YOU have to hand it to Chelsea; I think it’s actually possible that they have managed to break the entire Premier League. It really is quite an achievement on their part. We can take a look at ourselves and question things that we have done all we want, as can all of the teams who surround us in the current Premier League table, but regardless of this you have to look at this Chelsea side and put it all down to them.
They’ve played 22 games. They’ve won 18. It’s simply incredible – how do you compete with it? They push you to achieve a level so close to perfection that simply knowing you need to do it makes a difficult situation even more difficult. They currently find themselves top of the table, seven points clear of Arsenal, having taken just three points from four games against those that make up the rest of the top four.
Drawing 2-2 at home with the side in 20th position, with over 20 minutes left, Liverpool did something that I can only describe as panicking. Between Roberto Firmino scoring a brilliant equaliser and Swansea kicking off, Jürgen Klopp decided to proceed with a substitution that he was already planning on making. The game had just changed, but we carried on with this change anyway, probably over 10 minutes before you’d have done this if it was 0-0.
He knew that in January, with 17 games left, Liverpool simply couldn’t afford to lose any more ground on the leaders. This is despite the fact that after 21 games Liverpool had a points total that would have seen them lead the previous season’s league at the same stage by two points.
Dropping points in January shouldn’t be the end of the world for a side that have spent the first 21 games performing at the level of an 81-point-a-season team – the problem comes in that Chelsea are performing at the level of a 94-point-a-season team, assuming everything is linear. And what Chelsea have done has had a knock-on effect. They have induced almost league-wide blind panic.
Now, I don’t really feel comfortable criticising Klopp. He knows more about football than me, hence why he manages Liverpool and I don’t. But the substitution above made absolutely no sense to me. I saw the need for Liverpool to pick up three points, but the panic showed with over 20 minutes to go was just too great.
I get that we needed a goal, and I get that Emre Can was having a really bad game. But I can’t get my head round thinking that there was any need to be quite as aggressive as we were so early on. Had we have equalised with 10 minutes to go then I think doing that would have been absolutely right, but a 69th minute equaliser shouldn’t induce that level of blind panic.
It’s easy to say things in hindsight but we cost ourselves a goal simply by making that change. Can stunk on Saturday but if you watch the goal back you will see a monumentally huge hole left in front of the back four that came as a direct result of Jordan Henderson having to fight so many fires. But even then I felt we were a bit unfortunate, two of their goals basically came from random breaks of the ball and, as badly as we played, you’re hard pressed to have to overcome two goals scored from fortunate breaks on a regular basis.
It wasn’t like I felt we shot ourselves in the foot defensively, like we did in our previous defeat at Bournemouth. So, there’s that to take as a positive. But the negatives, Christ there were a lot.
I noticed this graphic on the BBC website. Our fourth most attacking player on Saturday was Nathaniel Clyne in terms of average position.
Now, I like Clyne. He’s very good defensively and he’s got an excellent engine which is an important prerequisite for a Klopp side. He isn’t a bad full-back but I can’t help but wonder if he’ll be starting for Liverpool on the first day of next season. It was noticeable just how much space Swansea afforded him, and even more noticeable how little he was able to offer us in an attacking sense with the time and space he had. But if you have only three players more attacking than Clyne in a game of football you shouldn’t expect a great deal in the long run. Daniel Alves circa 2010 he isn’t.
The easy option of a hopeful cross is taken far too often – at least Glen Johnson had it in his locker to cut in off the flank and have a shot to create an element of surprise. You know what’s coming; a tame cross that gives their defenders some heading practice.
Would giving young Trent Alexander-Arnold a go in these types of games weaken us? I’m not sure it would.
Ragnar Klavan looks more like a £4million centre-back every game. Occasionally he’ll throw in something really good but it’s painfully obvious he isn’t of the required standard. I get that he isn’t first choice, but he shouldn’t be first change when we have a centre-back missing. A player to play in case of emergency? OK, but it’s not so long ago we had Martin Skrtel as our fourth choice centre-half, he was widely derided and I was glad to see the back of him, but there’s surely no argument that Skrtel is better than Klavan?
