IN my column last week I asked whether we’re maybe a little bit too critical of our own players. My point was actually about the fact that we don’t give opposition players or teams enough credit for what they do to thwart us, but even so there’s an irony in the fact that I’ve spent this week ruminating over what exactly Nathaniel Clyne offers to the team. There are arguably four or five positions on the pitch that are in more serious need of the manager’s attention than right-back, but does that in itself mean that Clyne is good enough long-term?
My personal opinion on that front is ‘yes’, but I can easily see why some might disagree. I’ve felt over the past few months that Clyne offers us little in the final third, so I can’t say that I was knocked-off-my-feet surprised when I saw a Twitter exchange reveal that his expected assists have dropped by around 50 per cent since the turn of the year. That sounds like a lot, of course, but the expected assists of the entire team has fallen away by 50 per cent.
I’m sure John Gibbons’ head might fall off at the idea of talking about expected assists, but it’s a decent enough stat to consider the potential influence of a player in the area of the pitch that matters most when it comes to winning games. The bigger question is, though, should a defender really be such a big influence in how many goals a football team scores?
The answer almost certainly lies within the system that any given football club’s manager chooses to play. With that in mind, it definitely is important that the full-backs add goals and assists to their game if they weren’t a part of it already. The conversations about Liverpool’s ability to break down deep-lying defences have been going on since we lost to Burnley in the second game of the season. One thing that can’t be argued, however, is that the Reds have the majority of possession in the majority of games that we play against the so called ‘smaller sides’.
With that in mind, the job of the full-backs is not so much to defend, but rather to move forward on the overlap and cause the opposition’s defence to shift out of position and open up spaces. Back in September and October Clyne seemed to be doing just that with great effect, helping out Sadio Mané and causing trouble all over the place. Even back then, though, his crossing always seemed to lack a certain something. We’ve seen him get into some great positions in recent games but fail to do anything good with the ball, so is that something that Jürgen Klopp should be looking at? Can Clyne work on it and improve?
He’s a solid, if not spectacular, defender. He makes some good tackles, forces the opposition to work hard to get any change out of him and assists his centre-backs when he needs to. Despite only being in my 30s, I like that somewhat old-fashioned type of defender. The lad who is a 7/10 with his defensive duties virtually every single week, even if he’s a two or a three when it comes to his work further up the pitch. There are times when I wonder whether we should be looking for a right-back who can offer more moving forward, but then I remember who our specialist left-back is and I change my mind.
Watching Alberto Moreno run up the pitch like a Labrador on heat who’s just seen the entire female cast of Crufts, I’m reminded why it is that I like those dependable players. The Spaniard is definitely more of an attacking threat than Clyne (though still nowhere near as effective at that role as some people have decided he is in his absence from the first-team), but defensively he is…suspect. If I see him running back to make up for his own mistake before throwing in a tackle reminiscent of a scene from The Karate Kid one more time I might lose the will to live.
Of course, the choice isn’t binary. It isn’t either you have a defensively solid full-back who struggles in the attacking third like Clyne or you can have a player who causes the opposition defenders problems but has no brain like Moreno. There is a halfway-house between the two and that’s probably the player that Klopp would want to see in his defence in the long-term. There’s an argument that Trent Alexander-Arnold ticks that particular box, yet he’s too young to start regularly. Especially when Clyne is probably in the top five right-backs in the Premier League.
Should we make it into the Champions League for next season then we’ll need decent strength in-depth on the squad front, so Clyne will definitely be a useful player to have around. That is especially true for the ‘bigger’ games, where we’ll need to defend far more than we usually do in about 70 per cent of our Premier League matches at present. He’s a perfectly fine player and, as I said earlier, there are definitely parts of our squad that need strengthening with far more urgency than the right-back slot.
That said, if Liverpool hope to become the force we all want them to then ‘perfectly fine’ isn’t good enough.