Next Monday, Jurgen Klopp completes three years of his Liverpool project. This Merseyside team is unrecognisable from the team left behind by Brendan Rodgers. Liverpool have developed their brand of football, quite similar to the fast and gegenpressing style of Klopp’s Dortmund. There has been a gradual and near-complete overhaul of the players to best fit the system. It is an incredible achievement for the German manager; some have called it a revolution.
And revolutions take their time.
Maurizio Sarri is on the verge of completing three months at Stamford Bridge. He too is a manager with a distinctive style of play. He brought from Napoli his high pressing, possession-intensive game and his pivotal midfielder at the Italian club – Jorginho. The rest of the Chelsea side is largely the same as it was under his predecessor, Antonio Conte. The only other additions to the first team are Kovacic (on loan from Real Madrid), and Kepa Arrizabalaga, who replaces Thibaut Courtois in goal.
Yet, this team is unrecognizable from the team that closed last season with a 3-0 defeat at Newcastle. Chelsea switched to a 4-3-3 – no longer playing three at the back. Marcos Alonso moved back to the more defensive left back. David Luiz, out-of-favour under Conte, has become a regular under Sarri. Jorginho is the medium between defence and attack, while N’Golo Kante assumes a position higher up the field. Chelsea have maintained as much as 81% possession in a single game. Gone are the days when we used to sit back and absorb pressure, waiting for breaks.
This Chelsea revolution started the moment Sarri walked in, and the Blues proved that it is sufficiently under way as they held Liverpool to a 1-1 draw on Saturday night. This Premier League game came only three days after Chelsea won at Anfield in the Carabao Cup.
There were a lot of positives for the West London club, but none shine as bright as Eden Hazard, who scored breath-taking goals in both games. At a time when the only options upfront are the two out-of-form strikers, Olivier Giroud and Alvaro Morata, the best Sarri can do is to play them alternately and hope to luck out. Hazard’s contribution, thus, is crucial for victories as Chelsea continue to struggle to finish chances.
While this is only a temporary solution, and Sarri might well be looking for another striker come January, it is an effective one. Hazard continues to terrorise defences, and has very recently, been heralded the best player in the world.
On the night, Hazard started an incredible run from his own half, received a pass from Kovacic, easily slipped past Gomez and buried the ball in the far corner, straight across keeper Alisson.
In the second half, Kante, who now is in charge of initiating attacks rather than his old job of breaking them down, demonstrated excellent presence of mind as his quickly took a free kick to set Hazard free on the left flank, with not a defender in sight.
Any space relented to the Belgian is dangerous; only an excellent save from Alisson kept Klopp’s men in the game.
In an inflated transfer market which places arbitrarily high prices on attacking players, Chelsea and Liverpool broke records this summer with the highest fees paid for goalkeepers. The Blues bought Kepa from Athletic Bilbao for 71 million pounds, while the Reds paid Roma 65 million pounds for Alisson Becker.
Spending on the right goalkeeper is quite an investment. These are players that necessarily have high impact and stay at the club for long periods, and yield dividends very fast. Both Kepa and Alisson got their share of world class saves on Saturday.
In the 60th minute, a pass from N’Golo Kante put Willian through on goal but he was quickly and cleanly narrowed down by the excellent partnership of Virgil van Dijk and Joe Gomez.
At the other end, Antonio Rudiger and David Luiz made one goal line clearance apiece, in either half.
Luiz is yet to convince much of the Chelsea support, who view him as reckless and prone to mistakes, but he has the faith of Maurizio Sarri, who like initiating attacks from the defence. The Brazilian’s ball-playing abilities came into the spotlight on two occasions on the day. Eden Hazard’s goal, in fact, originated with a pass from Luiz to Jorginho. Prior to that, in the 22nd minute, he put in a ball over all the outfield Liverpool players, straight to Willian on the right flank, forcing a fine block by Alisson.
Marcos Alonso was voted left back in the PFA Team of the Year in 2017-18. This raised a few eyebrows because he played as a wing-back then and wasn’t fantastic defensively, as defenders are expected to be.
The same eyebrows were again raised when Sarri switched to four at the back and placed the Spaniard at left back. He has had major defensive lapses this season because he is prone to moving forward and not tracking back fast enough. However, he has gained trust due to his attacking contributions – he puts in crosses, assists and even scores often. Against Liverpool, he was troubled to some extent by Mohamed Salah, but did not commit any significant errors.
A new aspect to Alonso’s game that has surfaced is one touch passing. On several occasions in the first half, he increased the pace by changing the direction of the ball and finding the best-placed teammate with a single touch.
You can take the Spaniard to England, but you can’t make him stop playing Spanish. Games to come will show to what extent this skill will be serving Chelsea.
At the final whistle…
Liverpool have arguably been the first side this season to play Chelsea at Chelsea’s level. They maintained about half the possession and created about the same number of chances. They could have gone back with all three points had they not been wasteful in front of goal. Former Chelsea man Daniel Sturridge eventually came off the bench to equalise for the visitors with a curler from 25 yards out, at the very end of the game.
The score line, then, is a fair reflection of the events of the 90 minutes.
However, it speaks greater volumes about the past three months, and just how powerful the philosophy and the methodology of the new Chelsea manager is. His side can make a full-strength Liverpool team battle for a single point.
Imagine the possibilities in three years.
A spectre is haunting the Premier League – the spectre of Sarrismo.