So Liverpool have come out of the other side of two showdowns with Chelsea in the same week. No two English sides have faced each other more often in competition action since the turn of the century and once again the viewing public have not been left down.
Liverpool have endured contrasting experiences in each game it’s fair to say. From the sour disappointment of a cup exit last Wednesday night, to the euphoria of a well earned, very useful last minute Premier League point away at Stamford Bridge. If we are being honest, it’s the latter result that really matters.
As much as we’d all love to win a few cups in the immediate future, the League Cup has to take something of a back burner as we once again look to challenge for the very top honours. Perhaps the one kernel of positivity we can take from Wednesday’s defeat is that, when contrasted with the result on Saturday, it serves another timely reminder of just how far we have come under Jurgen Klopp.
Sturridge is rightly basking in praise right now. But it is with his defensive colleagues that the stark improvement can really be seen.
A closer look at the team fielded at Anfield in the cup saw a back four and ‘keeper who, until very recently, would have been selected in our strongest starting eleven. Mignolet, Clyne, Lovren, Matip and Moreno, were names we’d all grown used to, if not comfortable with seeing in the first team. However, a few days after the cup exit, all of them were once again exiled from the first XI as the stakes were very much higher and margin for error, non-existent.
It had become a strange, reoccurring theme at Liverpool in the post 2010 Meltdown era. Sub-standard players were seemingly accepted and permitted to carry on with regular and costly errors. This trend saw the likes of Glen Johnson and Martin Skrtel make over five hundred appearances between them a red shirt. It’s no wonder Champions League football alluded us for so long.
The club’s standards were slowly slipping with each passing year and while we could paper over the cracks with some truly wonderful attacking talent, the defence was dire. Even Klopp has been forced to pick from leavings of his predecessor’s abysmal defensive recruitment.
The fact we can now comfortably drop the aforementioned back line to a second string is a luxury afforded to club through the hard work of Klopp and his team as well as Michael Edward’s sharpening our edges in the transfer market.
The staggering difference quality on display on Saturday was a pleasant reminder of just how big of an improvement we have witnessed. Yes you can make cases for Matip, Lovren and Clyne being alright players, and you’d not be wrong. However the harsh reality is that they have been left behind by progress.
Tell tale signs
Still trailing at one-nil and bombing forward for an equalizer, Liverpool were always going to be susceptible to Chelsea’s venomous counter attack. And so it proved as the second half rolled on past the hour mark. Eden Hazard was once again released, after a quick free kick and raced behind our high line, closing in on goal.
At any point in the past five years, this would have been two nil and game over. We’d have looked at replays afterwards and said there wasn’t much Mignolet or Karius could have done with such a top class player clean through.
You just didn’t bank on a Liverpool keeper saving you when it really counted, such was the lowering of expectations and standards at the clubs. This year though, things are little different.
Alisson is firmly installed now between the sticks and showed his class on the night to keep Liverpool in the game. He decisively came out and dropped quickly to keep out the Belgian’s shot. It’s a save that we’ve all seen from other clubs’ ‘keepers down the years, the kind of incidents which give clubs a point where they may previously have lost.
Alisson also made another smart save in the first half and mopped up a sloppy back pass from Wijnaldum without making a pig’s ear of it. This is a tell sign that the club is now far better equipped to truly challenge; Klopp has raised the bar significantly.
The back four were also immense at Chelsea, with Van Dijk and Gomez both showing real composure and intelligence, despite having to commit to a high line, they where seldom caught out and once again look like they just get each other.
Liverpool’s have had a wobbly centre-half pairing too often in previous years. It was yet another way in for our opponents. To go away against such a top class side like Chelsea and be able to rely on your defence is a luxury we simply didn’t have.
Had we have turned up to The Capital, with the same back line that started in the Carabao Cup we’d have stood no chance against Hazard and his pals.
That we can now cast these players out as our second string, is just another pleasant reminder of how dramatically things have improved.