Chelsea suffered a devastating 4-1 defeat at the hands of Liverpool, leaving fans in agony as they watched their team get outplayed. Despite expectations of a home victory, the refereeing heavily favored the Reds, adding to Chelsea's challenges. The recent sense of optimism surrounding the Blues has dissipated following this crushing loss.
Here are five lessons learned from the match.
1. Mauricio Pochettino failed once again
Before the match, Chelsea fans were buzzing with anticipation, viewing it as a crucial dress rehearsal for the upcoming EFL Cup final at the end of February. Pochettino even expressed his desire to spoil Jurgen Klopp's farewell party. However, once the game began, it became evident that Chelsea lacked a coherent plan or strategy to counter Liverpool's dominance.
Despite his recent underwhelming performances, Raheem Sterling received yet another start from the Argentine manager. His performance was particularly disappointing, raising questions about his right to play the entire match, let alone the second half. Pochettino's apparent obsession with Sterling is perplexing when he could develop talent like Mykhailo Mudryk by giving the Ukrainians more starting opportunities.
Enzo Fernandez was misused by being asked to press up top despite his proven excellence in the midfield. It was very much on show in the second once changes happened. But by then, the match was effectively over.
The game at Anfield mirrored previous encounters where both Newcastle United and Manchester United overpowered Chelsea at their home grounds. Chelsea struggles when facing high-energy pressing from the opposition, lacking a clear strategy to counter such tactics. While they can navigate through teams like Middlesbrough, they falter against top-tier Premier League teams. Even after more than six months in charge, Pochettino has not successfully coached his side to handle these formidable opponents effectively.
Liverpool's pressing game was intense and often involved more than one player. Teams with effective coaching would typically exploit the space created by this style of play or attempt to draw fouls. Unfortunately, Chelsea lacked such strategic guidance and repeatedly surrendered possession to the home side with little resistance.
2. Players did not help themselves
The defeat at Anfield wasn't just a result of poor tactics; the overall performance of most players was lacking. Ben Chilwell repeatedly lost possession, and one such error directly led to Diogo Jota scoring. The entire back four had a forgettable game. Jota's ease in getting past center-backs Thiago Silva and Benoit Badiashile was reminiscent of Callum Wilson's goal at Stamford Bridge in the EFL Cup, facilitated by weak defending and poor positioning from Chelsea's center-backs. Badiashile was particularly off his game, failing to effectively challenge Conor Bradley's shot from the edge of the box and being easily overpowered by Luis Diaz for the fourth goal.
Raheem Sterling's performance was notably poor. On several occasions, when he had the chance to advance with the ball, he either collided with defenders or held onto the ball too long, only to pass it sideways or backward. Such actions allowed Liverpool's defense to regroup and nullified any potential attacking threat. Malo Gusto came on as a second-half substitute and had 48 touches. This statistic becomes even more striking when compared to Raheem Sterling, who, despite playing the full match, managed only 35 touches. This disparity highlights not only the differing levels of involvement and effectiveness between the two players but also raises questions about the manager's decision-making in player selection and utilization.
Conor Gallagher's performance was also mediocre. Instead of exploiting opportunities, like allowing Sterling to run into open space, he chose to pass sideways, a move reminiscent of Mason Mount's playstyle. These seemingly minor decisions highlight the difference between average midfielders like them and those at the elite level.
3. Djordje Petrovic was Chelsea's best player, and a few stood out
Having a goalkeeper as the team's best player is seldom a positive sign. The Serbian goalkeeper was the standout performer; his brilliant saves were the only barrier preventing an even more humiliating scoreline against Liverpool. His performance more than justifies his place in the starting lineup, even when Roberto Sanchez is fit to return. However, given Pochettino's track record, it wouldn't be surprising to see the Spaniard regain his starting position despite the stark contrast in their performances.
Christopher Nkunku's time at Chelsea has been marred by injuries, limiting his opportunities to showcase his talent. He made an immediate impact by scoring in his first Premier League match against Wolves towards the end of last year. On Wednesday, he returned to the squad after another injury layoff. Despite showing some signs of rustiness, his quality was unmistakable. The goal he scored was a testament to his skill and potential. Unfortunately, a player of Nkunku's caliber has to play under a manager like Pochettino, whose decisions and tactics are often appalling.
Malo Gusto and Carney Chukwuemeka showed promise in their substitute appearances. However, Mykhailo Mudryk, who had previously dazzled in his last appearance at the same venue, couldn't replicate that spark this time. Mudryk's subdued performance is mainly due to Pochettino's management style.
4. Refereeing once again let Chelsea down against Liverpool
Chelsea's performance on Wednesday was undeniably insufficient to secure even a point. But the match was also marked by several controversial refereeing decisions. There were instances where Chelsea seemed to be on the wrong end of the decisions. Virgil van Dijk brought down Conor Gallagher inside the penalty box. Yet both referee Paul Tierney and the VAR did not intervene. A similar situation occurred with Nkunku, again involving Van Dijk.
Furthermore, many fair challenges made by Chelsea players were deemed fouls by Tierney. Such decisions can significantly influence the course of a game. When a fair challenge is called a foul, it can provoke frustration and anger in players, especially in heated matches. With the current rules, referees can quickly issue cautions for dissent, which can escalate the situation. Chelsea, in particular, seems to have been adversely affected by such refereeing decisions throughout this season, suggesting a pattern of harsh treatment by English referees.
The perception that Liverpool often receives favorable treatment from referees and governing bodies is a topic of discussion among rival fans. With Jurgen Klopp's impending departure at the end of the season, there is speculation that this trend might continue or even intensify. Some believe that referees and governing bodies could lean towards favoring Liverpool to ensure a successful conclusion to Klopp's tenure. While such claims are often speculative and lack concrete evidence, they reflect the sentiments and suspicions among fans about potential biases in football officiating and administration.
5. Chelsea's future does not look good
Chelsea and Liverpool will clash again at Wembley in the EFL Cup final. For Pochettino's Chelsea, this represents their best opportunity to secure European football next season. The league route appears increasingly unlikely, and the FA Cup, with many Premier League clubs still in contention, poses a tough challenge.
Liverpool, buoyed by their recent success against Chelsea, will likely enter the final with a similar mindset, now understanding how to dominate Chelsea. The return of Mohamed Salah and the regained fitness of Trent Alexander-Arnold and Andrew Robertson will bolster Liverpool's strength.
Chelsea's prospects look bleak at the moment. Although the squad is talented, they lack the managerial expertise of someone like Klopp. Pochettino has repeatedly shown his inability to maximize the potential of the team. A capable manager can overcome a squad's lack of experience. Liverpool's 20-year-old Conor Bradley was an example that they can perform well under good guidance, as evidenced by his solid performance at Anfield, even though stopping Sterling is not a particularly challenging task nowadays. But he did well by scoring a goal and providing two assists. It demonstrates how effective coaching can help even younger, less experienced players excel. Unfortunately, as long as Chelsea is under Pochettino's management, who many consider inadequate for the job, the team's potential remains unfulfilled.