Chelsea face Liverpool twice in three days – once in the League cup and another in the Premier League – considering how Liverpool have started the season, it is difficult to wish such a punishment on even your harshest of enemies. Yet, at the same time, the coming week presents two attempts for Chelsea to bring an end to Liverpool’s impressive winning start to the season.
Maurizio Sarri is relishing the challenge of testing himself and his relatively newly-formed team against the league leaders, but his observation that his new side are at least one year behind Jurgen Klopp’s resurgent reds is an observation which the facts back up.
Chelsea are arguably ahead of schedule in terms of progress; up until Sunday, they were also on maximum points, but a defensive West Ham brought that to an end. Naturally Liverpool are more evolved than their London rivals; Klopp has been at the helm on Merseyside for coming up to three years whereas Sarri has not even had three months at Chelsea. Transforming Chelsea’s style of play will take time, catching up with Liverpool may take a little longer.
Up front and at ‘em
The most apparent edge that Liverpool have over Chelsea is in the forward line. It is not unfeasonable that come Saturday evening Liverpool’s unnerving attacking trio of Mohamed Salah, Roberto Firmino and Sadio Mane could have reached one-hundred goals between them since August 2017. That is without even contemplating the 40-odd assists that they have contributed and the smart interplay and clever movement that they each display.
Liverpool’s settled forward line have consistently unsettled the best defences in Europe in recent seasons, they have a dynamism that few can match. Although Chelsea have the individual ability of Eden Harzard – and Sarri seems to be showing signs that he is capable of getting the best out of the talented Belgian – their strikers are out of form. The troubling aspect for Sarri is that no definitive Chelsea front three has emerged as yet, let alone defined the Chelsea team.
Liverpool’s back-five is practically unrecognisable to 12 months ago, albeit it has taken nearly £150m to achieve, Klopp finally has a defence that he can rely upon. Three clean sheets so far this season tells its own story. But it is perhaps the defensive displays against Tottenham, Paris Saint-Germain and Leicester that show their improvement; they are not watertight but they are more resolute than before.
Chelsea, meanwhile are showing that Sarri’s approach is quite a turn from the defensively minded Antonio Conte and Jose Mourinho. They have kept four clean sheets from their opening seven matches, but only a glance at Chelsea’s defensive setup highlights just how high the coach wants his defence to play. Currently the work-in-progress is susceptible to leaving gaps that the better attackers can exploit. It is putting quite a strain on N’Golo Kante and Jorginho sitting in front of them who – for the time being at least – are managing to keep their cool.
Sarri has reverted to a back four; Conte’s five-man setup did show signs of flagging as last season progressed. Gone are the rushing wing-backs and Cesar Azpilicueta and Marcos Alonso are still finding their feet with their slightly different roles playing as more orthodox full-backs. By playing such a high defensive line, both have a key role to play, tucking into their centre-backs to plug the gaps.
Liverpool’s full-backs offer balance and are showing that they are two of the best defenders in Europe at the moment. Both Andrew Robertson and Trent Alexander-Arnold have experienced a meteoric rise in the past year, but they are worthy of it. They tick all the boxes and possess the one quality that Klopp demands more than any from his players – energy. Realistically both can be the bedrocks of Liverpool’s defence for a decade to come.
Home is where the heart is
Liverpool have won every match at Anfield in all competitions since the start of last season except a bizarre game against West Brom in the FA Cup. Klopp’s aim to make the match-going supporters part of the occasion rather than spectators has been realised and was no more apparent than on those historic nights against Manchester City and Roma. Such home form can bring expectations and that is something that both the fans and players must deal with.
Although both Liverpool and Chelsea’s home record this season are equal, something has got to give in the coming few days. Stamford Bridge has proved pivotal in each of Chelsea’s title winning seasons but a semi-regular habit of home capitulations against modest opponents has developed. Sarri’s more expansive modus operandi is quite possibly what the Chelsea fans have been demanding for some time; some excitement at the Bridge, especially if success is not in the immediate vicinity.
Perhaps Roman Abramovich is mellowing with age – after all, he has hired Sarri after a continuum of pragmatic coaches – but he must give time to his new man. A quick look up north to Man City and Liverpool show that a little time can reap rewards that extend beyond the trophy cabinet. Whatever happens over the coming days, Chelsea need time to enhance the principals of Sarriball. Liverpool are ahead of their opponents and it does not look like they are going to be caught any time soon.