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Soccer

Liverpool Has Lost Control

Kai Havertz of Chelsea interacts with Virgil van Dijk of Liverpool during the Premier League match between Chelsea and Liverpool at Stamford Bridge on January 02, 2022 in London, England.
Shaun Botterill/Getty Images

Following Liverpool’s 2-2 draw with Chelsea on Sunday, there was a particular stat being tossed around by pundits. The stat is about Liverpool’s inability to control and close out games in which it grabs the lead. This season, both Manchester City and the Pool Boys have led in 17 matches, but the current league leaders in Manchester have won all 17 of those outings, while Liverpool has only won 12, drawing the other five.

That stat on its own is the definition of a small sample size; half a season isn’t quite long enough to establish a club-wide trend, and that is especially true on the City side. After all, few teams win anywhere close to 100 percent of the time when they first take a lead, and though City is no ordinary team, it’s safe to say that it is over-performing at the moment. Liverpool, though, will feel as if it has gifted away a strong position in the league table by virtue of being unable to finish games as strongly as it starts them; the 10 points dropped from winning positions is almost exactly the gap between the two sides at the moment.

In fairness to both Liverpool and Chelsea, Sunday’s game wasn’t exactly a choke job. Sure, the Reds jumped out to an early lead via Sadio Mané in the ninth minute, and his strike partner and best player of the Premier League season to date Mohamed Salah doubled that lead with a high degree-of-difficulty near post tally in the 26th:

But watching the actual game revealed a different story than the scoreboard watchers might have gathered. Chelsea knows how to play against this Liverpool team, matching the physical intensity while not leaving itself open to too many chances on the other end. Liverpool could counter that approach by simply slowing the game down, but that’s where the aforementioned lack of control comes into play.

As currently constructed and deployed, the club doesn’t have the midfield acumen to take over matches in the center of the park and force the opponents to come to them. Instead, Liverpool played Sunday’s match after going up the same as it plays every match. Though Jürgen Klopp has slowed the team down from the “heavy metal football” days, Liverpool is still best at running directly at defenses and hoping that its backline can cover any mistakes in attack.

Chelsea manager Thomas Tuchel knows this well, and allowed his team to do what Liverpool couldn’t. It helps that the Blues have N’Golo Kanté in the midfield to ravage attacks, but it was more than just one player on Sunday. Every outfield player—minus Marcos Alonso, who is just awful at pretty much every part of the game right now—is well-drilled in suffocating opposing attacks, giving its talented but inconsistent forwards enough time to break through.

And break through Chelsea did, though one could give credit to Liverpool’s defense here, for it took two world-class goals for Chelsea to equalize. Mateo Kovačić’s strike in the 42nd minute was good as any you will see on a soccer field, a completely unstoppable hammer that no one on earth was slowing down:

Christian Pulisic’s stoppage-time goal in the first half was less immediately magical but no less impressive: following a magisterial Kanté outside-the-foot flick-on, the American dribbled into the box and blasted a left-footed finish past backup goalkeeper Caoimhin Kelleher, who was between the sticks for a COVID-19-ridden Alisson:

Despite being up by two goals so early, it was Liverpool who was lucky to escape Stamford Bridge with a draw, after a second half in which Chelsea buckled down and became a form of its usual “1-0 kings” strategy. Chelsea players might not score a lot from favorable positions, but they know how to shut a game down, and so gave this game a sedative that carried all the way to the final whistle.

This isn’t really about Chelsea, though; on form, Liverpool is a more dynamic side than pretty much anyone in the Premier League, and a side that should be able to break down even the staunchest of defenses. But the side on Sunday ran into the same problem that haunted Liverpool throughout the holiday season, a problem that not only put it 11 points back of Manchester City—albeit with one fewer game played—but also one that threatens to haunt the side for the rest of the domestic season.

Since arriving at Liverpool, Klopp has overseen a side that is among the most exciting in soccer history, a full throttle machine that won by bludgeoning opponents rather than simply besting them. As the Premier League has caught back up with Liverpool, though, the cracks in that style have begun to show. Thiago was supposed to help this side evolve, and he still is extremely valuable when he’s out there. No one else on Liverpool can be a midfield maestro quite to his level, and though his defensive work has slipped, he can produce the control Liverpool desperately needs. Of course, as his career would have hinted at, Thiago has missed 36 games since leaving Germany for the Merseyside, so he’s not a consistent answer. (He is currently battling the coronavirus.)

Similarly impactful this season has been the absence of Roberto Firmino, first through a muscle and calf injuries and now with a case of COVID-19. Though he should be back soon enough, the timing is still terrible for Liverpool: Firmino works best playing off of Mané and Salah, and yet both of those star attackers are headed to the African Cup of Nations for the next few weeks. If there is a bright side for Liverpool’s hopes of getting back into the domestic title race, it’s that their absences will coincide with only two league matches, as England burns through both the League Cup semi-finals and the third round of the FA Cup over the next nine days.

It’s still a problem, though, because Liverpool is not the deepest squad, and it is also a squad of players who don’t have the sterling injury records of, say, Georginio Wijnaldum, who the club let go this past summer. Not to beat a dead horse, but Wijnaldum’s ability to boss a midfield is something Liverpool severely lacks this season, especially when Thiago is on one of his regularly scheduled injury timeouts. The recruiting at Anfield has not filled the cracks that needed correcting, and Klopp, while a masterful tactician and man manager, is not someone who will completely redo his plan of attack mid-season.

In other words, this type of gung-ho, reckless, and aggressive Liverpool side is what the club will have for the foreseeable future, and definitely for the rest of this season. That’s good enough on most days to win comfortably, but as this holiday period showed, via a 10-man draw to Tottenham, a loss to a wholly unimpressive Leicester City, and the Chelsea gridlock, Liverpool’s magic has been muddled. Manchester City is on another level right now, so it might not matter even if Liverpool corrects its inability to kill off matches from winning positions, but the Reds don’t have to make it so easy for their rivals.

Correction (10:50 a.m. ET): A previous version of this blog said Tottenham was down to ten men in its draw against Liverpool. Liverpool was the team down to ten men.