Friday September 16th, 2016

Going forward, Liverpool can be brilliant. At the back, it can be awful. It’s the juxtaposition of the two that makes Jurgen Klopp’s team difficult to judge. On Friday, a win over Chelsea took it to ten points from five games. That's the same as Chelsea, but Liverpool has had a far tougher start to the season.

In the first half Liverpool was excellent, its rapid thrusts thrilling. That’s one of the reasons Klopp is so popular: when his side wins games, it does so playing football that is uplifting to watch. But in the second half, it showed all its flaws, before, after some very nervy moments, finding the control to see the game out. 

Goals from Dejan Lovren and Jordan Henderson in a devastating first half had Liverpool in a commanding position at half-time, but Diego Costa pulled one back just after the hour and, as Liverpool rocked, it was hard to avoid the thought that the balance isn’t quite right, that a team that attacks this ferociously and defends this shakily can’t ever quite be title challengers. But on the other hand Liverpool has won away at Arsenal and drawn at Tottenham already this season as well as beating the champion Leicester in its only home game so far. And then there’s the obvious blip of that defeat at Burnley. 

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For Chelsea, the question is what on earth happened in that first half. It began appallingly slow, pinned back by Liverpool to the extent it was barely able to escape its own half in the opening quarter of the game. In the battle of two managers who like to press – albeit that Antonio Conte has had to temper those urges with the personnel available at Chelsea – there was no question that it was Klopp’s side that was imposing itself. Perhaps Conte’s plan was to sit deep and draw Liverpool onto his side but even a side looking to do that has to remain alert and Chelsea simply wasn’t.

Branislav Ivanovic, looking as sluggish as he had at the beginning of last season had already committed one spiteful foul on Adam Lallana when he gave away a freekick for a challenge on Georgino Wijnaldum after 16 minutes. The freekick was taken short, then played back to Philippe Coutinho, who sent an inswinging cross arcing to the back post. Chelsea, bizarrely disorganized, had drifted en masse to the front of the box, leaving three Liverpool players unmarked. It was Lovren who moved onto the cross and sent a smart sidefoot volley past Thibaut Courtois. The finish was harder than Lovren made it look, but Chelsea’s doziness was staggering. 

Chelsea had just offered glimpses it might be getting back into the game when Liverpool struck again. Like the first goal, the second was a combination of an excellent finish and lackadaisical defending. Gary Cahill’s mishit clearance from a 36th-minute Liverpool throw fell for Henderson and, as nobody closed him down, he measured a shot that curled and tipped over Courtois’s outstretched arm, a fraction under the bar and a fraction inside the post. 

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There was a strange lack of urgency about Chelsea, as though faced with Liverpool’s frenzy, the response was a collective loss of faith. On the bench, Conte was clearly furious, pacing about his technical area and beyond, gesticulating wildly. Nemanja Matic, his miserable form of last season continuing (in the first half at least) looked as though he could do with another three years at Benifca to get his form back. 

David Luiz, making his first start since his return to the club on transfer deadline day, had an awkward start, and suffered a bloodied nose when he clashed heads with Sadio Mane midway through the first half. Of more consequence was his distribution; it’s usually a strength, but here he was surprisingly erratic. 

There was improvement after half-time from the home side, as there had to be, and this Liverpool, devastating as it can be going forward, always seems vulnerable at the back. Five games into the season, Liverpool is yet to keep a clean sheet. 

The goal with which Diego Costa pulled Chelsea back into the game after 61 minutes was dismal from a defensive point of view. Matic advanced from halfway, evading a half challenge from Lallana and played the ball to the left to Eden Hazard. Henderson didn’t track Matic’s run and when the Serbian took a return pass, he skipped round an ineffectual slide from Joel Matip and lifted the ball across goal for Diego Costa to score with a side-foot volley. 

But the expected surge never really came. There were half-chances, threats of a threat, but nothing more and but for an fine low reaction save from Courtois the substitute Divock Origi would have sealed it for Liverpool. In the end, it wasn’t needed and Liverpool came away with a fine victory, if not a flawless one. 

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