Over the last couple of seasons – and, indeed, since the turn of the century – the Blues and the Reds have played out a succession of intriguing encounters. Subplots, systems and supporters have all played their part.
The latter of those may be off the table tomorrow, but it is a measure of this matchup’s attraction that countless eyes remain drawn to it.
This makes it unsurprising that Sunday afternoon’s Stamford Bridge meeting has so many potential points of impact; so many places and elements within which a key difference could be made.
There’s the personnel. New and more familiar. Who, how and where will they shape up?
There’s Frank Lampard and Jürgen Klopp’s respective approaches. Both, likely, will want to set the agenda in and out of possession.
There’s the lively context.
Chelsea have had a productive summer in the transfer market. Liverpool too, having secured the services of Thiago Alcântara and Diogo Jota in recent days, both of whom have joined Kostas Tsimikas at Anfield. Also, it’s quite possible that neither club is finished yet.
Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain is the Red’s only current injury absentee, while Jota is unlikely to have been registered in time to be available for Sunday. Thiago, though, is eligible to feature – with any debut appearance most likely to come from the bench.
Lampard confirmed on Monday, meanwhile, that summer acquisitions Ben Chilwell, Thiago Silva and Hakim Ziyech are not yet fully fit, along with Christian Pulišić.
Fellow new signings Timo Werner and Kai Havertz look set to retain their places from Monday night’s 3-1 win at Brighton, however. Mateo Kovačić is also available, having now served the one-match suspension earned by his red card in last month’s FA Cup Final.
Amongst all this, Sunday represents an excellent chance for both sides to set the tone for their season.
Plenty worth keeping an eye on. So when – and where – could that focus be most worthwhile?
Hardly a hot take. We don’t really need reminding that the opening moments often go on to define any game. Come 4.30pm, though, there should be a fair amount that players, coaches and viewers alike can learn about the contest that will follow.
Part of the intrigue comes from the mystery which surrounds Lampard’s selections, something Klopp alluded to in his Friday press conference: “We have, actually, absolutely no idea who Frank will line-up. So many different options.”
We’ll have had the team news for an hour or so, but the approaches of either side will only become genuinely evident once they begin to be put into action.
Liverpool, most likely, will begin with a similar side and 4-3-3 shape to last week’s win over Leeds. Fabinho coming into the midfield appears the best bet when it comes to any alterations.
Chelsea, though, appear considerably tricker to read in these terms. They utilised a 4-2-3-1 on Monday, with N’Golo Kanté and Jorginho filling the double-pivot while Havertz, Ruben Loftus-Cheek and Mason Mount worked just behind Werner.
This could be used once more, but a shuffling of the pack – which could include the likes of Kovačić coming into one of the deep roles and Olivier Giroud going up top, with Werner starting wide – doesn’t feel beyond the realms. Callum Hudson-Odoi may be another pushing for a starting spot.
4-3-3 and 3-4-3 shapes were also employed by Lampard during 2019/20. Like the 4-2-3-1, they both offer good vertical and lateral coverage of the pitch – something often seen as advantageous against Liverpool, given the threat posed by Trent Alexander-Arnold and Andy Robertson from full-back.
The Chelsea boss used a 4-3-3 in the sides’ first three meetings last term – the Reds’ penalty shootout victory in last August’s UEFA Super Cup, following a 2-2 draw, Liverpool’s 2-1 league win at Stamford Bridge in September and Chelsea’s 2-0 success in the FA Cup Fifth Round at the same venue in March.
Come July, he went with the 3-4-3 in the Merseysiders’ wild 5-3 win at Anfield in the Premier League. He may, therefore, decide to revert to one of the shapes that he has previously used against Klopp’s men.
From kick-off on Sunday, both sides will be aiming to swiftly interpret their opponents’ shape and – in turn – how best to beat it.
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Switches of play
As previously mentioned, the wide areas look set to be a key factor. Switching the ball swiftly and accurately from one side to the other generally represents the best chance to utilise the space in these areas.
Both teams are likely to be well-balanced in this respect, meaning they may not have quite as much ground to make up when they are out of possession, and the ball goes wide, as some other sides.
Whichever one is able to create the most effective time, space and overloads in these areas will significantly help their chances, though. The work of Liverpool’s two ‘Number 8s’ – most often Jordan Henderson and Georginio Wijnaldum – in both protecting and attacking these channels may well prove crucial.
Another familiar one. One of Klopp’s trademarks is the value he places on such moments. If either side can win possession and break from within the other’s more open offensive shape, they each have the capability to do significant – and swift – damage.
Both midfields will again be crucial in this respect. Pressuring the ball in a coherent, aggressive and timely manner will significantly aide both teams’ chances.
Up-top, Roberto Firmino’s familiar back-tackling could come to the fore, while Mohamed Salah and Sadio Mané will also aim to station themselves ideally to capitalise on such scenarios.
In Werner, Chelsea now also have someone with similarly incisive pace, so they too will surely look to utilise it – as they did to win their penalty on Monday.
In possession, every player will have to be on it. Awareness, body shape and first touch when receiving the ball will all have to be on the money. Slack off, and they can expect to be targeted.
One good press could prove decisive.
Once more, this is the case in every game. One set-piece that is well-executed, poorly defended, or a bit of both, could prove decisive.
Liverpool executed two superbly in this fixture last season. In the 14th minute, Salah rolled a 20-yard free-kick to Alexander-Arnold, who slammed it into the top-corner. Another change of angle then doubled the lead 16 minutes later, when Alexander-Arnold rolled another free-kick into the path of Robertson on the left, whose cross was attacked and headed home by Firmino.
Wijnaldum also volleyed into the roof of the net after the Blues failed to clear a corner in July’s Anfield meeting.
Primarily, this appears an area that Liverpool can exploit, given the high number of goals the West Londoners conceded from set-pieces last-term. Maximising the quality of offensive free-kicks and corners will ensure that the Reds genuinely test whether Chelsea have improved in this respect.
This also links to the potential value of long shots. Goalkeeper Kepa Arrizabalaga, as has been well-documented, has conceded 19 Premier League goals from outside the box since the start of the 2018/19 campaign – more than any other goalkeeper in that time.
Five of those came against Liverpool, while the most recent arrived at the Amex on Monday, when Leandro Trossard’s 25-yard effort crept under the Spaniard’s dive. Whether it be from free-kicks or open-play, Klopp’s side may well look to create opportunities to shoot from distance.
The Blues, though, also have notable potential in these areas. The technical quality of the likes of Marcos Alonso, Kovačić, Havertz and Mount means they are also more than capable of posing a threat from both long-range and set-pieces.
Not too dissimilar to switches of play, of course. If one of these is well-executed, however, either of these generally well-balanced set-ups could be forced to adjust laterally and vertically very quickly.
Not only that, but they could be one of the few weapons that allow some of the pacey, skilful attackers on show to isolate themselves with an opposition centre-back or full-back – who may themselves still be in the process of backtracking.
Intricate moves will surely also play their part at the Bridge. Going direct – and diagonal – when appropriate could also prove decisive, though.