It was only 1-0, and it only took Chelsea four points ahead of Liverpool, but the sense at Anfield on Thursday was of arcs heading in opposite directions. After 68 league games unbeaten at home, Liverpool has now lost its last five at Anfield, the first time that has ever happened, and it’s over 10 hours since it last scored there from open play. Chelsea, meanwhile, is up to fourth place, four points off second, and can reasonably expect Champions League football next season.
It’s fair to say that both sides began the season anticipating something rather better than this. With Everton and Tottenham both winning in the early-evening kickoffs, Liverpool, the champion, began the game seventh, while Chelsea, after $300 million of signings last summer, was sixth. The title is far out of reach for both sides now, with qualification for next season’s Champions League now the only target.
Chelsea, at least, has the sense of things moving in the right direction since Thomas Tuchel replaced Frank Lampard at the end of January. Since the German’s arrival, Chelsea is unbeaten in 10 (7-0-3). Dominating possession, it’s conceded only two goals (and one of those an own goal). If there has been a criticism, it’s been the occasional sense of sterility, of a team that can hold the ball but isn’t especially dangerous with it.
Part of the problem has been Timo Werner's form. He has scored just five league goals since his $65 million move from RB Leipzig and is, by his own admission, short of confidence. Chosen at center forward for the first time under Tuchel, he was a persistent threat Thursday, his pace exploiting Liverpool’s bafflingly high line, but his finishing was again awry. He put a snap shot just over early on but then rather duffed a finish as a bouncing ball broke to him 12 yards out. Two further chances in the second half went begging. When he did put the ball into the net, running on to an Andreas Christensen though ball just after the midpoint of the first half, he was denied by an extremely tight offside call.
It has been a feature of the season that while others, notably Manchester City, have dropped a little deeper and played a less aggressive press, Jurgen Klopp has continued to try to operate in the same way as usual. Given the injuries the club has suffered, and given the amount of upheaval that has caused, perhaps that is reasonable enough, but in a season in which the games have been more concentrated than ever before, when players are more fatigued and there is less time to prepare for individual games, it is a risky approach—and one that has begun to undo Liverpool.
It was the high line that exposed Liverpool again two minutes before halftime. The emergence of Mason Mount has been perhaps the greatest positive of the season for Chelsea. He is clever, technically gifted and capable of playing in either the defensive or more attacking midfield roles. Here, he was deployed as the left of the two central creators in Tuchel’s 3-4-2-1, and latched onto N’Golo Kante’s long forward pass, cut inside Fabinho and, with Trent Alexander-Arnold caught too deep, had space to drill a shot into the bottom right corner.
The only real moment of excitement in the box had been a shout for a handball against Kante. The ball did strike his hand, which was raised beside his body, but he was no more than four feet from Roberto Firmino when the Brazilian smashed his attempted cross against him. That sort of incident was given as a penalty at the start of the season, but seems to have been given less and less as time has gone by. Given how often the law and guidance on the law has been tweaked this season, whether it should have been a penalty or not is anybody’s guess.
To an extent, the debate is academic. The fact is that Liverpool, yet again, was desperately short of ideas and penetration. This perhaps has been a perfect storm of circumstance—a team reaching the end of its cycle during a season that was always going to make high-tempo football difficult, plus all the injuries at center back and the off-field problems that had affected various people around the club—but it’s also true that when hard-pressing teams falter, they tend to go quickly.
The decline has been astonishingly rapid. All Liverpool can do now is try to get in a position to relaunch next season, ideally in the Champions League. Liverpool was top of the table at the beginning of the year, but the top four looks a long way off now. Chelsea’s development, meanwhile, continues.