Chelsea vs Liverpool: An examination of two defences
When Chelsea and Liverpool square off at Stamford Bridge later today, the offensive football will be everyone's primary focus. Yet, while both teams will provide such entertainment, their performance at the other end will be more telling.
In particular, the defensive displays will go some way to revealing whether the two sides are serious challengers for this season's Premier League title.
Maurizio Sarri was hired in July to bring a more attacking style to Chelsea. Under Antonio Conte, the Blues had become boring and tepid. The former Napoli coach offered improvement across the board. He also promised Roman Abramovich exciting football, something the Russian has long craved.
So far that has been delivered in all but one game. The 0-0 draw with West Ham United aside, Sarri-ball is proving a real pleasure. Chelsea are the league's joint-second highest scorers, finding the net 14 times in six games. They have impressed many worldwide.
Sarri's tactics are the reason. The high-pressing, relentless system he perfected at Napoli has breathed new life into tired Chelsea legs. It does, however, cause a weakness in the defence, too.
This has been witnessed in several matches. The Blues' high line can expose them. Without N'Golo Kante as the midfield destroyer, their backline is left vulnerable.
Speaking of Chelsea's defence, a few personnel within it are problems.
David Luiz is the kind of central defender who always has a mistake waiting. Marcos Alonso spends more time in the opposition's half than his own. Describing the Spaniard as a left-back stretches it at times, such is his inclination and desire to attack.
In his favour, Alonso scores goals and provides assists. When it comes to his team's defensive strength, though, he is a liability alongside Luiz.
Chelsea's problems at the back were present in the 3-2 win over Arsenal last month. Despite claiming all three points, Sarri's side showed they can be got at. A better opponent will take full advantage. Perhaps Liverpool, for example
The Reds boast one of the most formidable forward lines in Europe. The fab trio will be licking their lips at the prospect of facing Luiz and Alonso.
Will Chelsea's defence be able to cope? Can Luiz deal with Roberto Firmino's constant movement and link up play? Can the full-backs negate Mohamed Salah and Sadio Mane? These are questions which need answering.
Should the Blues prevail, it proves Sarri's style is capable of overcoming the best England has to offer. Keeping Liverpool quiet means they can certainly silence Manchester City.
Victory will also demonstrate Chelsea's current crop are ready to perfect their new system. Conversely, failure to match the Reds shows Sarri's belief that his charges are at least a year behind Jurgen Klopp's is one based on fact.
For Liverpool, meanwhile, the questions regarding their defence stem from a different direction. While Chelsea's backline has failed to impress, theirs is doing anything but.
Virgil van Dijk has grown into one of Europe's top central defenders. Joe Gomez and Trent Alexander-Arnold have both emerged as bright English prospects. Andy Robertson continues to rise, too. Goalkeeper Alisson has even gone some way to justifying his £65-million price tag.
The trip to Stamford Bridge will be the Reds' biggest test so far, at least domestically. How will Van Dijk and Gomez deal with Olivier Giroud? Both are confident against pacey, smaller strikers, but can they cope with the Frenchman's physicality?
Giroud is different from anything they will have faced. He's a nightmare for many centre-backs. If Van Dijk and Gomez shackle him, it proves the duo can overcome everything the league has to throw.
The same applies to Alexander-Arnold. The teenager has already handled Neymar. He must now stop Eden Hazard. The Belgian is flourishing again, with many believing the freedom afforded by Sarri has helped him realise true potential.
If Alexander-Arnold keeps Hazard quiet, it will strengthen the belief he is a star in the making. A solid performance will also reinforce his position as Liverpool's first-choice right-back, further proving his credentials as a potential title winner.
Klopp's side require each member of back four to play at peak. Should they succumb to Chelsea's attack, past doubts will resurface.
Whatever happens, the game is set to intrigue all viewers. The Blues may have downed their next opponents during midweek, but that was in the EFL Cup - a dress rehearsal. Neither will rest top stars for this clash.
While the contest will likely be won by the plethora of attacking talent, the defensive performance is what matters most. Both Chelsea and Liverpool have a glorious opportunity to prove they can end the campaign as Premier League champions.