After Liverpool's 2-1 victory against Chelsea on Sunday, Klopp praised character above overall performance as his side secured six straight league wins from the start of the campaign. For Frank Lampard, meanwhile, the need to improve defensively is a priority that must be addressed.
A 2-1 win for Liverpool away to Chelsea extended its run to six in a row from the start of the season, maintaining its five-point lead over Manchester City at the top of the table. For Chelsea, it was a second league defeat, meaning it is already seven points back, and yet the sense by the end was that there were reasons both for Liverpool concern and for Chelsea optimism.
It may be that that says more about pre-match expectations than anything else. “We were very good in periods,” said Jurgen Klopp. “Chelsea had their moments of course but we scored two wonderful goals.” As he pointed out, but for a couple of exceptional saves from Kepa Arrizabalaga early in the second half, Liverpool would have been three or four goals up. And yet it’s also true that but for a narrow offside call, Chelsea would have equalized at 1-1 and that, by the end, Liverpool was under pressure to the extent that Klopp was praising the character of his side.
In that regard, this was a little like Liverpool’s defeat away to Napoli on Tuesday. There was much that positive about the performance, the familiar verve in attacking areas, but also a strange raggedness, an absence of the control that characterized Liverpool at its best last season. To be too critical of a side that had a 100 per cent record and has just won away at Stamford Bridge would be absurd, but there were times when Liverpool’s defensive line, seemingly operating higher this season, looked surprisingly vulnerable and, as N’Golo Kante hit top form in the second half, when it was in danger of being overrun in midfield.
It’s hardly a new observation this season, but this Chelsea is remarkably easy to score against. The 1-1 draw against Liverpool in the Uefa Super Cup final now looks an aberration. That’s 16 goals Chelsea has now conceded in eight games this season, and 13 in six in the league. Here the issue was less that gap that habitually opens up at the back of midfield than the inability to defend set-plays.
The first came after 14 minutes, Mohamed Salah rolling a free-kick with the underside of his foot to Trent Alexander-Arnold, who belted a shot into the top corner. It was a ferocious strike, but Jorginho who had been deputed to charge down the taker didn’t exactly make himself big. Not for the first time, the Italian’s lack of defensive instinct was clear.
The second was perhaps even more galling from a defensive point of view. This time a free-kick wide on the left was rolled to Andy Robertson. His cross was good, dipping perfectly for Roberto Firmino but as he headed in, he was under remarkably little pressure given he was a few yards out in the centre of the box.
“You can’t have a free header in the six-yard box,” said Lampard, who admitted that his side’s leakiness was a concern. He felt his side had been the better team. “Details lose you goals,” he said. “It’s hard to accept congratulations after a loss but we showed in the second half what we want to be: energy, passion, moving the play quickly, getting crosses into the box. It now needs to translate to points. That performance today, week in week out, will translate to points.”
That may be true, but only if the defending improves. “We can’t outscore everybody every week,” Lampard acknowledged. But there must also be a slight worry about just how dominant Kante was. This seemed like one of those paradoxical situations in which a player is seemingly everywhere, making tackles, setting up chances, scoring a goal, his very ubiquity indicative of structural problems elsewhere.
For Liverpool, though, for all it got a little ragged at times, there is the satisfaction in matching its record from last season of six straight wins from the start of the campaign, allied to a resilient display that ensured a win at a ground on which it only drew last season. Manchester City, he acknowledged, is “brilliant… the best side in the world”, something he said “not to put pressure on” but because he genuinely believes it. Liverpool’s spirit brought it extremely close last season; the question now is whether it can overhaul the champion. “Without character,” said Klopp, “life is difficult, football impossible.”