JÜRGEN’S wild boys; a lethal attacking force who run like crazy and take opposition sides apart with fluid, dynamic, heavy-metal football. If only Klopp could fix Liverpool’s defence, then they could be serious title challengers.
This has become the stock narrative of mainstream British media. Irresistible going forwards; dodgy at the back. Klopp won’t win titles with a leaky defence like that.
Yet here we are, nine games into the Premier League season and the Reds sit pretty on 20 points, joint with Arsenal and Man City, with only goal difference preventing us from sitting top of the table. 20 goals scored, 11 conceded. All that from away trips to Arsenal, Spurs, Chelsea and with home fixtures against the reigning champions and Manchester United out the way already.
The bookies make us second favourites for the title, while a rapidly increasing number of Liverpool fans are jumping aboard the title bandwagon every week, with the sense that something special is in the making. And Liverpool haven’t even hit top gear yet, according to Klopp.
If only they could defend, though. Except the fact is, Liverpool can defend. They are doing so very well on a consistent basis, although this has not been widely acknowledged by much of the press and punditry analysis. In truth, it’s all getting rather boring. After Liverpool’s utterly dominant display against West Brom, there were groans of disapproval that we had conceded yet another sloppy set-piece goal. Why are we concentrating on that, rather than celebrating a well-earned three points?
I did some research after the West Brom game and the numbers are quite revealing regarding Liverpool’s defence. Here they are, as follows:
- On just two occasions this season Liverpool have conceded two or more goals in a game. Coincidentally (or not), these were the two opening fixtures of the season.
- Liverpool have conceded just seven goals in their past ten fixtures in all competitions.
- Liverpool have not conceded a single goal from open play in their last six fixtures in all competitions.
That last statistic is perhaps the most impressive of them all. Loris Karius has come under an enormous amount of scrutiny in the early stages of his Liverpool career. Granted, he has hardly been massively convincing but it is quite remarkable that he has now played five games for Liverpool and has yet to make a single save of note.
Therein lies the truth about this Liverpool defence. Klopp has now got his settled back four in place: Nathaniel Clyne, Joel Matip, Dejan Lovren and James Milner in front of Karius. It’s an extremely effective unit and is restricting opposition sides to virtually no chances whatsoever from open play. One cannot underestimate how difficult that is to do and it requires an extraordinary degree of organisation and discipline.
At left-back, no questions remain over James Milner’s capacity to play the position. He has answered all his questions and on the evidence so far this season looks as good a left-back as any in the league. On the right, Nathaniel Clyne is just about the best right-back in the league (Hector Bellerin might have a case), improving the attacking side of his game this season while remaining extremely reliable in defence.
The settled centre-back partnership of Joel Matip and Dejan Lovren is becoming a formidable one. In Matip we have what looks like a £30 million+ defender signed on a free transfer; easily one of the signings of the season. Aerially dominant with excellent reading of the game and the ability to stride forward into midfield and launch attacks, there are shades of Sami Hyypia and Daniel Agger in the way Matip plays his football. He’s still just 25.
Then we have Dejan Lovren, whose astonishing turnaround has seen him become an established regular under Klopp. Dominant in the air, strong in the tackle and with the presence of mind to play out from the back simply but effectively without over complicating his role, Lovren now looks like the commanding £20 million centre-back we signed from Southampton in 2014.
Of course, an injury to any one of the first choice back four would be problematic. Ragnar Klavan is an able deputy at centre-back but quality cover in the full-back positions is an issue. For now, though, that’s not worth worrying about. We just have to hope they stay fit.
With the way Liverpool play under Klopp, defending is more than just about the back four. It is the job of the entire team to defend as a unit and every single individual buys into that policy. With Jordan Henderson screening the defence superbly in his redefined number six role, the likes of Adam Lallana, Gini Wijnaldum and Emre Can are industrious in their tracking back and play a crucial role in regaining possession.
The same applies to the front three, with Roberto Firmino, in particular, pressing aggressively in order to defend from the front. All these players are intelligent in their pressing movements, cutting down passing lanes for the opposition and playing their part in the overall defensive performance. It’s a very well-oiled machine.
The flip side to all this is that Liverpool remain susceptible at set pieces; indeed, the last three goals conceded have all come from corners. Karius is still learning and aerial dominance is not a strength of his, while Liverpool are also smaller than many opponents- such as West Brom – meaning we are more likely to concede a higher percentage of goals from set-pieces than other sides.
It’s an area which needs improving, no doubt, and Klopp has made no secret of the fact it is something he has identified a need to work on in training. On the one hand, this set-piece weakness means sides do not have to create much in order to score. They can wait for a corner or free-kick knowing there is a high chance it will result in a goal.
Yet, if set-pieces are virtually the only way sides can break through us, is this really such a bad thing? At the moment we are conceding practically nothing from open play. You would also expect as the season goes on, with more training and time to develop a better understanding between the new keeper and the defenders that our organisation will improve and we will concede less frequently from set-pieces.
If we can do that, we’re going to be almost impossible to play against. There are no signs of the goals drying up at the other end. And, ultimately, it’s hardly affecting us right now anyway. We’re conceding the odd goal from set-pieces but we’re still winning matches and taking three points. That’s what matters most. When we concede one, we don’t concede another. This Liverpool side knows how to shut up shop and see games out by managing the situation.
There are no perfect football teams and there will always be weaknesses to exploit, no matter how good a team you are. Klopp is a perfectionist, though, and right now set-pieces are a small speck of dust on what is a very, very good Liverpool side. If the media want to continue trotting out the line about our supposedly ‘dodgy defence’, that’s fine. Go for it. But it’s simply not true.