Premier League: Liverpool's jittery performance in Chelsea draw exposed their structural deficiencies
In spite of gaining a point against the defending champion, Liverpool have much to ponder and improve.
Chelsea walked away with a point, feeling it could have got more. Liverpool certainly should have done more. But the problems that have come to engulf the Reds do not seem to be in a mood to leave.
Both sides made five changes each to their starting line-up from the midweek Champions League games but it were the decisions taken by Jurgen Klopp which hogged limelight. No Sadio Mane, No Roberto Firmino. After the horror show in Seville, Klopp thought it was best to go with a less intensive approach.
It would work, though, only if Liverpool’s defence would demonstrate a more reliable visage. Instead, we saw the host jittery again with a goal for Chelsea looming throughout the game. It was comical how Antonio Conte’s men found their way back into the match but the structural issues for Klopp remained serious.
Eden Hazard is difficult to stop but the absence of a proper defensive midfielder is a glaring issue in the Liverpool side. Klopp remarked afterwards that three players may need to be assigned for controlling Hazard but it was only last season that Manchester United’s Ander Herrera marked the Belgian out of the game. When the structure is shaky, players like the Chelsea star thrive.
Hazard frequently ran in spaces that were easily available to him. For at least the first half, there was not a better player in sight. Yet, for all his endeavour and imagination, Chelsea could not find the goal its play merited. Liverpool, on the other hand, saw a lot of the ball but did not possess much guile. Its most obvious threats sat on the bench while Philippe Coutinho could not influence play from his deeper position on the left.
Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain has played as a wing-back for Liverpool this season but on Saturday, he started out on the left flank up front. It is rather difficult to determine what his natural position is. While that may be an admirable quality in some players, Oxlade-Chamberlain increasingly seems like a malleable presence employed to perform certain duties. The end product is not very thrilling.
It was not until the 55th minute that Liverpool finally had a shot on target. Klopp’s selections had tried to make the best use of his squad depth but it is not a roster bourgeoning with riches. For once, at least, the bench looked strong. However, Firmino’s services were not sought while Mane came on only in the 89th minute.
Those changes, of course, were influenced by the fact that Liverpool found itself defending a lead. Mohamed Salah was once again Liverpool’s saviour. While the goal itself was not the most exceptional, it arrived at a time when Chelsea seemed to certain to put the boot in.
Tiemoue Bakayoko’s momentary lapse allowed Salah to burst through the box and finish. The goal seemed to sum up what had gone on before. There was lots of intense running and playful tackling but not much to speak of in terms of invention. Chelsea, to its credit, did not take the blow badly.
Cesc Fabregas was introduced and he started to ping passes behind and in front of the Liverpool defence. Willian came on soon after and it did not take him long to make a freak intervention. Whether it was a cross or a shot remains up for question but it was worth noting that Simon Mignolet was not in the best position.
The Belgian goalie, of course, could not have anticipated the ball to loop over him but it did not seem that he could foresee the ball dropping on Alvaro Morata’s head, who stood at the far post. It was not an individual error leading to a goal but the way it panned out did not fill oneself entirely with confidence. Liverpool had invited the pressure and buckled once again.
While Chelsea seem to be closer to finding the balance that Conte has sought in recent weeks, it remains elusive for Klopp. After the match the Reds manager revealed his annoyance at the referee for not allowing Adam Lallana’s substitution to go ahead earlier. Klopp’s contention was that he was effecting a formation change which would have shut down the space Wilian had for Chelsea’s equaliser.
Such hypotheticals, however, do not present a pretty picture. Liverpool’s problems are of their own making. Despite only conceding a single goal for once, diffidence remains an issue. Klopp took a call to trust his coaching process after the failed pursuit of Virgil van Dijk. His defenders are yet to show that his tactics work.
The full-backs cannot bomb forward together because there is no adequate cover in the form of a defensive midfielder. Why then, one wonders, were 35 million pounds spent on Oxlade-Chamberlain? His signing seems to reflect the confusion which permeates the club’s hierarchy at the moment.
In his final season at Borussia Dortmund, the defensive issues left Klopp at sea. While Liverpool is not having that bad a season, there do seem to be far too many depressions at the moment. In spite of gaining a point against the defending champion, the Reds have much to ponder and improve.
Klopp laughed off some barbs from Guardiola saying they were heat-of-the-moment comments likely fueled by Manchester City’s painful elimination from the Champions League.
Conte, whose Tottenham team are fighting for a top-four spot in the Premier League, has been linked with French champions Paris Saint-Germain but last week he described the speculation as "fake news".
Liverpool's first FA Cup triumph since 2006 was especially meaningful for Klopp, who saluted his players for matching Chelsea blow for blow after such a gruelling campaign.