IT feels wrong to indulge in speculation prior to English football’s showpiece event, but it’s pertinent to wonder, nonetheless. As they stand on the precipice of history, are Liverpool beginning to look a little ‘leggy’?
That certainly appeared to be the case, to the naked eye at least, in the Reds’ last two league games, even if the figures racked up against Spurs and Aston Villa compare favourably to any two games randomly selected from earlier in the season.
In both must-win encounters the Reds’ patented sharp and imaginative interplay in the final third was increasingly replaced by more direct fare, the kind of deliveries co-commentators love to describe as ‘bread and butter’ for centre-backs, and if this approach suggests patience is dwindling as the stakes rise ever-higher, it also highlights fatigue. It is telling that Andy Robertson – so often Liverpool’s energizer bunny down their left – was subbed vs Spurs and rested vs Villa, while Thiago and Mo Salah were used sparingly in the Midlands. It is telling that in these two fixtures they conceded 28% more shots on target than in the corresponding ties back in December.
If indeed there is presently a slight drop-off in application that would be entirely understandable given what Jurgen Klopp’s collective have put into what has been a phenomenal campaign. Across 88 and a half hours of competitive football, Salah and company have ran 6345 kilometres, an arduous haul that has produced 2.3 points per league game and 2.4 goals per game across all competitions. They have consistently and relentlessly harangued the great, good, and bang-average into making mistakes and when in possession looked to attack in numbers at every opportunity. Only once in the Premier League have they failed to score and all told they have kept clean sheets in 52% of their commitments.
Such ruthless endeavours have taken them to a third Champions League final in five years and very possibly another last-day shoot-out with Manchester City in the Premier League while this Saturday they face Chelsea in the cup final and that’s why it’s pertinent to ask if the seemingly inexorable red machine is starting to show signs of wear and tear. It’s because City aside, no other team have tested Liverpool’s imagination, patience, and energy levels more than the Blues this term.
Ten years ago today, Chelsea beat Liverpool 2-1 in the FA Cup final thanks to a Didier Drogba winner.
They meet again in the final this season ⚔️
— B/R Football (@brfootball) May 5, 2022
Way back in late-August, when Thomas Tuchel’s side were beginning to be viewed – incorrectly – as title contenders, not even the dismissal of Reece James just prior to half-time could prevent the visitors leaving Anfield with a point, frustrating their hosts throughout. Keeper Edouard Mendy was superb that afternoon, as too was Kai Havertz until he was sacrificed for a defender, but what really impressed was Chelsea’s shape and discipline that reduced arguably the most formidable forward-line in world football into taking on speculative efforts and playing percentages.
Round two at Stamford Bridge four months later was an altogether more open affair that saw Liverpool race into a two-goal lead only to be pegged back by a commendable display of Chelsea resilience. The stand-out star on this occasion was Christian Pulisic who bagged the equaliser and it’s worth noting that the American boasts a decent record against the Reds, scoring twice and assisting twice in six meetings. Pulisic, Mount and Havertz caused the Liverpool back-line problems all game, darting into half-spaces and always seeking to exploit a high defensive line.
It was no surprise then that Tuchel went with the same trio for the Carabao Cup final in February and genuine chances were created that day even if, significantly, it was Klopp’s men who enjoyed the lion’s share of the possession and shots undertaken, 20 in total. Again, Mendy stepped up and again Liverpool found their opponents exceedingly difficult to break down, requiring a drawn-out lottery of pens to prevail.
So, if the title-challengers at their best have twice struggled to find a way through and once been matched, what chance a tiring version of them on a vast Wembley pitch? At the very least, three draws on the bounce suggests a further stalemate may await us.
Only that is supposing this is the same Chelsea as before, and there is sufficient evidence to believe that isn’t the case, not since the club were imposed with sanctions and not since results have taken a sustained downturn.
A fairly straightforward bettering of Leeds at Elland Road on Wednesday evening was just the fillip they needed after winning just two of their previous seven and it was revealing that Tuchel mentioned the clear-the-air talks held at Cobham earlier this week on what was originally a day off. It was necessary, he said, to ‘refocus’.
Still, this is a defence that has shipped in 12 in their last eight league games, compared to five in the eight before that and as worrying is the news that Mateo Kovacic will miss this Saturday’s final with N’Golo Kante a big doubt too. A back-line that has looked ordinary of late will be minus their bouncers.
On a more positive note, Mason Mount’s goal and assist in Yorkshire puts him on double figures for both merits while there are tentative signs that Romelu Lukaku may be ending a miserable campaign on a high. The Belgian took on six shots against Leeds, scoring one in his indomitable style of old.