With half an hour of the game gone at the Ramon Sanchez Pizjuan stadium on Tuesday, Liverpool were leading Sevilla 3-0. The home side, had chances in the first half, but Liverpool’s advantage meant there was never a true any sense of danger. Only the knowledge of Liverpool’s past record suggested that the game might not be over. Sixty minutes later, it ended 3-3.
While Champions League games aren’t the best indicators of Premier League form, Liverpool’s game against Sevilla is very instructive, if only to further expose the flaws in the Liverpool set-up this season — their defence. This is a team as capable of conceding three, as they are of scoring that many and that too within a single game.
Liverpool’s setbacks have been rare this season yet their dramatic nature has strengthened the image of a reckless team. A 5-0 defeat against Manchester City and a 4-1 reverse against Tottenham Hotspur, meant that straightforward wins against Arsenal, Southampton, West Ham and Huddersfield are overlooked the moment defensive fragility reappears.
If they win against Chelsea they will draw level with the defending champions and yet a question mark will linger over Liverpool’s defence, especially over Alberto Moreno and Dejan Lovren.
But in a time where the solution to any problem is just to spend more it is worth noting that Jürgen Klopp has had faith in these two, and tried to improve them. Coaching, after all, is what coaches ought to do.
But there is a reason Moreno is regularly targeted by the opposition — as he was during the second half in the Sevilla game — and a reason why James Milner played at left back for an extended period last season.
Liverpool’s system requires their full-backs to attack. The effectiveness of Sadio Mane and Mohammad Salah is increased by the overlapping players making runs as they cut inside. But, when the full-backs get forward, they need to have cover behind to fall back on.
Liverpool’s recent winning spree where they scored 13 and conceded just once led people to believe that the full-backs had resolved their problems and adopted a more cautious approach where only one full-back joined up in attack at a time, acting like pistons in an internal combustion engine. It seems like a complex piece of strategy. A simpler solution perhaps would be to sort out the central areas of their shape.
When Klopp was at Dortmund, regardless of how high his side pressed, and how ruthless they were when denied possession, their greatest strength lay in the centre of their midfield. Players like Sven Bender, Sebastien Kehl and to an extent even Ilkay Gundogan, could help out the defence apart from their ability to distribute the ball. Jordan Henderson, for all his skills isn’t fit for the role. Emre Can would be more suitable for the role, if he weren’t prone to red cards and lacked pace like he does. Without a strong central midfield that holds firm, this system is as unreliable as a deck of cards.
Liverpool need look no further than their opponents on Saturday. Last season, Chelsea were the first ones to shift to a back three, with an aim at providing more cover for their attack-minded full-backs, and it is a trend that has now become fashionable among the big six. Liverpool, simply on returns, do it worst.
With European football filling up the midweek calendar this campaign, those opportunities have been sparse and time to simulate the various scenarios when playing with less width and a three-man midfield has been unavailable. Conte apparently used the flight back from Qarabag to prepare his players for Liverpool.
In recent time, not having a fully fit squad has hampered Chelsea’s progress. Having to fit square pegs in round holes is never a good solution (David Luiz in midfield, Cesc Fabregas defending in midfield). The upshot of the availability of N’Golo Kante (whose injury absence meant Chelsea saw a slight dip in form) and Danny Drinkwater (who may not be as illustrous but is a neat fit for a role that demands neatness) is that Conte can now feel free to choose between two systems. The 3-4-3 of last season, now usually deployed against teams that Chelsea expect to dominate, may not be in play at Anfield though.
Conte will, in all probability, fall to the 3-5-2 — a shape that was picked apart by Manchester City early this season, when Chelsea seemed out of sorts. But improvements in the system have been visible, none more clearly than when they beat Manchester United 1-0 at Stamford Bridge earlier this month.
Against Liverpool though, the system will face its sternest test, as they will not just have to negate the speed of Mane and Salah but also hit on the counter judiciously. Hazard vs Moreno will be the duel Liverpool don’t want sanctioned.
Add to this the storyline of old boys coming back to haunt Chelsea — Kevin de Bruyne is the one that immediately comes to mind — and considering Salah’s recent form it is a probable end to this tale. Chelsea have taken 15 of a possible 18 points on the road this season, and are probably mild favourites ahead of this fixture. Both teams have Champions League fatigue, but Liverpool’s is probably more bruising and more in mind than body. And healing the mind is a tougher task than the one Klopp signed up for.