It was just 1-0, and Chelsea only led Chelsea four points ahead of Liverpool, but the sensation at Anfield on Thursday was of arcs heading in opposite directions. After 68 unbeaten league games at home, Liverpool have lost their last five at Anfield, the first time that has happened, and it has been more than 10 hours since they last scored there since open play. Meanwhile, Chelsea are in fourth place, four points behind second, and can reasonably look forward to Champions League football next season.
It’s fair to say that both sides started the season anticipating something better than this. With Everton and Tottenham winning in the afternoon’s opening kicks, Liverpool, the champion, started game seventh, while Chelsea, after $ 300 million in transfers last summer, was sixth. The title is out of reach for both teams now, and qualification for next season’s Champions League is now the only goal.
Chelsea, at least, have a feeling that things are going in the right direction since Thomas Tuchel replaced Frank Lampard in late January. Since the arrival of the German, Chelsea are undefeated in 10 (7-0-3). Dominating possession, he has conceded just two goals (and one of them an own goal). If there has been a criticism, it has been the occasional feeling of sterility, of a team that can hold the ball but is not particularly dangerous with it.
Part of the problem has been the form of Timo Werner. He has scored just five league goals since his transfer of $ 65 million from RB Leipzig and, by his own admission, he is not confident. Chosen as a center forward for the first time with Tuchel, he was a persistent threat on Thursday, his pace exploding Liverpool’s disconcertingly high line, but his finish was again bad. He took a quick shot a bit more early on, but then threw a spike as a bouncing ball snapped toward him from 12 yards. Two more times in the second half they were begging. When he put the ball into the net, running towards a ball from Andreas Christensen just past the halfway point of the first half, it was parried for an extremely tight offside.
It has been a feature of the season that while others, notably Manchester City, have sunk a bit further and played with 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 commotion it has caused, perhaps that is quite reasonable, but in a season in which the games have been more focused than ever, when the players are more fatigued and there is less weather. Preparing for singles matches is a risky approach, and one that has started to unravel Liverpool.
It was the high line that exposed Liverpool again two minutes before the break. Mason Mount’s appearance has been perhaps the biggest positive of the season for Chelsea. He’s smart, technically talented, and capable of playing defensive or more offensive midfield. Here, he was deployed as the left of the two central creators in Tuchel’s 3-4-2-1, and he held on to N’Golo Kante’s long forward pass, cut inside Fabinho and, with Trent Alexander-Arnold trapped. too deep, had room. to punch a shot in the lower right corner.
The only real moment of emotion in the box had been a hand cry against Kante. The ball did hit his hand, which was raised next to his body, but he was no more than four feet from Roberto Firmino when the Brazilian crashed his cross attempt against him. That kind of incident was given as a penalty at the start of the season, but it seems to have been happening less and less as time goes on. Given how often the law and guidance on the law have been changed this season, no one knows whether it should have been a penalty or not.
To some extent, the debate is academic. The fact is, Liverpool, once again, was desperately short of ideas and insight. This has perhaps been a perfect storm of circumstances: a team reaching the end of its cycle during a season that was always going to make high-paced football difficult, plus all the mid-back injuries and off-the-field problems. They had affected several people around the club, but it is also true that when teams that push hard fail, they tend to go fast.
The decline has been astonishingly fast. All Liverpool can do now is try to be in a position to relaunch next season, ideally in the Champions League. Liverpool were at the top of the table at the beginning of the year, but the top four seem a long way off now. Meanwhile, Chelsea’s development continues.
Eddie is an Australian news reporter with over 9 years in the industry and has published on Forbes and tech crunch.