Ken Early: Chelsea and Liverpool prove that fun football is best
Sarri and Klopp have made the game enjoyable for their players and it reaps rewards
Sturridge celebrates his goal with team mates and a rogue fan. Photo: John Sibley/Reuters
It’s eleven years since Jorge Valdano coined the phrase “shit on a stick” to sum up matches between Chelsea and Liverpool, whose meetings invariably produced dour attritional battles played out in a spirit of mutual hostility and contempt.
On Saturday evening at Stamford Bridge we saw a different sort of match, a fast and enthralling spectacle which ended with the competitors united in mutual admiration. On the pitch Eden Hazard and Daniel Sturridge congratulated each other on their beautiful goals, on the sideline the beaming Mauricio Sarri hugged the beaming Jurgen Klopp.
Of course, it’s early in the season so the draw wasn’t costly for either coach. If Sturridge’s 89th-minute bolt from the blue had decided a Champions League semi-final in Liverpool’s favour, Sarri might not have spoken so generously about the draw being the fairest way for such a beautiful match to end.
Yet you could understand why both of them were genuinely happy with what they had seen. If this is to be the season that Liverpool’s long wait comes to an end, this will rank among the most important results along the road. It was a match that showed two of the ways in which Liverpool have grown stronger since reaching the Champions League final last season.
For much of the season so far Alisson Becker has had the most boring job in football, but on Saturday he kept his team alive with one-on-one saves against Willian and Hazard. The saves demonstrated the proactive technique of a goalkeeper who isn’t just hoping against hope that he gets something on the ball. In both cases he stood his ground, then rushed forward at the moment he calculated would cause most disruption to the striker. Without Alisson, Liverpool would have been picked off as they chased the game.
The other difference is that Liverpool now have strength in reserve. When Mo Salah went off injured against Real Madrid in Kyiv, Klopp had little choice but to replace him with the half-fit Adam Lallana. As that final slipped away, there was nobody on the bench to whom the coach could turn to change the pattern of the game. On Saturday evening, Xherdan Shaqiri and Naby Keita had already made an impact off the bench before Sturridge came on and scored his amazing equaliser. It’s the first time since the arrival of Roman Abramovich in the summer of 2003 that Liverpool have had a stronger bench than Chelsea.
Chelsea’s players could not have embraced the new style with such conviction if Sarri had not also got them feeling good about themselves again
If squad depth is the reason why Liverpool look the likelier challengers to Manchester City, it also makes Klopp’s job a little more complicated. Sturridge is a case in point: arguably the best finisher at the club, yet unlikely to start any big game when Klopp’s preferred front three are all fit. Klopp wants his forwards to hunt the ball and Sturridge struggles to cope with the physical demands of the game plan. How then do you keep him motivated?
In Klopp’s favour is the fact that Sturridge’s contract expires at the end of the season, and imminently-out-of-contract players are laser-focused on peak performance. And Sturridge spent the second half of last season on loan at West Brom, where injuries and lack of match fitness restricted him to a total of 115 minutes spread over six matches in four months that eventually saw his loan club relegated. Maybe that experience helped him to see that playing the Ole Gunnar Solskjaer role for this Liverpool side is not such a bad place to be. If he can sustain this form, even playing mainly as a substitute, he will have no shortage of offers for next season.
While Liverpool are playing an increasingly sophisticated and well-resourced version of the same style Klopp brought to Anfield three years ago, Chelsea have been transformed utterly from the team that finished fifth last season under Antonio Conte. Under Conte they played a defensive, direct game which was all about early balls forward to the central target man. Sarri has brought an attacking possession style which focuses on opening up the opposition with rapid passing interchanges.
Yet rather than struggling to adapt to what is a radically different way of playing, Chelsea’s players look inspired by the change. They are currently the top passing side in the five top European leagues, ahead of PSG, Barcelona and Manchester City. In seven league games they have averaged 170 more short passes per game than last season – a remarkable increase of around 30 per cent.
There are obvious technical and tactical elements to the transformation. Sarri has switched to a back four, reintroduced the accomplished passer David Luiz at the expense of the more physical Gary Cahill, and signed two top midfield passers in Jorginho and Mateo Kovacic.
But Chelsea’s players could not have embraced the new style with such conviction if Sarri had not also got them feeling good about themselves again. As Luiz said on Saturday, Sarri’s instructions are to “play with the ball, without scare, with happiness.” He reminds the players that they have the best job in the world: it’s practically a responsibility to enjoy it.
Klopp and Sarri are both the type of manager that insists it is important to play stylish and exciting football. There is another type of manager that sees this first type as “poets” – that is, frauds. To the second type of manager, football is always and only about results. They measure success in trophies won and relegations avoided, and they are fond of cynical phrases like “if you want entertainment, go to the theatre”.
These managers are missing the point. They think the poets talk about exciting, positive football because they crave praise from the fans and the media. But the idea is not really to excite journalists or fans. The idea is to excite the players. The basic principle is that happy teams play better than unhappy ones, and a team is more likely to be happy when the players are enthusiastically working towards some positive ideal of the game than when they are sent out on the pitch worrying about all the things that could go wrong.
As Jose Mourinho’s reality-show regime at Manchester United lurches towards an ignominious end, with the players preoccupied with the question of who will be next to get thrown under the bus, Chelsea’s instant metamorphosis into an exuberant and exciting team should inform the United hierarchy’s thoughts on their next move. Just as Chelsea were better than they seemed to be in the last few months under Conte, United are not as bad as they have lately looked under Mourinho. There is untold potential waiting to be unlocked by any coach that can reconnect those players with the idea that football can be fun.