The World in Red and Blue

It was supposed to be Guardiola vs Mourinho. Will it be Conte vs Klopp instead?

Chelsea 5-0 Everton

Let’s not sugar coat it: this was by far the most one-sided football game I’ve seen since the memorable meltdown of Brazil in 2014. Chelsea didn’t just ‘outplay’ or ‘dominate’ Everton; they crushed them; they massacred them; they slaughtered them without taking hostages. Right from the kickoff until the very end, it was one way traffic for The Blues. They’ve piled up 60% of possession, which by itself, didn’t look that impressive – but in reality, the game took place exclusively in the visitors’ half. Thibaut Courtois could’ve been given a day off and replaced with an academy goalie or even Roman Abramovich’s mother-in-law: it wouldn’t matter. The Belgian played 14 passes to his teammates, and that was it – he didn’t have to make a single save, claim or any other defensive action whatsoever. Reasons for that? Very simple: the only Everton’s shot on his goal came in the 76th minute; and it went wide.

 

Obviously, it didn’t take Nostradamus to conclude that Chelsea were the favourites to win this. Since the 0-3 defeat at Arsenal in September, Conte’s team picked up 12 league points and kept 4 straight clean sheets – the best defensive record in that department since November 2009 and Carlo Ancelotti’s reign. In the last couple of week, the crowd at Stamford Bridge saw the reigning champions from Leicester dismantled and the £157 million-boosted Manchester United squad comfortably beaten. Chelsea have also secured 3 points at Hull (where Foxes lost and Red Devils struggled horribly) and at Southampton (who just recently picked up a point at the Etihad). Such record, combined with Everton’s long-lasting ability to implode in away games (as proven by Bournemouth and Burnley), spelled a win for the home side. But to take out Ronald Koeman’s side 5-0? Nobody predicted that.

On Saturday, the Dutchman was forced to tackle one, gigantic problem: how to stay in the game against the most in-form Premier League team without Idrissa Gueye? So far, the Senegalese midfielder has been an outstanding asset, winning the joint-highest number of Premier League tackles (44, level with Danny Drinkwater) and heavily contributed to his team’s defensive capability. Instead of just replacing his stalwart with James McCarthy, Koeman opted to completely revamp his team, switching to a 5-3-2 formation with Tom Cleverley and Ross Barkley both in a three-man midfield and Yannick Bolasie acting as a second striker. That way, Phil Jagielka, guilty of some mistakes in the recent games, kept his place in the squad, alongside Ashley Williams and Ramiro Funes Mori. Meanwhile, Seamus Coleman and Bryan Oviedo were supposed to take care of the wide areas.

Unimpressed Ronald Koeman: “what on Earth are they doing???”

Well… after this weekend we can finally conclude that this Everton team will probably never use this wretched formation again. On paper, it might’ve looked great: five defenders are just enough to match the powers of Chelsea’s front three supported by Victor Moses and Marcos Alonso. In practice, however, the constant movement of Pedro and Eden Hazard stretched Toffees’ trio of centre-back, repeatedly creating gaps in the middle of the pitch that nobody could take care of. Also, without Gueye, the visitors were absolutely dreadful at winning the rebounds and second balls: time and time again, those misplayed Chelsea attacks were being restarted without letting the ball leave the final third. Ross Barkley once again brought absolutely nothing to the game – and the dream of having him become as good as Wayne Rooney has to be down the smithereens these days. Awful, awful, awful.

Chelsea, on the other hand: terrific. The passing, the mobility, the intent, the precision, the willingness to help each other… Who would’ve thought that the club could fly this high with Cesc Fàbregas, Branislav Ivanović and Willian all being sent to the bench? Those three musketeers, who used to be instrumental to CFC’s play under Mourinho, have to watch the likes of Moses, Alonso and David Luiz being given the nod. The Spaniard has already been rumoured to be leaving in January – either on loan, or in a swap deal with PSG for Javier Pastore. Willian, a terrific player in his own right, has currently no chance to be a started due to Pedro’s outstanding form. And Ivanović? Last week, when interrogated by the media, he vowed to fight for his place in the starting XI. Too bad that, at the moment, Chelsea’s defensive play has never been better – without him…

If I had to pick the architects of this great awakening, I’d choose three. César Azpilicueta – this weekend, after 20 tackles attempted and won in a row, he finally failed to recover the ball once, proving that he’s a mere mortal, after all. Nemanja Matić – with 5 league assists to his name in 11 matches, he’s looking even better than he used to when his club was lifting the trophy in 2014. And finally – Diego Costa. Yes: it might be cooler and easier to praised Eden Hazard’s runs and footwork, but it’s Costa, who’s leading the Golden Boot race, as well as the combined chart of goalscorers and assistants. If only he was a little more selfish, the Brazilian could’ve probably scored a hat-trick this weekend – but he preferred to carve space for his teammates. If only Chelsea was playing in Europe today… But then, again – maybe if they were, they wouldn’t look as good in the league?

