WE’RE now approaching that stage in the season again where we start to look at the squad and analyse which positions need to be strengthened in the upcoming transfer window. There are several certainties in the current squad whose futures seem very secure under Jürgen Klopp beyond this season, while for others — namely Daniel Sturridge and Alberto Moreno — a summer exit seems almost inevitable.
There are some figures, however, who split opinion as to whether they are good enough to be regular first-choice picks for Liverpool in the future. None more so than Dejan Lovren, a player who has experienced incredible highs and crushing lows during his time at the club.
A fairly calamitous debut season under Brendan Rodgers followed his £20 million arrival from Southampton in the summer of 2014 and there came a point where it looked as though there would be no way back for Lovren after a string of erratic, error-strewn performances in which he looked quite the opposite of the commanding centre-back Liverpool had paid big money for.
While at Southampton, Lovren looked comfortable alongside Jose Fonte with a strong midfield shield comprised of Morgan Schneiderlin and Victor Wanyama, he clearly struggled when placed in a more expansive system in which the centre-backs receive much less protection and are more regularly exposed, while also being tasked with playing out from the back.
Lovren’s renaissance under Klopp last season was based around doing the basics well and not over-complicating his game. That’s when Lovren is at his best — when he has a clear, focused task and doesn’t try to do more than he is capable of. Knowing his strengths and limitations certainly saw his performances improve immeasurably following Klopp’s arrival to the point where he became a dependable first-choice option alongside Mamadou Sakho, playing a crucial role in getting Liverpool to League Cup and Europa League finals.
That headed winner against Dortmund was clearly a monumental goal in terms of the match itself and the circumstances in which it all played out — but it carried an extra symbolic value in reflecting Lovren’s growth as a Liverpool player, a moment which finally saw him become accepted and admired by the fans. A pure moment of catharsis after having blazed the ball well over the bar in the dying moments as Liverpool were knocked out of the same competition by Besiktas the previous season.
The whole debacle surrounding Sakho, his UEFA suspension and subsequent fall-out with Klopp due to disciplinary issues opened up a vacant spot in the starting 11, although the feeling is that Lovren would have probably been Klopp’s first-choice to line up alongside Joel Matip for the start of this season anyway, regardless of Sakho’s situation.
Up until Sunday’s dismal defeat to Crystal Palace, Liverpool had been unbeaten in all 14 league games in which Lovren and Matip started together. The problem in that is clearly the fact that Liverpool’s strongest centre-back pairing have played well under half of the league campaign together due to respective injury and general health issues.
It’s an area in urgent need of addressing this summer, as it simply isn’t feasible to be aspiring to challenge for league titles when the defence is constantly being chopped and changed due to unavailability of key personnel. The drop-off in quality beyond the starting 11 is vast, particularly at centre-back, where Lucas Leiva and Ragnar Klavan represent a significant step down, despite a handful of standout performances.
Matip has largely excelled since his free transfer from Schalke, despite some iffy displays since returning from injury, with his natural pace and composure on the ball complementing Lovren’s more basic approach to defending. The issue has been both player’s inability to string together more than a few games at a time without picking up some kind of knock.
Lovren has generally had a satisfactory season with several exceptional performances and a few off-days. Of course, he was far from good enough against Palace, playing very much like the Lovren of old — wholly unconvincing. That said, the entire Liverpool performance was not at the level we’ve come to expect from any of the players.
What now seems very obvious is that Klopp simply must address the centre-back position this summer. Virgil Van Dijk has been named as a priority transfer target and would undoubtedly improve the starting 11 should Liverpool be able to land his signature — although that will surely depend on securing Champions League qualification.
The ideal scenario would be to bring in a player of Van Dijk’s calibre to slot in as first-choice alongside Matip, with Lovren effectively serving as the third choice while Joe Gomez continues to develop. What we have seen from Lovren is that against certain opponents — when he has to engage in physical battles — he usually plays very well and is arguably Liverpool’s strongest player in the air, but is still prone to the occasional lapse in concentration.
Given the anticipated involvement in European competition next season, Klopp will need a thicker squad and Lovren is certainly a player worth keeping hold of. Although not necessarily good enough to be an automatic starter, he’s still a fine squad player, but one who definitely needs strong competition for his place in the side.
Performances like the one against Palace should not cloud what has been a largely fine season for the Croatian, but if Liverpool are to reach the next level, the defence can and should be upgraded upon. As fans, we should get out of the mindset that any player who isn’t necessarily good enough to be a guaranteed starter should be sold.
Klopp needs adequate depth and quality in each position, and there is still a place in the squad for Lovren as Liverpool will need at least four solid centre-back options next season. Can the Reds do better in terms of a starting defender? Almost certainly, yes. But Lovren is still a player who has plenty to contribute for the club in the future, even if that means his place in the side is no longer a virtual guarantee on a weekly basis.