A common perception in 2020-21 was that Liverpool’s struggles at home were partly down to playing in an empty Anfield, with their raucous support not there to get the Reds over the line.
How important that actually was is difficult – or maybe even impossible – to quantify, though Liverpool did endure a club-record run of six successive league defeats last term.
But Anfield was full on Saturday and rocking for their first ‘big’ match of the season with Chelsea on Merseyside, and once again Liverpool looked a shadow of the inventive side that won the 2019-20 Premier League season so impressively.
They were even given the boost of seeing Reece James sent off, yet Jurgen Klopp’s side failed to make the most of that advantage in their 1-1 draw.
So much of the build-up centred around arguably the most anticipated duel since Anakin Skywalker v Obi-Wan Kenobi, as Romelu Lukaku – fresh from bullying Arsenal last week – went up against Virgil van Dijk.
Of course, the Dutchman missed most of last season with a knee injury and endured a pretty tough second match back last time out against Burnley.
His 41.7 per cent success in aerial duels was way down on his league average of 74.3 per cent since the start of 2018-19, highlighting just how “intense” – as Klopp put it – Burnley were.
While few would’ve expected a similarly direct approach from Chelsea, Lukaku’s second Blues debut last week really increased the anticipation for his contest with Van Dijk.
Lukaku was certainly involved in a gruelling opening 45 minutes, his first proper duel with Van Dijk coming in the 18th minute as he rather easily shrugged the defender off out on the right before seeing a cross dealt with.
The Belgian was brutal with his desire to get into the danger zone last week and he showed similarly impressive movement just before the half-hour mark – but first N’Golo Kante failed to spot his run and then Kai Havertz did as well when a first-time pass would’ve set Lukaku through on goal.
Havertz had just given Chelsea the lead with a header Lukaku would’ve been proud of, otherwise he would likely have got an earful from his team-mate.
Lukaku’s excellence then should’ve made it 2-0 10 minutes before the break, as he brilliantly rolled Joel Matip and fed Mason Mount, only for the England star to shoot wide of the bottom-left corner.
Van Dijk’s anticipation when predicting Lukaku would try to let the ball run past him in the 43rd minute drew the biggest cheer of the day from Liverpool fans up to that point, and just a few moments later the game was turned on its head, rendering their personal duel almost irrelevant.
James handled on the line and, after a VAR check, was shown a red card. While the dismissal may have seemed harsh, it was ultimately inevitable with the wing-back denying a goalscoring opportunity, and Mohamed Salah converted the penalty.
The incident forced Thomas Tuchel into a significant re-think.
When Chelsea came out for the second half, their setup had changed dramatically. Having looked effective in the first half with a low defensive block, a very high front three occupying Liverpool’s backline and an energetic midfield ensuring the gap wasn’t too much of an issue, after the break their forwards simply couldn’t continue in the same vein.
That, therefore, took away a key component of Tuchel’s system. The 8.9 opposition passes allowed outside of Chelsea’s own defensive third before a defensive action (PPDA) was second only to Leeds United (8.2) in this fledgling season before Saturday, indicating a high level of pressing.
Unable to maintain this with 10 men, Van Dijk and Matip were far more relaxed.
This translated to 77.1 per cent possession for the Reds in the 15 minutes that followed half-time, yet for their dominance of the ball, Liverpool’s opportunities were hardly clear-cut.
Before a late onslaught in the final six minutes, only one of Liverpool’s 10 second-half shots had an xG (expected goals) value over 0.1 – that was a Sadio Mane effort in the 56th minute, it’s 0.105 xG value essentially equating to a scoring likelihood of just over 10 per cent. Not exactly nailed-on.
In the end, Liverpool’s predictability in attack gave Chelsea the upper hand. The Reds constantly looked to the flanks, with Trent Alexander-Arnold and Andy Robertson playing five and four key passes respectively.
Salah (three) was the only other Liverpool player to play more than one, and again he was most prominent out wide rather than inside.
Chelsea, with their packed defence, rarely looked particularly worried and were ultimately good value for the point.
This was a wonderful opportunity for Liverpool to make a “statement” against a likely title contender, but Klopp’s men lacked the imagination to overpower Chelsea’s resilience.
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