Liverpool were undeniably better against Chelsea on Tuesday than they have been in recent weeks. The entire month of January was a slog for them, crashing out of two cups and, arguably, the title race. With that in mind, Liverpool went into their game against Chelsea with three home losses in a row, needing to turn things around desperately. Though they would only get a single point out of the game, Liverpool would put in a performance that showed there was still fight in this team. What the heck happened?
For as long as I have been watching the game, Liverpool have been a team that plays to the ability of their opponents. This has far too often resulted in thrilling games against big teams, but disappointment against the minnows. There are times when, yes, they don’t fit into this category. The 2013/14 season, Liverpool were flattrack bullies who put smaller teams to the sword. This season, however, we have seen signs of that mentality creaking back into the team. The Chelsea game could have been a continuation of that theme, but that is a shallow explanation for something more interesting going on.
The return of Liverpool’s relentless pace and pressing were clear for all to see, and this was a big part of why Liverpool did so well. In the first 15 minutes, Liverpool had over 81% of possession. And it wasn’t the flaccid, passing around the possession too often associated with high possession games. This was pinning Chelsea back in their own half, forcing them to make last-ditch save after last-ditch save. When Chelsea got on the ball, there was always at least one Liverpool player directly in their face, immediately challenging for the ball. This has been sorely lacking in Liverpool’s play over the last month, but doesn’t explain everything, either.
No, instead, we can gleam even more from the midfield trio. Let’s get this out of the way quickly. Jordan Henderson was imperious. He made the opening pass that led to Liverpool’s goal and was constantly moving, shuffling the ball, and leading the press. Henderson is such an underrated player that it is astonishing. Georginio Wijnaldum is another player who was absolutely at the top of his game, ultimately nabbing a goal for himself. The only member of the midfield trio that didn’t quite fit the quick moving style of the team was Emre Can, but a combination of the other two playing outstandingly and him making up for his slowness in other ways, made sure that it didn’t effect the overall play as much as it has in the past. In past games, Can was the downfall of the midfield, not because he is a poor player, but because he is often too slow on the ball to fit the style of play. The way Liverpool plays requires players to be mentally and physically quick, and Can was unable to pull this off. In this game, he was able to pick up the pace more, and that helped immensely.
Sadio Mane leaving may have taken a good deal of physical pace out of the team, but they were actually starting to fall off the pace prior to that. Indeed, you can draw connections to the Coutinho and Henderson injuries earlier. This isn’t because the two players are instrumental in the way Liverpool plays, though this is also true, but rather that it destabilized the midfield. Coutinho’s injury forced Adam Lallana into the front three, and the Henderson injury took the fulcrum of the team out and replaced with it Lucas or Can, who are both slower on the ball.
Looking ahead, this teaches us a lot about what we can expect from Liverpool. First and foremost, with fewer games being played between now and the end of the season, expect a massive uptick in form from Liverpool. This shouldn’t be too difficult considering last month’s form. Adding in additional time for rest and preparation, you have a deadly team when the goals pick back up. Next, it shows us a clear blueprint to players that fit the overall style that Jurgen Klopp will be looking at in the summer. This will come in the form of a mixture between academy graduates (the young midfielder Ovie Ejaria looks to be a prime example) and bringing in new players (Julian Brandt or Christian Pulisic seem to be big targets among others).
Finally, it shows that Liverpool’s biggest weakness is not defense or goalkeeping, but in like-for-like depth. Rather traditional depth, which would be quality players on the bench that can be counted on, Liverpool need more players that can come in and keep the style going. That is what didn’t happen this past January. Liverpool lost one or two key figures in the style and replaced them with square pegs in round holes. Having a “Plan B” is great, but not at the expense of everything falling apart when you lose a player or two to injury. Liverpool may improve drastically over the next few weeks, and may even finish as high as 2nd, but these will be hard lessons that Klopp’s team will have learned. It may cost them the title, but could serve them well in seasons to come.