Tactics and Transfers: Chelsea’s frailty exposed in Liverpool draw

LIVERPOOL, ENGLAND - AUGUST 28: Thiago Silva and Romelu Lukaku of Chelsea interact during the Premier League match between Liverpool and Chelsea at Anfield on August 28, 2021 in Liverpool, England. (Photo by Michael Regan/Getty Images)
LIVERPOOL, ENGLAND - AUGUST 28: Thiago Silva and Romelu Lukaku of Chelsea interact during the Premier League match between Liverpool and Chelsea at Anfield on August 28, 2021 in Liverpool, England. (Photo by Michael Regan/Getty Images) /

Whether or not Reece James’ red card was deserved or not isn’t really worth debating. He was sent off and discussing it after the fact will only serve to annoy people more than necessary. The positive sign is that Chelsea was able to go to a full Anfield and get a good result against a top four and title rival. All of this while down to 10 men for half of the match, despite Liverpool having 11 and getting the lion’s share of the refereeing decisions, as well.

That means that in pretty much the worst possible circumstances, and in one of the most difficult games of the season, the Blues were able to force themselves into getting a strong result. The Chelsea of even a few years ago would not have had the experience, professionalism or discipline to see the match out. The fact that this side was able to do so will go a long way toward determining just how strong of a title challenge it is able to mount this season. This is especially true because the only players who had a particularly good game were in the defense. The only one who actually shone was Cesar Azpilicueta. The Basque captain continues to show why it is he who will determine when his career ends. If anything, the purchase of Jules Kounde this season is made unnecessary by the fact that Azpilicueta doesn’t deserve to be disrespected in that manner. He’s too important in too many ways and has proven to be exactly the Basque Javier Zanetti, who I labelled him as years ago.

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Outside of the captain, there wasn’t really a player—other than perhaps Jorginho in flashes—who had an excellent game. Chelsea simply soldiered through this one and managed to secure a much needed point. If the Blues lost this match though, it would have been understandable. But it would have made for a much more sour feeling going into a very difficult September period in which they play against Tottenham and Manchester City, as well as begin their Champions League campaign and start their domestic tournament schedule.

This match did show exactly why, of all the transfers, it seems peculiar that Chelsea is chasing Jules Kounde at such an expense. All while not adding to the midfield. Now with Kurt Zouma gone, the Blues are shorter in defense than they were previously. That is annoyingly something of a self-made issue. They could easily have just kept the French defender, who is particularly good in the air and whose importance is now two-fold given that one of Chelsea’s title rivals has added perhaps the world’s most potent aerial threat to its attack.

Azpilicueta isn’t as well-suited to any of the other defensive positions and he’s simply not the player Reece James is when it comes to playing as a right wingback. What he is though is an excellent marshal of not only the defense, but the entire side. Azpilicueta is a fantastic captain and phenomenal right centerback in a back three. His judgement is superb and his reading of the game is fantastic. It is something of an insult to a player who has shown not one sign of slowing down and only displayed Cristiano Ronaldo-esque career extending professionalism in his 48, 44, 40, 49, 47, 52, 57 and 49-appearance seasons. Buying a defender of the same stature to play his position is ridiculous, especially when it was a completely unnecessary thing to do even a week ago.

Kounde is a very good footballer but he fixes a problem that Chelsea created in order to buy him, rather than one that it already had. This is, if anything, midfield reinforcements. Sadly, N’Golo Kante’s injury issues don’t appear to be entirely behind him. Though there were many stars in Chelsea’s run to the Champions League final, it shouldn’t be ignored that the side’s tactical masterclass was essentially building a team around two midfielders, who were both Ballon D’Or nominated. If that’s your midfield, you’re likely going to be successful. If Kante—who, like Azpilicueta, has earned the benefit of the doubt—can’t man the midfield though for the majority of the season then Chelsea does appear to be in a very different position than it was last year.

There is the argument that that is where Ruben Loftus-Cheek could earn his minutes this season, and that’s not entirely out of the question. Tuchel has remarked that he thinks Loftus-Cheek’s style of play resembles that of Michael Ballack, who would have been a perfect Tuchel No. 6. If that’s the case then fine, but should the young Englishman go to Rome and likely stay there permanently, Chelsea’s engine room looks ever more sparse.

I, for one, would like a bit more traditional physicality and athleticism in the central midfield area. That was the purpose of the Saul Niguez loan, much in the same tone as the Mateo Kovacic one, a technical and physical midfielder on a one-year to provide depth. A player who can shoulder a man (or two) off the ball, slide through a tackle and bound forward to support a target man—all while being useful in the air and having the ability to send three to five well-weighted through balls up to Romelu Lukaku—is what I would add. A Ryan Gravenberch, Federico Valverde, Teun Koopmeiners or Eduardo Camavinga type. I haven’t scouted Aurelien Tchouameni, but he appears to be in that vein. Manuel Locatelli would have been a dream to add, as well.

In the Liverpool match, that is the type of player who would have made the difference. Though Chelsea held on for a draw and defended with intelligence and bravery, are we to ignore that the Blues looked to be the less athletic side? That they lacked the guile and pure muscle of the Northern side? We should be happy but laurels shouldn’t be out nor rested on. They shouldn’t even be mentioned beyond this. Liverpool was the better side and Chelsea did well to make the most of it despite that, but we should take note honestly of what we really saw, rather than blaming the referee or celebrating draws. Wins are celebrated, draws are passably tolerated and losses don’t bare mentioning. Most of the match was spent in our half repelling attacks.

If we learned something on Saturday, we learned that though Chelsea is a good side and Tuchel is as intelligent and pragmatic a tactician as we thought he was, this season is going to be a slug fest. Liverpool is strong and healthy again. Manchester United added Raphael Varane, Jadon Sancho and Cristiano Ronaldo to its ranks and Manchester City was the runaway winner last season, who added the possibly the best player in the division to their side.

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This year will be incredibly difficult. The Blues intend to compete on all fronts, as they should, but it’s a big ask. Tuchel is the right man for it, but we shouldn’t be under any illusions that it is going to be anything other than incredibly difficult.