Chelsea surprised everyone, even Maurizio Sarri, with their execution against Liverpool. The final 20 minutes of the game showed the difference in endurance and experience between the two sides, not any matter of tactics or understanding.
Maurizio Sarri has gone out of his way to maintain perspective on Chelsea’s – and therefore his own – success in the opening weeks of the season. Even as the Blues marched through five Premier League wins and a Europa League win, Sarri stressed how much work remained and how far away the team was from a finished Sarrismo. Ahead of Saturday’s clash with Liverpool, Sarri said it would take Chelsea a year before they are playing at Liverpool’s level. Even that was a bit generous, given how Liverpool have had several years to build and learn under Jurgen Klopp.
The Blues showed how much their coach was either underestimating or understating their progress. With Liverpool standing off from Chelsea for much of the first half but still maintaining an open defensive structure, the Blues had the space they needed to execute the quick fluid passing and movement through the wingers that defines Sarri’s system. They delivered a style and level of play we could not have realistically expected for a few more months.
Even though Chelsea made the first substitution, Jurgen Klopp blinked first. Whereas Sarri made a straight swap between Olivier Giroud and Alvaro Morata, Klopp replaced Mohamed Salah with Xherdan Shaqiri. Aside from the weight of withdrawing his most important offensive player, this substitution changed the direction and shape of Liverpool’s offence.
The two teams alternated substitutions for the remainder of the game, but the pattern stayed the same. Sarri brought on fresh legs to do the same jobs in the same positions. Klopp sent out fresh legs to try to find some way past Chelsea’s midfield and defence, and to look for someone who could get into position to find and finish a scoring chance.
Maurizio Sarri’s substitutions thoroughly undermine the post-game narrative that Sarri parked the bus, pulled a Conte and bottled the win. Yes, Victor Moses spent two years as a right wing-back while Willian has always been a winger. But no one concerned about protecting a lead turns to Victor Moses to lock down the side.
Ross Barkley, if anything, is a more offensive-minded player than Mateo Kovacic. Kovacic’s main contributions to Chelsea’s tactics this season has been covering Marcos Alonso’s place on the left as Alonso moves into more offensive positions. Barkley, on the other hand, creates space through the middle of the final third by drawing defenders toward him. His dribbles are as powerful as anyone else’s in Blue, and – although he has yet to unleash this season – he is capable of long-range goals at the end of such dribbles towards the top of the penalty area.
Chelsea spent the final 20 minutes of the game on the back foot for two simple, common reasons: Liverpool were chasing the lead and needed to play more aggressively, and Liverpool have been doing this so much longer they could handle 90 minutes at the tempo of Sarrismo vs. gegenpressung.
Not that Liverpool are ever a sit-back-and-defend team, but part of Klopp’s system is drawing the opponent out and then hitting on the counter-attack. The counter-attack, if it does not result in an immediate goal, is the first step in a prolonged counter-everything: counter-attack, counter-press, press, press and counter-press followed by a counter-attack. Heavy metal football is punctuated by lulls of easy listening mood music, which makes the heavy metal that much more dramatic.
Their search for an equalizer forced them to go on the straight-forward attack. Maintain possession, create chances, quickly regain possession and set up. They did not have time to lure Chelsea out and then strike in behind. Liverpool kept the volume up. Pragmatism, the Jurgen Klopp way.
Chelsea, on the other hand, were managing their energy levels as well as the game. Whereas Liverpool have had several seasons to build their physical conditioning along with their understanding of the tactics, Chelsea have had two and a half months. Many players did not even have that because of the World Cup.
Playing under Antonio Conte, Maurizio Sarri or Jurgen Klopp are all physically and mentally exhausting in their own ways (insert comment about how watching Antonio Conte football is mentally exhausting here. You know you want to. You have my permission even as I shake my head in disdain). The Blues do not yet have the fitness levels to maintain 90 minutes of the Sarrismo they played so well for the first 60 minutes.
If Maurizio Sarri wanted to sit back on the defend the lead, he did not show much skill in doing it. Keeping Mateo Kovacic on would have been the best choice. He could have replaced Willian with Davide Zappacosta, which would have allowed Cesar Azpilicueta to slide in as the third centre-back while Zappacosta took station at right-back in a 5-4-1. Sarri could have told N’Golo Kante to go back to being a defensive midfielder instead of maintaining his box-to-box posture whenever the Blues had the chance to break out.
Maurizio Sarri probably does not even know how to park a bus, let alone have the desire to do so. The final 20-30 minutes of the game proved Sarri was right earlier in the week: Chelsea are a year away from being at Liverpool’s level. That applies to endurance, perhaps even more so than capability.