LONDON — Manager Jurgen Klopp left Stamford Bridge on a high Friday after his Liverpool side beat Chelsea 2-1 with a display that reached breathtaking heights, but also featured worryingly flat periods.
Dejan Lovren and Jordan Henderson gave Klopp’s men a 2-0 lead in a dazzling first half in which they left Chelsea bewildered and bemused.
“We were very intense, very flexible,” Klopp said. “I was really happy with style of play. The problem is we stopped.”
Liverpool ran out of steam in the second period, and after Chelsea’s Diego Costa pulled a goal back, uncertainty crept into Liverpool’s game. They were never quite hanging on by their fingertips, but the second-half performance was nowhere near as vibrant and exciting as in the first 45 minutes.
Liverpool were quick out of the blocks. Daniel Sturridge, who was booed by the home crowd of his former club, shot from 20 yards in the second minute as the Reds ranged forward with real adventure. Chelsea goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois fumbled at first, but the ball spun harmlessly until he could collect it.
Soon Chelsea’s collective head was spinning. Inspired by Philippe Coutinho, and with Adam Lallana and Sadio Mane surging upfield with purpose, Liverpool looked threatening throughout the opening exchanges.
Their pressure told after 17 minutes.
Coutinho and James Milner worked to find space on the left, and the Chelsea defence was fixated on the Brazilian’s cross while four Liverpool players queued up at the far post. Lovren expertly side-footed the ball into the net, but at least one Liverpool attacker appeared to be offside when the ball was played in. Chelsea could gripe about the lack of a flag, but not the score line. Liverpool had been superior thus far in every department.
Chelsea manager Antonio Conte stuck to a back four, with Branislav Ivanovic and Cesar Azpilicueta keen to join the attack from full-back, but it played into Liverpool’s hands. It left Gary Cahill and David Luiz isolated in the centre circle, with acres of inviting space out wide for potential counterattacks by the away team.
There had been much discussion of Luiz’s merits as a centre-back in the runup to the game, but his partner made the mistake that allowed Henderson to score next. In the 36th minute, Cahill failed to clear a throw-in adequately from his own box. The ball fell to Henderson, and the Liverpool captain looped a stunning 25-yard shot into the top corner of the net. It was an exquisite effort, and at that point it looked as if Klopp’s side would win in a romp.
Chelsea’s Eden Hazard was struggling to impose himself, and Costa was a shadow of the malevolent presence who had terrorised Swansea City on Sunday. The striker’s touch was off, and he was unable to ruffle the Liverpool defence’s composure. It was an easy first half for Lovren and Joel Matip.
Things began to change early in the second period. Hazard, after spending the first 50 minutes on the left and failing to get any joy against Nathaniel Clyne, was waved upfield by Conte and began to range across the pitch, instantly causing more trouble for the Liverpool defence. He created room for Willian to cross, and Liverpool keeper Simon Mignolet was forced to punch clear. It was still meagre fare for Chelsea’s fans, but at least it caused Liverpool a nervous moment.
Just when it appeared Chelsea had run out of ideas and energy, Costa pulled a goal back. Nemanja Matic went to the byline, evading the laziest of challenges from Matip, and passed the ball to Costa at the near post. The big striker side-footed the ball home and the mood in the stadium changed. Klopp was disappointed by the goal.
“We conceded from a counterattack when we were 2-0 up,” he said. “It was the wrong moment and the wrong situation.”
Now Chelsea were energized. Oscar presented Costa with another chance within moments, but the Spain forward shot straight at Mignolet. Without too many adjustments, the home side were back in the game. Liverpool had run out of steam.
Klopp’s side sat deep. In the first half they broke forward with pace and conviction, but now their energy and belief were ebbing. They were inviting Chelsea in. It was a very dangerous tactic, and on another night they might have paid for it in points.
Chances, which flowed so easily in the first half, were now hard to come by for the visitors. Liverpool’s Divock Origi, on as a substitute for Sturridge, should have sealed the game with a near-post header but nodded straight at the goalkeeper.
Klopp had seen enough. With 10 minutes left, the German moved to shore up his team, replacing Coutinho with Lucas. Conte, meanwhile, went for broke, introducing Cesc Fabregas, Pedro and Victor Moses for Matic, Oscar and Willian.
The Chelsea manager is famous for his tactical acumen, but although his team pushed forward, they were not dynamic enough to seize the initiative at a time when Liverpool looked vulnerable.
Conte’s injection of pace and nous came too late and produced too few alarms for Klopp. The Italian will have lots to consider in the aftermath of this game.
Conte put out a rallying cry to everyone at the club and his unhappiness was clear. He is desperate to avoid the underachievement the previous campaign.
“This season, the manager, the players, all the people who work for Chelsea must take their responsibility,” he said. “Because we win together, we lose together. This is very important.
“I don’t want to repeat a bad season like last year. I don’t want that. For this reason we must pay attention in every single moment of the game, in every minute. I’m the coach so I must work more on this aspect. Now, it’s not enough. Because this is not the first time this has happened. We must feel the danger in every single moment of the game if we want to win and think like a great team. Chelsea are a great team, but we must show this in every single game, to pay attention and be focused.”
For Klopp, there was plenty to be optimistic about, though.
“The beginning was brilliant, brilliant from our side,” he said. “We played football like hell; it was really nice to watch.”
Brilliant beginnings and a happy ending. That’s what the German wants. And consistent middles, too.
Tony Evans has been a sports journalist for more than 20 years. He writes for ESPN FC on the Premier League. Twitter: @tonyevans92a.