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comment Why Liverpool need to learn from Chelsea by focusing on the cup competitions


Sadio Mane of Liverpool battles for possession with Thiago Silva of Chelsea during a Premier League match in August 2021. Photo: Michael Regan/Getty Images

Sadio Mane of Liverpool battles for possession with Thiago Silva of Chelsea during a Premier League match in August 2021. Photo: Michael Regan/Getty Images

Sadio Mane of Liverpool battles for possession with Thiago Silva of Chelsea during a Premier League match in August 2021. Photo: Michael Regan/Getty Images

Jurgen Klopp is heading towards his seventh year as Liverpool manager amid a sobering reality. His team have not won enough.

Out of context, that sounds extremely unfair. A better way of putting it is that they have not won as much as their performances have deserved.

Winning the biggest prize of all – the 2019 Champions League – and ending the 30-year wait to become English champions in 2020 secured Klopp’s legendary status. The subsequent UEFA Super Cup and Club World Cup victories made for a memorable 12 months. But if Klopp leaves Liverpool in 2024 without adding to them, there will be regret when considering all the other seasons where scintillating football went without silverware.

If that proves the case, there would be no cause for recrimination. The reason will be obvious. The financial resources and strength in depth of Manchester City have been the most formidable obstacles. In terms of collecting multiple Premier League titles, Klopp may have built one of the finest Liverpool teams in the wrong era.

This year’s title race is another vivid example of how standards have been raised.

Alex Ferguson used to say the ambition for any side trying to navigate their way towards a title was to be no more than four or five points adrift by January. In Manchester United’s case, there was a sense that they could hunt down their rivals by March and April.

Liverpool and Chelsea go into tomorrow’s meeting knowing those days are over. City have changed the rules at the top by ensuring that it has never been so difficult to become English champions. Such is their consistency, they are so relentless in their winning streaks, that the title run-in begins in autumn, not spring.

It’s like the end of the November international break is the starting pistol for any side with title ambitions, every dropped point potentially calamitous. Some might go back further.

When Liverpool threw away leads against Brentford and Brighton early in the season there were already mutterings about how costly it might prove. That’s the pressure City exert on everyone else. They are on course for another title-winning campaign in which they collect more than 90 points.

Liverpool and Chelsea have only lost twice each this season, which is the same as City. But their draws – five for Klopp and six for Thomas Tuchel – appear to have killed their hopes.

Should City extend their lead this weekend by beating Arsenal, and whichever side fails to win at Stamford Bridge tomorrow, will start to feel they are too far behind Pep Guardiola’s side. Chelsea may be hosting Liverpool, but whatever the outcome, City will be the weekend’s winners. City have dropped only 10 points in their first 20 games and have already travelled to Stamford Bridge, Anfield, Old Trafford and Spurs. No wonder so many believe the race is run. It is already City’s to lose.

There is no way Liverpool or Chelsea will give up. Klopp will still believe his side can win at Stamford Bridge and the Etihad. If they fall short, there is no shame in doing so against the best and richest team in the world. There is not much consolation in it either.

There is a broader lesson to learn, for Liverpool especially, when the margin for error in a title bid is so small. The club have to maximise their chances of winning all four competitions that they enter every season, recognising the League Cup and the FA Cup as worthy prizes.

To put it simply, Liverpool need to become more like Chelsea.

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In the past 11 seasons, Chelsea have won the Premier League twice (2015 and 2017). A good return, but a reflection of how the balance of power changed after the City Abu Dhabi takeover. In the previous six years, Chelsea were Premier League champions on three occasions (2005, 2006 and 2010).

What they have done so well during the Roman Abramovich era is to become serial trophy collectors: winning five FA Cups, three league cups, two Europa League titles. That’s in addition to being Champions League winners twice.

The ambition has not changed at Stamford Bridge since they were the side everyone else was trying to catch in the mid-2000s. Chelsea will go into every season intending to compete for the Premier League and Champions League. But they have proven adept at lowering their sights to ensure different eras have maximum reward for the football produced.

That is an area where Liverpool can and must improve. Since winning the FA Cup in 2006, Liverpool have won only one domestic cup competition: the 2012 League Cup. That’s a poor return for a club of such stature.

The team Klopp inherited was close in the “lesser” competitions, losing the Europa League final and League Cup final in his first season in 2016. Since then, there has been a sense of the League Cup and FA Cup being distractions. The main focus being on finishing in the top four or, more recently, saving the energy of star players for the Premier League and European Cup bids.

That is not a criticism. It is understandable, reflecting where the club have stood at different points in their recent history, and the need to finish in the top four.

Klopp can justifiably argue that the resources available at Chelsea and Manchester City make it easier for them to target all four competitions.

It is riskier for Liverpool to select key players in the domestic cups because their back-up players are not as strong. Fans and pundits will be unforgiving if a star picks up an injury in the early rounds of the Carabao Cup and his absence proves costly in a league match the following weekend.

Now the circumstances are such that Liverpool have imminent opportunities to redress the balance and collect more trophies. It’s not about being defeatist with City already forging ahead; it’s about being realistic.

Given the state of the title race, the upcoming two-legged tie with Arsenal in the Carabao Cup is as important as any game this January.

Klopp will be without his African Cup of Nations stars, but he can still pick a strong line-up and push for Liverpool’s first Wembley final in six years.

The FA Cup third-round draw, at home to Shrewsbury Town, also presents an opportunity for comfortable progress by including more senior players, rather than playing an U-23 side as in previous years.

The same applies to Chelsea, but they will be maintaining a tradition by retaining interest in the domestic cups until the latter stages. They have competed in five of the past six FA Cup finals.

When the Premier League is a step too far, Chelsea have shown there is nothing wrong with occasionally redefining themselves as a cup team. Liverpool need to get on board that Wembley bus to ensure the promise of another campaign packed with brilliant collective and individual performances does not go unfulfilled.

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Telegraph Media Group Limited [2021]

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