And just like that, twenty-two people kicking a ball on a patch of grass is back dictating our moods for the rest of the week. Liverpool started their Premier League campaign away at Stamford Bridge, in what was a game that was likely great for neutrals but nerve-wrenching for invested parties.
Both sides had chances to win it, positives to take and issues that are a concern moving forward. The game was – in one word – chaotic (also aided by ongoings off the pitch). While the game left a lot of question marks for Jürgen Klopp and what the plan is going forward, there were some good signs to take back to Merseyside.
It was a fixture littered with debutants. Robert Sanchez, Axel Disasi and Nicolas Jackson started for Chelsea, while both of Liverpool’s summer recruits – Alexis Mac Allister and Dominik Szoboszlai – started for the reds. Mac Allister caught most of the attention from a Liverpool perspective, with his sweeping pass out to Mohamed Salah setting up Luis Díaz’s opener. Yet, for me, it was Liverpool’s Hungarian recruit that caught the eye in West London.
Szoboszlai started on the right-hand side of a midfield three, pushing up into the advanced eight role in possession when Trent Alexander-Arnold stepped into the double pivot. It’s the position that most expected to see him in when he was brought in for £60m from RB Leipzig earlier this summer, yet in pre-season he has spent most of his time on the left side of the midfield.
The game, as mentioned, was all over the place. There were times when the pace of the game felt like a million miles an hour. It felt as if the game was even being played at a pace that was too hectic for some of the players on the pitch. Yet for the Székesfehérvár-born midfielder, it seemed to suit.
On the Ball
Let’s start with the exciting stuff – and the thing that Szoboszlai is known for – when he had the football. Here is where the Hungarian operated on the pitch, via SofaScore:
As we can see from the visual, Szoboszlai operated across the pitch. While he started in a midfield role, he finished the game on the left-hand side of Liverpool’s front three, moving there with just over ten minutes to go. His ability to operate across the pitch was clear on Sunday, particularly in wide areas. The new system asks the two more advanced midfielders to peel out into wide areas. Szoboszlai did this effectively, he was constantly moving into wide spaces and able to either drive inside or release the ball.
Perhaps what stood out most was those driving runs. There was one in the first half where Szoboszlai picks the ball up from Salah halfway into Chelsea’s half, inside the right half space. He gets his head up and identifies the space ahead of him, driving the ball in between Carney Chukwuemeka and Levi Colwill, both unable to knock him off his stride. He then makes his way into the box, striding past Thiago Silva with ease who pulls away as any contact would have resulted in a penalty. The sequence ends with Diogo Jota taking the shot off Szoboszlai, but what happened prior to that is something we haven’t seen in a Liverpool midfielder for a long time.
He totalled 27 carries in ninety minutes of football, the third most of any Liverpool player. He also led the team in carries into the penalty area (2) and ranked second in carries into the final third (2). His ability to identify and drive into space is excellent, and his physicality makes him almost impossible to knock off the ball.
His passing was less of a standout, but it was still promising. He completed 29 of his 38 attempted passes (76.3%), completed the most passes leading to a shot (3) and had the third highest expected assists in the side (0.10). He was also an available target in build-up to bounce the ball off and speed up Liverpool’s attack. His role in the goal was key, making himself available to Ibrahima Konaté, receiving the ball and one touch passing it into Mac Allister (who then sends it long to Salah who does the rest). His passing got poorer as the game went on, and as his position moved to out on the left wing. Despite having experience as a left winger, he looked unnatural at times trying to get the ball in the box from those positions.
Off the Ball
What Szoboszlai offers on the ball is clear, he’s an excellent carrier of the ball and an even better passer. What will be the key to his success at Liverpool is how effective he can be as part of a team that has become far too easy to play through in recent times. On Sunday – with no recognised defensive midfielder in the line-up – Liverpool were far too open. Yet I was still impressed with Szoboszlai from a defensive point of view.
He was effective in defending wide spaces, constantly able to get out and close the space on Chilwell on the left wing. Overall, his defensive numbers weren’t outstanding, his five blocked passes are evidence of a player that is spatially aware when defending, able to close angles and a willingness to get back and defend (again something we haven’t really seen from the RCM in a Liverpool side for some time).
His standout out of possession moment came in the second half, where he pounced on a heavy touch from Conor Gallagher, taking the ball off him just inside the Liverpool half and starting a counterattack with a driving run. What impressed me most, though, was his willingness to get back in his own box to help his defenders. On more than one occasion he dispossessed Chilwell in threatening situations and had the calmness to play the ball out to a free man.
Szoboszlai was in the Red Bull system for seven years, and it was evident in London on Sunday. He is a constant pressing machine, and while it is often raw and perhaps a bit too much, he barely stopped for the entire ninety minutes. As mentioned, he won the ball back on a few occasions, he forced Chelsea players to go back to their goalkeeper and was even willing to push up on to Robert Sanchez when he felt he could. It was untidy at times, and he did commit a few fouls as he was too keen to press, but the stamina and ability to close men down and chase is something Klopp values highly. As Liverpool may lack control, Szoboszlai does give them the ability to thrive in some of the chaos.
While I was left with more questions than answers by Liverpool’s opening game, Szoboszlai’s debut thoroughly impressed me. He was promising on the ball for the most part, offering progression through both ball carrying and his passing (although I’m sure we’ll see much better versions of his passing game this season). His shooting felt rushed in this game, but his goalscoring threat going forward should come as he feels his way into Premier League football.
Defensively I was even more impressed. Yes, at times it was hectic and unclean, allowing the press to be easily evaded. But the intent was there, he was constantly trying to win the ball back and shut down passing lanes. If you can put an anchor behind the Hungarian, someone to sit in and hold down the fort, then allowing Szoboszlai to hunt down the ball constantly becomes less of problem.
There is still so much to come from him this season, but as debut games go Chelsea away is one of the toughest. I felt Szoboszlai passed this test with flying colours.