WEDNESDAY’S draw at home to Bournemouth felt like a crushing defeat. A scruffy, late equaliser when three crucial home points were required was just an unnecessary kick in the teeth.
For the final 25 minutes, Jürgen Klopp opted to invite pressure; adopting a back five by bringing on Joel Matip to accompany Dejan Lovren and Ragnar Klavan. I’m as much at a loss to explain the decision now as I was the other night. Ceding momentum and territory to mediocre opposition when they had just fallen behind was one thing, but adding confusion to an already confused defensive picture was another.
On the face of things an extra body at the back – when Phil Coutinho succumbed to illness – was designed to shore things up and see the game out but the reality was that the extra man induced only further panic leaving supporters the ones feeling queasy.
On balance this has been a really good Liverpool season. Performances have often been exhilarating and despite the absence of a recognised, stock-in-trade striker the Reds continue to top the goalscoring charts. Results against the top sides – and a league position which promises a Champions League finish – are testament to the Liverpool’s upward trajectory under Klopp.
However, the intrinsic defensive woes that have dogged the Reds in recent years remain. Brendan Rodgers was commonly criticised for being unable to “organise a defence” and while Klopp’s Liverpool look systematically a more solid defensive unit, the numbers in the goals against column remain largely unchanged. In isolation, six goals conceded to Bournemouth over two games isn’t good enough.
The loss of the title under Rodgers in 2013-14 was attributed to conceding 50 goals. The following season, we stopped scoring and shipped a further 48. Klopp’s debut year saw another 50 fly into the back of our net and during this campaign, with seven matches still to play, 39 goals against is a tally which has ruled us out of title contention.
We’re edging out Chelsea and Spurs for goals scored but what we wouldn’t give for their parsimony at the back. Their 24 and 22 goals conceded represent the traditionally mean foundations on which challenges for league championships rely.
Critics will argue until the cows come home that the common denominator in Liverpool’s defensive uncertainty over the past few years is Simon Mignolet. The Belgian might always lack the personality to be a supreme commander of a defence but many of the barbed insults that still come his way are based on the evidence of previous seasons. The old adage that a goalkeeper only reaches full maturity later in his career doesn’t seem to apply to the beleaguered stopper.
Liverpool’s successful record against the top sides in the division is well documented but Mignolet’s detractors blithely overlook a string of key saves in all of those matches. Mignolet may or may not survive another summer cull but we need only to remind ourselves of the chaos that reigned when Loris Karius superseded him before Christmas to see that our regular defensive blips still prevail regardless of who is in goal.
Furthermore, it could be argued that Karius’s insertion and the five points dropped in successive matches against Bournemouth and West Ham was the juncture at which Liverpool’s title challenge was initially derailed.
Klopp has struggled to field a settled back four all season, despite the durability of his full-backs. Nathaniel Clyne is a safe bet to remain where he is next season. He has been a dependable presence throughout; positionally sound despite the requirement in Klopp’s system to occupy territory more akin to a midfielder.
Clyne is consistently robust, not just in his no-nonsense defending but also in staying largely injury free. When Liverpool have been at their fluent best he has integrated well into the passing rhythms further up the pitch. He has only struggled when charged with finding precision crosses as the final outlet for Liverpool’s frustrations against a packed rearguard.
James Milner similarly, has coped manfully as the enduring first choice in an entirely unfamiliar and testing role throughout the whole campaign. If Milner was five years younger his conversion to full-back would see Liverpool searching only for back-up on the left side. Klopp will no doubt be hoping the pre-season break allows Milner’s legs to recuperate. However, an understandable mid-season dip in his form and energy levels suggests another season lending attacking support into midfield and still being able to sprint back and foil the counter attack requires more natural pace and freshness.
Liverpool’s main defensive issues though are focused in the middle. While opinions understandably change with the wind – or with every disappointing result – nagging doubts still surround each one of our centre-halves. If Klopp spent the summer recruiting two new players for the position to finally fix Liverpool’s Achilles heel it might not be the most radical idea.
Lovren and Matip at times have looked a steady partnership – whenever they manage to take the field together. Lovren seems becalmed alongside Matip and his recent aggressive but controlled performance in shackling Romelu Lukaku during the Anfield derby was a reminder of his intermittent ability to dominate. Although the days of him seemingly disappearing on a stretcher every week with an oxygen mask clutched to his face are behind him, the Croat still misses too many games through injury and his consistency suffers for it.
Whenever there is talk of this Liverpool team lacking character, one wonders if a defender of Lovren’s physical stature should offer more not just in attacking and repelling crosses but greater presence and personality as a de facto leader of the backline. There remains a sense of the quiet man about Lovren that doesn’t fully convince.
Matip’s injuries and minor niggles have also been a major frustration. Before he started missing games, he looked like the acquisition of the season on a free transfer from Schalke. He has lost none of his cool, measured approach to defending – his distribution is also underrated – but like Lovren he has been completely absent for nearly a third of a league campaign.
If Klopp has a current clear first-choice pairing in the middle in Matip and Lovren, he has seldom been able to employ them in tandem. With a longer, more taxing season ahead it is to be expected that at least one quality recruit over the summer will dispute their right to an automatic first team place. Furthermore, if the Reds manage to secure Champions League football, Klopp will be mindful of the challenge posed by the pace and trickery of Europe’s best forwards.
With the benefit of hindsight, we left ourselves short of quality cover this season. Ragnar Klavan has had some good games but has proved simply too error prone to be deemed a reliable third choice. If Matip was brought in for Martin Skrtel, Klavan occupies the hole in reserve left by Kolo Toure but has still played 18 times in the league. Mamadou Sakho, for obvious reasons, also technically departed – at least from Klopp’s plans – last summer, so the Reds have always seemed one player light at centre-back.
Lucas Leiva has sometimes been forced to fill in, despite still being at his best as a holding midfielder and the assumption that Joe Gomez would progress to offer further back-up (or progress to first choice) is symptomatic of the flawed thinking at the club that spouts regular PR bulletins on the belief of Klopp in his young players but seldom sees them picked other than for bench duty.
If the Reds are to cast off an embedded narrative of hapless defending undermining the work Klopp had done in creating a vibrant attacking unit, and if the mooted summer backing from the owners isn’t to prove a mirage, to improve a squad aiming to compete on two fronts next season might require a focus on improving defensive ranks in terms of numbers and quality.