LONDON — Chelsea couldn’t beat Liverpool on the pitch, but a more significant outcome than Sunday’s 1-1 draw at Stamford Bridge might be winning the race to sign Moisés Caicedo.
This was a contest which served as a 90-minute commercial explaining why both sides are willing to break the British transfer record for Brighton’s Caicedo — while also vying with each other to land another midfielder with boundless potential, Southampton’s Romeo Lavia.
Sources told ESPN that Caicedo’s preference is for a move to Stamford Bridge, and he will have been enthused further by the promising signs of progress under new manager Mauricio Pochettino.
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At the same time, there was also an obvious hole for him to fill in the side, as was true of Liverpool, who deployed Alexis Mac Allister at the base of a three-man midfield comprising £60 million summer signing Dominik Szoboszlai on one side and Cody Gakpo on the other.
The benefit of having a more attack-minded player like Mac Allister operate as a sort of quarterback was evident in Liverpool’s opening goal on 18 minutes. A move which began with Alisson and involved Szoboszlai saw Mac Allister find an excellent pass in behind for Mohamed Salah, who shimmied and delivered a sublime cross to the far post, where Luis Díaz was on hand to slide the visitors in front.
Szoboszlai and Mac Allister started the game in impressive fashion as Carney Chukwuemeka and Conor Gallagher floundered, the pair seemingly caught out by the pace of the frenetic opening period. Salah had a second goal ruled out for a tight offside call, and that reprieve helped Chelsea stir into action. They equalised through debutant Axel Disasi on 37 minutes, before another VAR call denied them a dramatic turnaround, as Ben Chilwell went a fraction too soon to convert a pass by Enzo Fernández.
Anchored by the excellent Enzo — the most consistent midfielder on show here — the Chelsea midfield grew in stature and helped dictate terms for much of the second half as Szoboszlai and Mac Allister faded in influence.
The Blues ended with 65 percent possession and a renewed sense of optimism, given they showed more promise and purpose here than anyone in this part of west London would care to remember given the travails of last season. In fact, that possession figure was the fourth-highest any team have managed against Liverpool in a Premier League game since Jurgen Klopp was appointed in October 2015 — and the most by any team aside from Manchester City since February 2018.
Their pressing — a Pochettino hallmark — was excellent at times but for the spells when it wasn’t, thoughts turned to the control a player such as Caicedo could bring.
“[We conceded] one shot on target against Liverpool. The team was solid. We need good players, yes. We need to improve the squad, yes. But that is not new. We are working really hard,” Pochettino said.
Liverpool will feel the same. There was plenty to like about Szoboszlai and Mac Allister, but the Reds were alarmingly open without the ball, and the loss of Fabinho in particular felt marked on a day like this.
“That was actually our problem in the game, that we tried to close the gaps by dropping rather than stepping in as we did in the beginning,” Liverpool manager Jurgen Klopp said. “We should have sorted that, but the best way to avoid these kind of things is to control the game.
“When we passed in the right moment, we created one-on-one situations on the wing, and that was tricky for Chelsea to deal with. It was the first game, not the last, so we have a lot of things to improve, but I saw already a good basis.”
Caicedo made 100 tackles and contested 376 duels for Brighton last season. The corresponding figures for Fabinho were 65 and 253, while those for Jordan Henderson, who also left Liverpool in the summer, were 32 and 131. The difference Caicedo could make is clear.
Regardless of the transfer window still being open, neither team could expect to be the finished article on the opening weekend of the season given the rebuilds both have undertaken. There were young players aplenty and five debutants in total: Robert Sánchez, Nicolas Jackson and Disasi for Chelsea in addition to Szoboszlai and Mac Allister for Liverpool.
Compared with their first Premier League fixture of last season, only four Chelsea players were still in the starting line-up. Liverpool’s figure was six, but they still had an entirely new midfield to bed in.
To trust the process, they may have to embrace the chaos. It is a lot to ask of Caicedo or Lavia (the latter just 19 years of age) to bring calm to the situation, but both possess a maturity and intelligence beyond their years, hence the price tags: Chelsea could end up paying up to £115m for Caicedo while Lavia will cost the winning bidder in excess of £50m.
Fernandez thriving in the maelstrom as he did here might make the eyewatering sum for Caicedo slightly more palatable. He is currently Britain’s most expensive footballer at £105.8m, and while that fee could never be considered a bargain, it did at least feel more commensurate with his contribution.
In amongst a frantic finale, Salah reacted negatively to his 77th-minute substitution with the game still in the balance, an incident which Klopp explained away as a frustration over not becoming the first player to reach nine opening weekend goals in the league’s history.
“I can understand because if Mo scored it would have been a new record for goals scored in the opening game, but I didn’t think about that. We needed stability and we needed fresh legs. It was super intense for everybody,” Klopp said.
Both sides now have the week to work on taking another step forward in their next outing. How the arrival of a new midfielder would aid that process.