Chelsea managed a late equaliser to ensure the points were shared at Anfield this weekend as a fluky Willian effort cancelled out Mohamed Salah’s goal. Here, I take a look at what we have learned from the latest edition of this classic big fixture.
1. Chelsea are a good team who are perhaps the most likely to challenge Manchester City
Chelsea’s recent good run has been a relief for supporters since that poor spell in October, and the fact that the Blues not only avoided defeat at Anfield but looked like they could well have won the game is very encouraging. As all teams know, a draw at Anfield is never a bad result and this was a performance which suggested things are beginning to click into place for the Champions.
Conte will be pleased that his team ensured their current momentum was not reduced by Liverpool since Chelsea now enter a relatively favourable run of fixtures starting with a couple of home games against Swansea City and Newcastle. Manchester City took full advantage of the draw at Anfield by beating Huddersfield 2-1 and are now a whopping 11 points ahead of Chelsea, and though it looks more than likely that Pep Guardiola’s men will win the Premier League this year, Chelsea are arguably the team that is best equipped to get closest to them.
On current form it seems the 3-5-2 that Chelsea have adopted could begin to snowball positive results just as 3-4-3 did last year, and with that favourable run of upcoming fixtures coming at a time where Manchester United face Arsenal at The Emirates ahead of the Manchester derby, the Blues have a great opportunity to now push themselves up the table and get ready to pounce on any slim chances City may provide in the title race.
2. Eden Hazard will be the key to any success Chelsea may have this season
He may not have got on the score-sheet this weekend, but Eden Hazard was Chelsea’s stand out player in yet another Premier League game and impressed everyone inside Anfield regardless of the team they were supporting. Simply put, the Blues carry nowhere near as much of an offensive threat when Hazard isn’t playing. The Belgian’s confidence when carrying the ball and acceleration makes him near impossible to tackle and his first half performance especially was as good as any the Premier League has seen so far this season.
The new 3-5-2 system is effectively built around Hazard – especially in this game as Fabregas started on the bench – and his role as a second striker means he regularly picks up the ball in more dangerous central areas and drives towards the opposition goal. There are plenty of players in the Chelsea team that opposition will fear when preparing to play against the Londoners, but it is Hazard that everyone is aware will be impossible to stop when in the form he has shown against both Liverpool and West Brom in the past ten days.
3. Willian remains an important member of the Blues’ squad
If his incredible display in Azerbaijan in midweek wasn’t enough to already convince you of this, Willian’s immediate impact at Anfield on Saturday evening was further evidence of his worth in this Chelsea squad. The switch to the 3-5-2 this season has not been beneficial for Willian or Pedro, but they have proven their worth this week when Conte reverted to 3-4-3 in Baku and needed to chase a result in Liverpool.
Willian’s flair and pace makes him a player that is always dangerous while his attitude at Chelsea makes him especially valuable in a squad role that won’t necessarily see him given too many starts. The Brazilian always seems to go about his work in a respectful and committed manner while the quality he has shown on the pitch this week will intensify some welcome competition for first team places. Though I firmly believe his effort on Saturday was an intended cross, his play to get into that position was a great illustration of the impact he can have as a substitute. Willian is great at standing up a member of a tired opposition backline, before darting one way or the other with fresh energy and delivering a ball into a productive area – in this case the back of the Liverpool net.
4. Cesc Fabregas has become one of Conte’s most significant players
This was one of those game’s for Cesc Fabregas that by not starting, the importance of his role in the team was actually highlighted more emphatically. Conte’s decision to field a midfield three of Kante, Bakayoko and Drinkwater was fair given that a midfield battle was always likely against Liverpool, however it was clear that Chelsea’s attacking threat and transferral of the ball from back to front was drastically compromised as a result.
The brilliance of Eden Hazard did make up for this somewhat – further justifying Conte’s selection – as Chelsea number 10 made several lengthy dribbles from around the halfway line right into the Liverpool box, but the difference Fabregas made once he came on as a second half substitute was clear for all to see. After a season of great performances so far, we can certainly expect Fabregas to return for the upcoming games against Swansea and Newcastle where Chelsea can expect to have the majority of possession.
5. Chelsea may have finally found their go-to back three for the season
Finally, the fact that Conte recalled Andreas Christensen and Gary Cahill for this game after resting the pair in Baku suggests Chelsea may have finally settled on a ‘first-choice’ back three for now. As many have said for a long while now, the need for consistency in defence has been much needed. The major surprise of that back three is that David Luiz is not a part of it, though Christensen has been fantastic so far this season and could hardly have taken the opportunity handed to him by Conte after dropping Luiz more convincingly.
Azpilicueta, Christensen and Cahill has been the back three for Chelsea for their last three league games now and the Blues have only conceded the goal Salah managed at Anfield during that period. Of course, the packed fixture schedule over the coming months means Luiz and Rudiger are likely to still receive plenty of game time – Swansea in midweek may be one such occasion – but fans can be pleased that Conte appears to be more settled on his go-to backline selection.