Opinion: Midfield the driving force for Liverpool against Chelsea

You may have struggled to imagine a midfield trio of Jordan Henderson, Georginio Wijnaldum and Adam Lallana holding their own against N'Golo Kante and Chelsea, but, thanks to them, Liverpool dominated at Stamford Bridge on Friday night, resulting in a 2-1 victory and further optimism about Liverpool's future under Jurgen Klopp.

Opinion: Midfield the driving force for Liverpool against Chelsea
Opinion: Midfield the driving force for Liverpool against Chelsea

‘I have to praise you like I should.’ Fatboy Slim did not intend this for Liverpool captain Jordan Henderson, but after his, and Liverpool’s, last two performances against Leicester City and Chelsea, confidence is justifiably rising on the red half of Merseyside.

Plenty of positives

Liverpool’s only negative has been the away defeat to Burnley, but that aside, their start to the season has been fantastic. A rare victory at the Emirates Stadium over Arsenal, alongside further wins over Leicester and Chelsea and the draw against Tottenham has lifted the Reds to sixth in the Premier League table.

Yet with plenty of tough fixtures already out of the way, Liverpool fans would be forgiven for feeling just a little more optimistic, with their team now second favourites for the Premier League title with many bookmakers.

Liverpool’s attack has been highly lauded so far this campaign, but against Chelsea, it was the midfield that should take the plaudits. Together, Henderson, alongside Georginio Wijnaldum and Adam Lallana, completely stifled their Chelsea counterparts in the middle of the pitch.

Even N’Golo Kante, so impressive for Leicester last season, was powerless to stop red shirts flying around, all looking forward, passing forward and playing quick, direct football.

Chelsea could not get near Liverpool, completely lacking the equivalent energy levels and demonstrating the work put in by Jurgen Klopp and his players.

Moreover, Klopp’s added time in England also showed its benefits, with the Liverpool players far more cohesive and fluent, completely in touch with their manager’s demands.

In contrast, Antonio Conte’s Chelsea were slow, broken and negative, and in the first half appeared to only want to stop Liverpool, rather than create anything themselves. They improved in the second half, but barring the few minutes around Diego Costa’s goal, Liverpool were comfortable and assuring at the back.

Keys to the recent run

Yet Liverpool’s performance was undoubtedly led by their skipper and his two midfield partners in crime.

It has been a tough year for Henderson, with the immense expectation of succeeding Steven Gerrard as Liverpool captain, exacerbated by injury last season, which meant the 26 year old was a shadow of his former self.

After much talk over his future at the club over the summer (including by myself), Henderson failed to convince in early games against Arsenal, Burnley and Tottenham. Playing in a deeper midfield role appeared to counteract his strengths going forward, best illustrated by his excellent, energetic form in the 2013/14 and 2014/15 seasons.

It appeared initially that Emre Can’s injury and the armband were granting Henderson a stay of execution in the Liverpool side, but Klopp has made a few surprising calls this season and the German’s judgement is already bearing fruit.

In a new 4-3-3 formation, Lallana has vindicated Klopp’s decision to play the England international in a central role. Meanwhile, James Milner is now settling into yet another position at left-back, proving a useful short-term solution while Klopp finds his perfect replacement for Alberto Moreno (which could yet be an improved Moreno from the training ground).

Now Henderson is also growing into his deep-lying defensive role superbly, leading by example and pushing through any and all adversity he has faced in the past 12 months. He is no Gerrard, and never will be, but he is certainly becoming more of a leader for Liverpool, with help from their main talisman on the touchline.

Fearing inconsistency after the 4-1 hammering of the reigning Premier League champions, both Liverpool and Henderson will be delighted to have built on that performance by coming away with another fantastic three points at Stamford Bridge – now captain and club need to keep it going against the ‘lesser sides’ if they want to finish in the top four or better this season.

Wijnaldum kicking on

It was not only Henderson however. Wijnaldum enjoyed his best display yet in his short career at Anfield, always making himself available and allowing Liverpool to maintain their fast, free-flowing football that was too much for Chelsea.

The Dutchman is another who has yet to really catch the eye since his big-money move from Newcastle United this summer, but the 25 year old does a lot of the less glamorous work for the Reds.

The spotlight rests more on Lallana and Liverpool’s frontline – Sadio Mane, Philippe Coutinho, Daniel Sturridge and Roberto Firmino, with the latter absent at Stamford Bridge but not missed, as with Coutinho against Leicester.

Lallana himself was not as his peak on Friday night, but even when not at his best, he, and all of the Liverpool players, have the energy to press, hassle and make life enormously difficult for opponents, not allowing them any rhythm.

In the first half especially, Liverpool pushed Chelsea back and controlled the game, and this tactic was dictated by the three in midfield, who never allowed Conte’s side to come forward with any real ambition.

Nevertheless, at both ends of the pitch the Reds were impressive, with the defence on the whole superb, and the potential is there for a stable long-term partnership between Dejan Lovren and Joel Matip.

Liverpool have had to change frequently at the back in recent years, with the last successful centre-back pairing arguably Daniel Agger and Martin Skrtel under Kenny Dalglish, or even Jamie Carragher with either under Rafael Benitez.

Areas for improvement?

Either way, Liverpool need a spine they can rely on this season, which includes establishing their first-choice central defenders, but at least right-back Nathaniel Clyne is back to his dependable, consistent self from last season.

Further forward, the likes of Coutinho and Mane helped in pinning Chelsea back, even if their defence was not exposed as frequently as Leicester’s.

Moreover, because the Reds were in command for much of the game, they could afford mixed nights from their strikers, Daniel Sturridge and then Divock Origi.

Origi missed a big chance to finish the game off in the second half with a header, but is still undoubtedly progressing under a manager who rates him highly, even if the Belgian has yet to discover his form from the end of last season. Admittedly however, Origi has only spent a short period of time on the pitch.

Sturridge is more of a concern – after showcasing positive signs against Leicester, he was again subdued at Stamford Bridge.

Such is the competitiveness in attack, when everyone is fit, one poor performance may mean spending the following fixture on the bench, somewhere Sturridge especially does not want to be as he rebuilds his confidence from injury problems.

Yet he will need to rediscover himself quickly, and Tuesday’s League Cup fixture away to Derby County may allow the 27 year old game time to find his true form and fitness again.

Liverpool still have a tendency to implode without warning, such as in the 4-3 win over Arsenal, and Chelsea’s goal on Friday was not Liverpool’s finest hour either. Despite being his only blemish all night, Henderson failed to track Nemanja Matic’s run, while Lallana and Matip were rash in going to ground.

Obviously work is still needed, but Liverpool are improving in all areas, and the squad is getting stronger with the returns of Loris Karius and Emre Can. However, the latter may not be as vital in midfield as previously thought, given the performances of Henderson, Wijnaldum and Lallana at Stamford Bridge.

Furthermore, with fixtures against Hull City and Swansea City coming up, Klopp will want to keep the team packed with attack minded players, as creativity will be vital to break down these more defensive teams.

With their crucial impact against Chelsea, Liverpool’s midfield is now working well, with a clear, coherent understanding of each other’s roles – and they are improving with every game.

Long may the praise continue.