Liverpool 6-1 Watford

Even in front of your own fans, Watford aren’t exactly the kind of opposition you would be pleased to face. This season, Walter Mazzarri’s team has already picked up 3 points at West Ham and Middlesbrough. They’ve also deservedly beat Manchester United in one of the big upsets of this fall. And if Everton are casting doubts on the usefulness of 5-3-2, The Hornets are making it look strong again – or, at the very least, strong enough to have a go against top English clubs. At Anfield, there was only one problem, though. Okay, no. Two problems. Number one: Sebastian Prödl has picked up a groin injury against Hull a week earlier and couldn’t play, which prompted the 4-4-2 tactics from Watford. And number two: this season, Liverpool are really, really, really fucking good. Imagine the most famous Man Utd demolitions under Sir Alex – yes, the Scousers are currently on that level.

 

The game started with a really bad omen for Watford, as they misplayed the kick-off and were forced by the referee to repeat it. Soon enough, they started to struggle even more, when they attempted to press the hosts relatively high but couldn’t really win the possession back. Fifteen minutes in, Gomes had to bail them out of trouble, as they couldn’t handle a far-post corner, which led to a clear-cut chance from Lucas. 180 seconds later, Coutinho might’ve been caught offside, but the fact that he picked up the ball so easily in the middle of Watford’s penalty area was a bit disheartening. The Brazilian winger has almost pounced seconds later, when he cut inside, skimmed away from Britos and hit the side of the net. The chances just kept coming: Firmino one-on-one in the 23th minute; Milner’s one-on-one in the 26th minute; Mané’s header following a short corner… Well, that one was too much.

Not only did Liverpool score the opener; they’ve also added a crucial, second goal just second after the first one. Coutinho, last season known for endless, long-shot misses, has managed to place a perfect strike in-between Younes Kaboul’s legs – which completely surprised Gomes. Last year, I thought this kid will never really get on the level people thought he’s destined for. He wasted a bazillion of shots (skying most of them); he had plenty of poor games (unlike, say, Özil) and he got into one Team of the Season (God knows why). This autumn, at the age of 24, he’s finally the player everyone wanted him to be: decisive, efficient, involved. The same can be said about Adam Lallana – possibly the best crosser of the ball in the entire league. Seconds before the half time, the ex-Southampton lad has found Emre Can arriving in the area – and the game was pretty much over.


Rumours say, Lallana only listens to ‘Justice – †’. Because it’s ‘Cross’.

After the break, Liverpool have started fairly slowly. The game has become a bit boring, as Watford never had the quality to threaten Karius and the hosts preferred to keep possession rather than further punishing their powerless opponents. Just like Antonio Conte in the Everton game, Jürgen Klopp has been seen in the sidelines, angrily screaming on his players who evidently have put their feet off the gas. The German boss didn’t have to wait for too long: less than ten minutes after his outburst, Lallana has put in another quality cross and Firmino popped up where he was supposed to be, scoring a tap-in. As stupid as this guy’s haircuts have been in the past months, he really has turned out to be everything LFC needed in a #9 role. An hour inside of this game, he could’ve scored one more but delivered a great pass to Mané instead. 5-0. Absolute and total hammering.

It might’ve ended 6-1 and without a clean sheet, but it’s now clear to everyone that The Reds will matter in this super-tight title race. They have pace, they have plenty of technical ability all across the board and, most importantly, they have the team spirit at least as good, if not better, as the side that narrowly failed to win the league three years ago. The fact that they are not as dependant on one player as they were in the Suárez era only helps them. Even their traditionally shaky defence seems to have improved: This season, they’ve conceded only 8.1 shots per game – the least in the league. If it wasn’t for that absolutely mystifying game against Burnley at Turf Moor, they would also be undefeated. With Manchester City shedding points to Middlesbrough, with Arsenal unable to break Spurs at home – it could be all between Scousers and Blues to decide this season’s silverware.

So far, Klopp had nothing but the praise for his Italian adversary. He already called Conte ‘the Guardiola of Turin; the man who created a special kind of play’. He also admitted to be ‘surprised how strong Chelsea are in 3-4-3 system because it’s a very difficult formation to pull off’. The CFC boss doesn’t hesitate to praise back: ‘We played against each other only once, in pre-season, but he’s a fantastic manager’. Well, that last quote has lost it’s credibility recently, because Chelsea have lost 1-2 to Liverpool at the Stamford Bridge. Will that result will have the final say in the standings? Possibly – even though Chelsea do have a history of taking games off Reds at Anfield. So it could be down to: a) luck with the injuries (please, no) b) big-game results (both teams seem more than capable of crushing small teams) or c) the impact made by subs. The way I see it: at the moment, Klopp’s team has an edge in each of those three departments.

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