Liverpool’s trip to Stamford Bridge features two sides that may remain optimistic about a potential title challenge this season.
Neither side were active in last year’s title race but without European football to focus on Jurgen Klopp and Antonio Conte will have enough time to solely prepare for league fixtures. Essentially Klopp and Conte are similar: two managers popularizing a brand of football to win domestic trophies abroad and now being asked to guide their current side back to prominence.
Where the verdict is still out on whether Conte’s Chelsea can compete against the better sides in the league, Klopp’s men have developed a habit of doing so. The Reds already dispatched of last year’s runner-ups Arsenal and Leicester City – scoring four goals on each occasion – but a trip to Chelsea should pose a different test. Conte’s arrival now witnesses a team that now possesses the organization and discipline that went missing last year, combined with a legitimate counter-attacking threat in transition.
“I think Liverpool are a really good team,” said Conte. “They play with high intensity, they bring many players in offensive situations, they are very good.”
“We must pay great attention tomorrow because we know they are very strong.”
Liverpool’s major decision rests on whether to start Daniel Sturridge upfront. The striker’s pace posed several issues for Leicester last weekend, but Klopp’s big game XI’s have often featured Roberto Firmino in a central role. The Brazilian’s movement pressing is integral to Klopp’s set-up, but likewise, his outside runs into the channels to create space, and willingness to drop deep and play quick intricate passes encourages forward runners into the box.
Sadio Mane’s pace and willingness to track back should merit a start on the right, whereas Philippe Coutinho may return to the XI on the left. Coutinho remains an interesting proposition that constantly intends on shooting from distance opposed to influencing his side’s buildup play within the final third, but similar to Firmino, Klopp turns to the Brazilian in the big games.
Therefore, it’s unlikely Sturridge will still start upfront, with Firmino drifting infield from the left hand side, and attempt to find space goal-side of N’Golo Kante. Klopp will also be hoping to recall one of his centre-backs following Lucas’ error that resulted in Jamie Vardy’s goal last week. While the Brazilian already lacks height, it’s evident Conte would encourage Costa to exploit his defensive deficiencies and unfamiliarity with the position.
On the other hand, though the midfield trio excelled thus far, this could be one area of concern for a Reds side yet to face an opposing group with proficient ball-winning traits. Liverpool lack that type of player in their midfield, opting to field Jordan Henderson as the deepest midfielder, along with Lallana’s creativity and Georginio Wijnaldum’s verticality and late runs into the box.
However, Conte’s Chelsea eradicated last year’s issues in midfield by moving to a 4-1-4-1 with Nemanja Matic and Oscar pressing the opposition midfielders while Kante sits deeper to protect the back four. Liverpool’s midfield will face their first stern test in terms of pressing across the pitch, and they may have to revert to a more cautious shape to encourage the Blues forward and play on the counter.
In attack, Chelsea aren’t expected to make any changes: Eden Hazard and Willian should feature on the flanks, with the latter possibly providing a greater threat if Coutinho operates from the left due to his unwillingness to track. That would leave makeshift left-back James Milner vulnerable against the speedy Brazilian and the high possibility of Branislav Ivanovic surging forward on the overlap. On the opposite flank, Hazard has displayed signs that he’s rediscovering his best form and Nathaniel Clyne will likely adopt cautious positions in fear of the Belgian’s threat behind him.
Meanwhile, Costa is the joint-leading goal-scorer in the league, and may finally relish a battle against a Liverpool defence lacking a physically imposing centre-back following Martin Skrtel’s departure. Klopp should be able to feature his preferred centre-back partnership with Joel Matip and Dejan Lovren, but they lack familiarity and natural aggression, thus making Costa’s presence their most difficult task to date.
“[He’s] world class,” Klopp said of Costa. “The best thing I can say, if other supporters love you then that’s not a good sign!”
“But he’s a real warrior on the pitch and he uses his body all the time. That’s a quality and what you need to know.
The major change in Chelsea’s XI will see the debut of David Luiz for the injured John Terry. Kante’s arrival at Stamford Bridge was beneficial to preserving the aging back-line, and Conte will hope Luiz’s indiscipline and constant habit of making mistakes will be protected until he fully adjusts into the Italian’s methodology.
However, Mane’s pace and the positional intelligence of Firmino could bamboozle the Brazilian and inconsistent Cahill. Nonetheless, if Conte’s men can cope with Liverpool’s first phase of aggressive gegenpressing, Luiz’s ball-playing skills will be an instant improvement to Chelsea’s build-up play from deeper positions.
Two contrasting styles consisting of a cagey midfield battle presents an interesting spectacle. Neither back-line, though, is sturdy or reliable, but Chelsea’s Kante could make the difference whereas Henderson could be overrun. Both sides have been wasteful in the final third this season, and this may simply rest on efficiency in the final third and which outfit can overcome the opposition’s dissimilar pressing schemes.