Michael Walker: Chelsea might be best placed to close gap on Liverpool

Frank Lampard still needs to sort out things at the back before they can mount a real challenge

Christian Pulisic’s form for Chelsea during the completion of last season’s Premier League will fill their supporters with confidence for new season. Photograph:  Daniel Leal-Olivas/AFP via Getty Images

Christian Pulisic’s form for Chelsea during the completion of last season’s Premier League will fill their supporters with confidence for new season. Photograph: Daniel Leal-Olivas/AFP via Getty Images

 

It is the strangest of times. One week from now the Premier League will begin and it barely feels like there has been a break. The Champions League came along, the Nations League, the League of Ireland, Scottish football, pre-season friendlies and a Community Shield. Football has gone from being a weekly event to a daily one. Then there’s the transfer window.

It all seems odd, breathless, rushed – England’s League Cup started last Saturday and there are more games today.

We might need to go back to the 1946-47 season to find such uncertain beginnings. The post-war situation was obviously more grave than the current pandemic and it was a year after it ended that professional football returned. The gap – six years of war and one of tentative recovery – meant no-one knew how it would go.

The Yorkshire Post, though, greeted the ’46-47 season’s opening day warmly. Its preview mentioned tax relief for clubs, reduced admission for spectators, improved facilities and “players [who] for the first time for seven years have been able to train seriously and regularly under almost normal conditions.” The football “should be faster and better” it said.

Later the same day the paper’s correspondent was reporting from Sheffield United, where Liverpool won 1-0. The Reds would go on to take the league title, though due to a bitter winter which added to the post-war unknowns, games were still being played in June 1947. It was a long, old season, as Jürgen Klopp might say.

One of Klopp’s illustrious predecessors, Bob Paisley, made his debut for Liverpool that season. It was in a 7-4 victory over Chelsea at Anfield.

Liverpool must have felt pretty confident after that, but they went to Manchester United in their next game and lost 5-0. It was at Maine Road, Old Trafford having been bombed.

Liverpool’s signing of striker Albert Stubbins for £12,500 helped them transform the club and win the league title in 1947. Photograph: Dennis Oulds/Central Press/Getty Images
Liverpool’s signing of striker Albert Stubbins for £12,500 helped them transform the club and win the league title in 1947. Photograph: Dennis Oulds/Central Press/Getty Images

Anfield’s response was decisive. Liverpool embarked on one of those transformational transfers that shape the direction of careers and a club’s history. For the enormous sum of £12,500 Liverpool acquired Albert Stubbins from Newcastle. Stubbins was a swift striker and promptly scored 24 league goals. Liverpool claimed the title. Stubbins ended up in Beatles folklore.

It was Liverpool’s first title in 24 years – not quite 30 – but rather than look for omens in this, it is more instructive to concentrate on what is considered transformational, and in a 2020 transfer market context. We can say that 2018, when Klopp signed goalkeeper Alisson and Virgil van Dijk, was Liverpool’s modern transformational year.

Because when last season’s Premier League table is reviewed, it is going to require something transforming to dislodge Liverpool at the top. They did not just finish a massive 18 points ahead of Manchester City in second, Liverpool were 33 points ahead of United in third and Chelsea in fourth.

The overturning of such numbers requires not just improvements from rivals, but a decline in the champions and that, at this moment, even without a major summer signing, is unforeseeable.

With Alisson and Van Dijk on board, Liverpool made a 22-point leap from 2017-18 to 2018-19, so it can be done. It was only City’s 98 points that denied Liverpool a year earlier.

Even so, when Klopp spoke last summer it was to say: “Ninety-seven points was not a coincidence but it’s not as if we outplayed all the teams, that we shot them out of the stadium constantly. We had tight games. We were a real results machine.”

He can say it again. Liverpool won 14 of last season’s 32 Premier League victories by a single goal. Once again they were a results machine and it would be best if opponents expected more of the same.

The question is whether any of those who would like to be considered serious rivals to the champions have transformational improvement within them. Does Ferran Torres – at 20 – have that potential at City, for example? Leroy Sane and David Silva have departed. Is this Phil Foden’s breakthrough season? Of course, should Lionel Messi arrive in east Manchester, the picture changes. His middle name could be Transformational. We must wait.

Old Trafford, seven seasons and counting without a title, waits. But United may have already acquired the player who can get them much closer to the top two: Bruno Fernandes. An initial outlay of €55 million should get a team something positive and how United needed it. They had just lost at home to Burnley in January when Fernandes was signed; he played in 13 Premier League games after that and United did not lose one, reeling in Leicester to finish third.

And this week United added Donny van de Beek from Ajax. The 23-year-old is experienced, versatile and talented. All the profiles suggest he is a grounded character – he plays darts – and if he gels with Fernandes and Paul Pogba, United should be able to turn a chunk of their 12 draws last season into wins. It still feels as if United need more in this window, though.

The place where there is transformational activity is Stamford Bridge. More, more, more is what Frank Lampard has received at Chelsea. Together Timo Werner, Hakim Ziyech, Ben Chilwell, Thiago Silva and Kai Havertz represent a special window for the club and it is not over. On paper Chelsea have improved markedly and if it is not enough to get them close to Liverpool this season, then it might push them near to City, perhaps beyond.

Remember the form of Christian Pulisic as last season closed and there can be little doubt about the Blues’ creativity. But even with Thiago and Chilwell, concerns remain over goalkeeper Kepa Arrizabalaga and the centre of defence. Chelsea conceded the same number of goals as Brighton last season, and they were fighting relegation. If Lampard addresses this successfully, however, Chelsea should stop, then flow.

Liverpool travel to Stamford Bridge in a fortnight, so we will have an early indication of Chelsea’s status. The game is sandwiched between the opener at Anfield against promoted Leeds and the visit of Arsenal.

As with Klopp at Liverpool, there is a hope among fans of the other two clubs that in Marcelo Bielsa and Mikel Arteta, they have their transformational figures already. Rodrigo, signed from Valencia, could be another for Leeds; what will central defender William Saliba and Gabriel Magalhaes do for Arsenal?

There are others arriving in the Premier League and Merseyside is experiencing some of it at Everton. So, yes, the Premier League’s return will feel too soon to some and, without fans, false to others. And it is strange, and it might not be faster or better. But anticipation has begun.

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