Saturday’s trip to Stamford Bridge was one where Liverpool fans and Jurgen Klopp learned plenty about this side. Chelsea were excellent on the break; on the ball and at the back and it took resilience, belief and a moment of genius from Daniel Sturridge to earn the Reds an important point.
However, there was one big issue at Stamford Bridge that nearly cost Liverpool at Stamford Bridge and one that they must address quickly: naivety. Specifically, naivety at the back.
Eden Hazard’s performance on Saturday was excellent. Irrespective of personal feelings and thoughts about the little Belgian, only the most partisan of Liverpool fans would say his display was nothing short of mesmerising at times.
The worst part? He didn’t even need to do anything overly special, most of the time.
Allow me to explain. Liverpool’s system necessitates attacking full-backs, who are willing to bomb on far down their flank. The front-three move inside, wreaking havoc in little pockets of space and the full-backs offer the out ball. Liverpool are now so ingrained in that style that the natural reaction for both left and right backs is to go forward.
This played perfectly into the hands of Hazard on Saturday. Maurizio Sarri likely deserves the most credit for this because for much of that game, Hazard was the furthest man forward for Chelsea and he wasn’t really doing much of anything. It was mostly Olivier Giroud and Willian who did the pressing and tracking while Hazard remained high up the pitch, seemingly wandering.
Yet, Hazard would also drift left when left up top because Chelsea realised that Trent Alexander-Arnold pushed high up the right flank, leaving a huge gap in behind himself should Liverpool lose the ball. It was this very scenario that led to Hazard’s goal and gave Liverpool huge issues all evening.
Now, this is not just targeted at Alexander-Arnold as the same thing happened – albeit far less often – down Liverpool’s left with Andy Robertson against Willian. This comes down to naivety. The single-mindedness to go forward is admirable and should definitely be encouraged but there comes a time when it can be detrimental and that is when someone like a Van Dijk should be grabbing them and telling them to be a bit more careful.
This isn’t an isolated incident either. The Champions League tie against PSG a couple of weeks ago saw a similar thing happen but Liverpool were able to deal with Mbappe and Neymar easily because PSG’s out balls were generally not good enough.
Taking Care In Naples
Looking ahead to Napoli, the Chelsea game should serve as a lesson to Alexander-Arnold and Robertson to just be a little bit more intelligent on when to fully commit going forward. Both have been excellent in 2018 and deserve all the plaudits they have received but they are the worry for me in Naples.
With Dries Mertens and Lorenzo Insigne up front and Marek Hamsik in midfield, Napoli are a side carrying a frighteningly potent threat up top and a quality conductor in the middle of the park who can feed them consistently with genuine quality.
Carlo Ancelotti may not have had the smoothest start in Naples but he is a proven, intelligent coach and with Mertens and Insigne up top, he will certainly be thinking about ways to exploit the gaps in behind the Liverpool full-backs. And Liverpool have to be worried by that.
The stats are there for Liverpool to be frightened too. Insigne, for example, who is most likely to play wide left tomorrow, created 90 chances in Serie A in 2017/18 at an average of nearly 3 (2.95) every 90 minutes. Mertens created 54 chances from a central role in the attack but also bagged 17 goals in 2017/18. The two of them are excellent players and more than capable of hurting Liverpool in behind the full backs.
While Alexander-Arnold has made the shortlist for FIFA’s Golden Boy this year and Robertson is now captain of Scotland, both struggled against an intelligent Chelsea side. The game in Naples will be a baptism of fire, possibly the biggest challenge mentally this Liverpool side has faced so far this season.
If the Reds are to be successful in this huge game, then the full-backs need to look back on that game against Chelsea on Saturday and learn from it. It could be the difference between success and heartbreak.