended. However, most would have expected the rotation options to be called upon in midweek against Sevilla; the upcoming game against Stoke would have provided an equally ample opportunity. Ultimately, though, it can only be a good thing that the manager now feels he has squad players who can realistically be trusted in even the most important games. One would hope, having spent forty-million pounds on Oxlade-Chamberlain and blocked a move away from Anfield for Sturridge, that there would be no complaints when the two actually get picked. The complaints that were voiced in respect of Oxlade-Chamberlain were quickly silenced – he started brightly, and continued in this vein throughout the match. He refused to allow Chelsea’s back line much time on the ball, and when he was able to win it back he used it well. Just as satisfying as his bursting runs were his decisions on occasion to shift the ball infield; it was his most mature, composed performance since joining from Arsenal. This was rewarded with an assist – he helped to finally break the deadlock midway through the second half by instinctively poking the ball through to Mo Salah, who did what he has been doing for fun ever since joining and stuck it in the back of the net.
Sturridge was not quite as emphatic in his silencing of the doubters – it wasn’t necessarily a bad performance, and indeed only an excellent Azpilicueta block denied him a goal to double the lead, but the absence of Firmino was marked. Salah was seldom found in space; he was forced to engineer it for himself, rather than relying on the movement of the centre-forward to open things up. On multiple occasions the Egyptian spun past Cahill with ease, only to find more bodies ready to get between him and the goal – Sturridge’s lack of intelligent movement is at least partly to blame for this. As ever, this comes with the disclaimer that Sturridge’s class remains beyond question – the questions about whether he can genuinely play a role in Klopp’s system, however, are becoming ever more pressing (excuse the pun).
The more immediately concerning problems were to be found in midfield. Milner, Henderson and Coutinho were deployed in a central three; this naturally took the form of a double-pivot in reality, with Coutinho drifting around further up the pitch. The protection offered to the defence was virtually non-existent – Henderson failed to follow up from his poor showing in Sevilla with a convincing display here, and was bypassed as if he wasn’t there on multiple occasions. Milner was even worse; Henderson is at least fairly reliable in possession, but the ex-City man subjected Liverpool to near-relentless pressure in certain spells through his failure to retain the ball. Coutinho, too, is not free of blame – in the first half he flatly refused to track back a lot of the time. This is obviously not his primary duty, but he should have taken some responsibility for limiting the space in which the Chelsea forwards could operate. Hazard in particular needed to be tracked a little more diligently – the Belgian was given the space to excel in the first half, and in fairness he looked exceptional. Indeed, Coutinho’s second half showing illustrated the importance of his defensive contributions; he started to get back a little more, and this coincided with significantly fewer chances for the visitors until the final twenty minutes.
It was in this final period that Liverpool were undone, as they had been against Sevilla. Unlike the Champions League game, it was not a complete self-destruction; Klopp’s side were undoubtedly guilty of backing off too much, and of abandoning much of the composure and discipline on the ball that they had exercised prior to scoring, but it was ultimately a mishit cross that gave Chelsea their breakthrough. It would be ridiculous to assign any genuine blame – the cross came in from Moreno’s side, but he was not really at fault. In fact, on the whole, the Spaniard responded excellently to his disastrous showing against his former club: he dealt admirably with what was at times a barrage down his left flank. It simply wasn’t to be for Liverpool. Such strokes of luck cannot be legislated for; whilst there are undoubtedly ways in which the team could have managed their lead more effectively, which absolutely need to be addressed going forward, their undoing was just a fluke in the end.
Where does this leave the team? It is a case of having to just move on, and do so quickly; the game against Stoke is looming on the horizon, and a win is important to get back on track following two disappointing draws. The players will surely take heart from the fact that the point has not left them in a dire position by any stretch of the imagination; the table accurately reflects that City have been dominant and the chasing pack have been much of a muchness. The battle for the top four will be a long one, and Liverpool will be encouraged by the fact that on most days they will not be faced with crosses that fly into the top corner.
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