I don’t think we really have many players who aren’t good enough, but we certainly have players doing more than they should. Can is a good example – he’s a very good footballer, but he shouldn’t be starting 25 league games for us. At this stage of his career, Origi probably shouldn’t be expected to win us as many games as we’re asking him. Daniel Sturridge hasn’t got the body to do the job that’s required of him.
We know what our problems are. Our needs are obvious. Our deficiencies are things that we aren’t a million miles from having worked around, just like teams we find ourselves neck and neck with. It’s all well and good saying that we’d be top of last season’s table after 22 games, but we are currently fourth.
There are another two sides in that boat, and Spurs have worked around their lack of depth well, and Arsenal have put a reasonable number of points up without their main man Santi Cazorla. The problem is that they haven’t been able to achieve near perfection. That’s what Chelsea are. I’ve long held a view about beating the bottom 10 and worrying about the rest later. Twenty winnable games are found against the bottom 10 sides. Chelsea are still able to get 58 points against the bottom 10. If we had their record against the bottom 10 we would be above them. It’s frustrating for now, but for the long term it’s a very easy area to improve on.
People are panicking and behaving irrationally. Manchester City’s starting line-up at the weekend was absolutely ridiculous. They played a full-back in central defence, Yaya Toure as a holding midfielder and then five attackers in front of him. Not people who you would say are nominally midfielders who play on the front foot; they played five players who are at their best as genuine attackers. They had FOUR players more attacking than David Silva.
That is not normal behaviour for a football team like Manchester City, at home to a side like Tottenham. Play that at home to Burnley by all means, but at home to Spurs? Crazy. I think the Aleksandr Kolarov thing is reasonably clever – it’s always confused me as to why England play centre-backs at home to San Marino. Just play two wingers at full-back and some midfielders at centre-back. The same principle applies to City when they’re at home to dross. But Spurs aren’t dross.
Chelsea are making teams do things they wouldn’t do. The issue for me isn’t so much that they’ve won as many games as they have, it’s that they don’t look like conceding goals. Since they moved to a back three they have conceded six goals. They moved to a back three on October 1 and the 15 games they have played since then have seen the opposition fail to score 12 times. Not only are they not conceding goals, they aren’t giving up shots on target either. They give up 2.5 a game. That’s just over one per half. For them to lose a game the level of finishing has to be incredible. You take your chances or else.
How are Chelsea supposed to drop enough points for this gap to close if they don’t let the other team shoot?
They not only need to start dropping points, they need a team to come out of the pack and pick up a level. We look like the team who have more levels to go up at the minute, but it’s asking for almost perfection. A better run than they went on between defeats to Arsenal and Spurs.
We need to outperform Chelsea by 11 points over a 16-game period. Let’s jump forward a week and pretend that we have just ground out a gritty 1-0 victory against them and narrowed the gap to seven points. Seven points you can get on board with as thinking it’s possible. I’m an optimist and I probably would.
We would have 45 points to play for, take all 45 and we get to 93 points. Now, we simply aren’t going to get to 93 points having won 16 games on the bounce because that is ridiculous as a concept. What do you really think we’re going to do from 15 games? Ten wins, three draws and two defeats is probably as good as it’ll get, isn’t it? To finish the season like that we would have done very well.
That would get us to 81 points. Chelsea would then need to get to 82. That would mean we would need to push them to nine wins. Around 40 per cent of their remaining games would be basically free for them to give away.
The only hope is that ourselves and Arsenal beat them in the next couple of weeks. Even then they can regroup and comfortably pick up 12 points from games against Burnley, Swansea, West Ham and Watford.
If we fail to progress tonight I think I might cry. Get us to Wembley and give us something to look forward to.