DESPITE suffering much criticism in the New Year, having dropped out of two cup competitions and the title race, the bigger picture says something different about how this season has gone. Liverpool have lost just five times, writes ERIC ANDERTON.
That is by no means a disastrous record with 27 games gone. The biggest stick in the craw for supporters is the quality of the opposition in those games where the Reds have surrendered all the points. Burnley, Bournemouth, Swansea, Hull and Leicester. All sides in the bottom half of the Premier League. Frustrating that, isn’t it?
The other source of great frustration has been Liverpool’s defence. It’s no secret that this backline isn’t strong enough to end the agonising wait for a league title. Antonio Conte can rely on his defence. Mauricio Pochettino can rely on his defence. Their centre-backs can almost be written in permanent ink on the team sheets. They are where they are in the table — first and second, respectively — because they have defenders that can be relied upon.
Paul Joyce recently wrote about how fixing the defence, particularly by establishing a consistent pairing, should be Jürgen Klopp’s first priority. But just how do you go about doing that? The club have already been out and spent in this area. Mamadou Sakho cost £17 million. Dejan Lovren cost £20m. Even the likes of Sebastian Coates and Tiago Ilori came in for just shy of £10m combined, and both failed to meet their touted potential.
In his pre-Burnley press conference, Jürgen Klopp said: “If somebody tells me a player is injured, there’s no time to think ‘oh my God, again?!’ It’s about finding a solution, you always have to think, so I was not frustrated. It would have been good if we could play them (his first choice centre-halves) more often.”
In Matip, the club seem to strongly believe they have found the right man to finally start to fill the shoes vacated by Sami Hyypia in 2009 and Jamie Carragher in 2013. The Cameroonian has suffered some misfortune this season, partly as a direct result of his home nation, but Matip started (and finished) every single Bundesliga game that Schalke took part in last season. He can be relied upon, and the hope is that any issues with injury or adapting to the English game are now behind him.
The problem sits with Matip’s not so regular first choice defensive partner, Lovren.
Lovren and Matip have started just 10 league games together this season. You could look at that stat and use the aforementioned excuse of misfortune — on behalf of both players. To do that, though, would be to avoid a pressing question: can Lovren really be relied upon as a first choice centre-half?
The Croat has missed 21 games with injury in his three years on Merseyside. As Joyce mentioned in his piece, Carragher missed just nine league games over the course of five seasons. Lovren is increasingly looking like a player that can’t fill that role regularly, so what are the options?
Mamadou Sakho’s done now. Ragnar Klavan has brought experience and played competent football, the same could even be said of Lucas Leiva when used as an emergency choice. Neither should be anything more than emergency choices, though. They shouldn’t be making 14 league appearances each as they have this season.
Joe Gomez is of course still around. With some luck on the injury front, he could start to meet his potential and provide a stronger option. How long will that be, though? Can a Liverpool side chasing league titles really afford to have another on-field project to bear with?
It might be time for the club to explore their options again. A more consistent choice is needed. We need a lad who has a full league calendar in his legs.
In Lovren, the club almost have the ideal depth centre-back. He’s experienced enough to be thrown in at short notice, maybe even in emergency circumstances but he’s shown he isn’t the player with a full campaign in his locker.
Make no mistake, his performances have come on leaps and bounds since his early days. He has the occasional goal in him — at least enough for a bit part centre-back. He’ll fight for his place, as he has before. Not unlike Lucas earlier in his Liverpool career, Dejan has strived to silence his detractors. Determination under pressure? See Dortmund, April 2016.
Defence is a position in which a mistake is significantly less forgiving than up front. Consider where the points have been dropped this season. The five losses against bottom half sides, with two or more goals conceded in each. Draws with West Ham and Sunderland, four goals conceded across both games. In fact, the Reds have conceded more than two in nine games this season. Chelsea and Spurs have conceded two or more just five times — Liverpool account for one of those each.
The first step has to be to establish a more consistent partnership. That puts a question mark over Lovren, in particular, being Klopp’s first choice.
The manager himself said: “Consistency in the line-up is always good. To play as often as you can play together is only good for the team, because of the things you learn from each other, about each other, in the game, how you’re moving, what your strengths are, that’s pretty important.”
They will get clean sheets. They will concede. For better or for worse though, they will develop a relationship and trust among themselves.