Amid the backdrop of one of the craziest transfer pursuits of all time, the Moises Caicedo derby between Chelsea and Liverpool served up a real treat on the opening Sunday of the new Premier League season.
An absorbing bout at Stamford Bridge saw the spoils shared yet again between the two Premier League behemoths, although the quality of the contest was unlike the dire, stodgy stalemates that played out in 2022/23. This was chaos, and not the orderly sort either. Just straight unfiltered chaos.
In the end, Mauricio Pochettino and Jurgen Klopp would’ve been content with their side’s work in west London.
Both teams are bound to improve on their underwhelming (slight understatement for Chelsea) campaigns last time out, and here are a few things we learned about the two teams on Sunday afternoon.
Enzo Fernandez was… a bargain?!
While he’d excelled at the World Cup with Argentina, the overall consensus was that Chelsea had paid over the odds for a midfielder who’d enjoyed just six months of top flight European football before the Blues made him a £107m footballer.
After Sunday’s performance, though, that fee looks like a bargain for Enzo Fernandez.
The Argentine stuck out like a sore thumb for all the right reasons during his first few months at the club as Chelsea stuttered towards the finish line, and he’s bound to excel in a competent Blues side with Pochettino at the helm. Fernandez’s pre-season was a mixed bag, but he was nothing short of majestic against an overtly aggressive Liverpool midfield.
Paired alongside Conor Gallagher, Fernandez rotated in and out of Chelsea’s build-up and sought to have a greater impact once the ball had progressed upfield. His choice and weight of pass were relentlessly spot on, and he would’ve had an assist had Ben Chilwell just delayed his run after Axel Disasi drew the Blues level.
The midfielder’s showing in possession was of the highest order, and Chelsea fans must be excited by Fernandez being joined in midfield by a more natural #6 in Caicedo. They should complement each other superbly.
Mauricio Pochettino: The wing-back whisperer?
The new Chelsea boss sprung a surprise by deploying a back three, which had rarely been used in pre-season, but after a difficult start, the Blues settled and started to give Liverpool problems with and without the ball.
Key to the hosts’ attacking threat were their two wing-backs: Chilwell and captain Reece James. At Tottenham, Pochettino was largely credited for improving English tandem Kyle Walker and Danny Rose at both ends of the pitch, and the pair emerged as the most formidable full-back duo in the Premier League during Spurs’ 2016/17 pomp.
The early signs at Chelsea suggest Pochettino could be working more magic with his full-backs, although Chilwell and James are already established stars. James wreaked havoc in the first half with his deliveries from the right, while Chilwell’s off the ball runs were a nuisance for the Liverpool backline. He thought he’d given his side the lead in the first half after latching onto Fernandez’s through ball and rounding Alisson, but VAR brought the sequence back.
Chelsea’s threat from their wing-backs was distinct in the opening period, and supporters will be particularly enthused by James’ dynamic with Raheem Sterling.
Nicolas Jackson can play
The new Chelsea striker was a name not many were familiar with once his arrival was confirmed from Villarreal earlier this summer, but a quick dive into his profile suggested Jackson was a physical and efficient forward.
However, only half of that initial evaluation manifested on Sunday.
How many times is Jackson going to be described as a ‘handful’? It may be cliché, but that’s exactly what he is. He’s an excellent channel runner and remarkably direct when he turns to face the opposition’s goal. Defenders will detest his style, and his teammates will appreciate his running and capacity to hold the ball up, but his finishing on Sunday suggests he might frustrate supporters.
Jackson’s four shots accounted for 0.5 xG, and many will feel that he should’ve got on the scoresheet. Promising signs, nonetheless.
‘Heavy metal’ football returns
Jurgen Klopp’s Reds have long drifted away from the ‘heavy metal’ style synonymous with the German’s Borussia Dortmund outfits during their peak.
Freneticism and relentless aggression were usurped by calm and control, with Liverpool’s unspectacular midfield profiles playing a key role in the ideological shift. However, the Reds’ engine room was overhauled in the summer after a poor performance last season, with Klopp opting for a midfield trio of Alexis Mac Allister, Dominik Szoboszlai, and Cody Gakpo on Sunday.
Technically gifted and talented players, sure, but Liverpool’s lack of control was evident on Sunday as they notched a mere 35% share of possession. The Reds were remarkably vertical and their directness gave Chelsea problems early on, but once the Blues settled, Liverpool struggled to wrestle the momentum back – even if they did look threatening every time they went forward.
Klopp desperately needs a #6.
Gakpo experiment fails
Injuries in the midfield depth chart to start the season forced Klopp into a rethink, and he opted to use Gakpo in a deeper position alongside the two new boys.
In possession, Liverpool’s structure shift to a 3-2-5 allowed Gakpo to advance and join the front line as much as possible, although much of his work with the ball came in transition as the Reds struggled to sustain pressure given how direct they were.
Gakpo was hesitant when he did find himself in a promising attacking position, but such situations were rare as he registered the lowest touch count among Liverpool’s starters (25), and only one of these was in the Chelsea box. Without the ball, Gakpo’s flaws were laid bare as he struggled to cut off passing lanes and track runners in deeper positions.
Watch out for Ben Doak
The young Scottish winger made plenty of noise in pre-season, with Klopp hailing the 17-year-old constantly throughout the summer.
The Liverpool boss has been taken aback by the explosive teen, with Doak making just his third Premier League appearance off the bench on Sunday. The Scot replaced a rather displeased Mohamed Salah and notched a meagre six touches in his 14 minutes of action, but he’s a talent to keep an eye out for this season.
While he’s not going to feature much while Salah’s fit and available, Doak’s bound to earn regular starts during Liverpool’s Europa League campaign.