LIVERPOOL, England — Forget the 1-1 result, which suggests two points were dropped by Liverpool and Chelsea in the early stages of their marathon pursuit of Premier League glory, and overlook the failure of either to cut loose and claim the victory that would have taken the winner to the top of the standings.
If Saturday’s clash at Anfield told us anything, it was that these two teams have the quality, experience and durability to sustain a title challenge. This 90 minutes encapsulated the nine months ahead, with both sides riding the ups and downs and emerging unbowed at the end.
On a day that Manchester City thrashed Arsenal and with the shock of Manchester United re-signing Cristiano Ronaldo still reverberating, Liverpool and Chelsea showed why they too are gearing up for what could be a titanic tussle, with this game only adding to the perception they will be tough to beat from now until May.
There is a tendency in the modern game to equate high-scoring victories with championship credential, or to measure a team’s ability by its ruthless capacity to win as if a matter of routine.
Sometimes, though, a truer gauge of quality only becomes evident in the face of challenge by an opponent of similar status; as Liverpool and Chelsea left the pitch following an absorbing draw, they had both taken the best of what the other could offer and stood firm.
That Chelsea were able to emerge with a draw after being reduced to 10 men on 45 minutes — defender Reece James was sent off by referee Anthony Taylor after a VAR review highlighted a goal-line handball and led to Mohamed Salah’s penalty equaliser — underscores the strength of Thomas Tuchel’s team.
And while some will cite Liverpool’s failure to capitalise on their man advantage to win as evidence of something missing in Jurgen Klopp’s side, the truth is that the hosts, who lost Roberto Firmino to a first-half injury, threw everything at the Champions League winners, only to find Chelsea’s array of experienced defenders producing a masterclass in maintaining shape and concentration.
Liverpool, though, will regard the draw as a missed opportunity, with Klopp’s side failing to score against a Chelsea side that operated with a back five for most of the second half and had Romelu Lukaku isolated as a lone striker chasing lost causes. The €115m signing from Inter had just 13 touches after half-time, with none particularly close to the Liverpool penalty area.
But against most other opponents, Liverpool would have scored four or five. Jordan Henderson, Fabinho and Andy Robertson all went close, but Chelsea keeper Edouard Mendy frustrated the home side with a number of unconventional saves.
Moreover, teenager Harvey Elliott was lively for Klopp’s team, Trent Alexander-Arnold a threat with his delivery from the right and Salah a thorn in the side of his former club. There was no win, so the search for shortcomings is inevitable, but the manager was not too concerned.
“Everything was enjoyable apart from the result,” Klopp said. “I saw two very good football teams. It was a great first half from us and actually a good second one because it’s so tricky when you play against nine defenders and have to create and create.
“Could we have done better? Yes,” he continued. “But it’s early in the season. For sure we should have made more of the advantage. We have one point more than before so let’s carry on.”
Tuchel has transformed Chelsea since replacing the sacked Frank Lampard in January and his impact was clear as the London club held firm with 10 men, although a tactical plan is ultimately only as good as the players who put it into practice.
As such, the half-time introduction of Thiago Silva and Mateo Kovacic — two seasoned top-level performers — alongside Marcos Alonso, Cesar Azpilicueta, Antonio Rudiger, Andreas Christensen and Jorginho, gave Chelsea a formidable core that snuffed out space and left Liverpool banging against a blue wall.
“We decided to stay in a back five,” Tuchel said. “We wanted to stay active and make it hard to create chances. The first 10 minutes seemed endless. The last five minutes, I was actually praying we take what we deserved. It was a hard and a tough one, but a very strong second half defensively.
“We are competitive and we want to stay competitive,” he continued. “I think our fans loved what they saw and in the end it was a deserved result and we can absolutely live with that.”
Experienced players, who know their jobs and have the assuredness that comes from previous success, can make a coach’s job easy and Tuchel had little to do in the second period other than watch his men follow instructions to the letter.
On another day, having taken an early lead through Kai Havertz’s looping header, Chelsea would have regarded this draw as a failure to claim a potentially crucial victory, but their performance against the odds was as good as a win for Tuchel’s side.
Perhaps recent seasons, in which Man City and Liverpool romped to titles on the back of seemingly-endless winning runs, has altered how we judge prospective champions. This season is likely to be different, with Liverpool and Chelsea showing why.