Liverpool: Have The Reds Finally Found Defensive Consistency?

LIVERPOOL, ENGLAND - Monday, December 19, 2016: Liverpool's goalkeeper Simon Mignolet in action against Everton during the FA Premier League match, the 227th Merseyside Derby, at Goodison Park. (Pic by David Rawcliffe/Propaganda)

IF Liverpool fail to qualify for the Champions League, it won’t be the defence that’s to blame.

It’s commonly accepted that Liverpool are electric going forward and porous at the back, a Kevin Keegan-esque Newcastle reincarnate, intimidating on the front foot but always leaving their chin out just begging for a Christian Benteke-sized sucker punch.

But that just isn’t true, not lately anyway.

It’s true that Liverpool concede too many goals overall, 1.14 per game (or 18 more than Spurs) has to be improved on, but what’s also absolute is that defensively we’ve improved as the season has progressed, and what is football if it isn’t about learning?

Jürgen Klopp is lauded for being a ‘coaching manager’ as opposed to a ‘chequebook manager’ or ‘Jose’ as his ma calls him.

But learning and improving isn’t achieved overnight and as honourable and romantic as the notion is, it doesn’t always go to plan or schedule either for a variety of reasons — fixtures, training time, injuries and more than anything, because people are human.

LONDON, ENGLAND - Sunday, May 14, 2017: Liverpool's manager Jürgen Klopp during the FA Premier League match against West Ham United at the London Stadium. (Pic by David Rawcliffe/Propaganda)

Some stats:

  • Goals conceded in the first five away games of the season: eight
  • Goals conceded in the last five away games of the season: two

Given the injuries and international selection issues that Liverpool have had to contend with since the turn of the year, the importance of tightening up the against column cannot be underplayed, but as with anything in football, scoring and conceding goals is never as simple as turning a tap on and off, so how have Liverpool managed to buck up at the back?

One of my favourite ever TAW shows was when we had Jamie Carragher in to talk about playing in central defence, and the benefit of having a partner you could rely on, who would be a consistent ‘seven out of 10’ every week as opposed to a ‘nine’ one week and a ‘four’ the next.

He also spoke about consistency of line-up, confidence in what your team-mates are doing and building partnerships.

I can’t claim credit for this as I’ve robbed it from @AYPrivateEye, but the facts are clear, the difference in the amount of goals we concede without either Joel Matip or Dejan Lovren in the side has had an undeniable impact on our season and their scrooge-like dedication to keeping clean sheets has been the key factor in getting Liverpool on the home straight with a yard advantage, especially (West Ham aside) as the goals have dried up.

Talking of clean sheets and partnerships, it’s impossible to point to and give immense credit to the dead man walking that was Simon Mignolet.

I don’t think anyone (especially me) could have envisaged the extent of the upturn in form that Mignolet has enjoyed since the turn of the year.

To be absolutely clear, he’s not playing to his previous potential, he’s playing way beyond it and deserves immense credit for doing so.

I’ve often criticised what I perceived to be weaknesses in the coaching set-up in this area so it’s only fair that the improvements are recognised.

I’m not quite sure on what John Achterberg and his team have been working on with Mignolet but his whole game seems to have been deconstructed and rebuilt both physically and mentally.

Since being dropped for Loris Karius and coming back into the Liverpool side, it’s as if they’ve somehow gone out and found Mignolet’s taller, more confident twin and done a sly sibling switcheroo.

WEST BROMWICH, ENGLAND - Easter Sunday, April 16, 2017, 2016: Liverpool's goalkeeper Simon Mignolet in action against West Bromwich Albion during the FA Premier League match at the Hawthorns. (Pic by David Rawcliffe/Propaganda)

Improvements in his kicking — he’s put about 10 metres on them, lower trajectory and greater accuracy — catching, timing, punching and, most importantly, decision-making have lead to an unprecedented increase in performance levels.

The impact of this improvement on the entire team, not just the defence, cannot be overstated.

It’s easy to talk partnerships at the back but, in reality, it’s more of a threesome.

The surety of a centre-half partnership that have trust in the goalkeeper behind them is a foundation stone that all the best teams are built on, they don’t all function the same way, different teams have different styles, it doesn’t have to be a one size fits all approach, but what is imperative is that the unit works.

A team cannot always score beautiful goals or play great football, but a team that is unlikely to concede always gives itself a chance and Mignolet’s mini-partnership with his two centre-halves have been the foundation that Liverpool’s uninspiring but efficient run-in has been built on.

In the final analysis, regardless of what happens on Sunday, the improvement at the back is something to be celebrated.

And while the talent further up the pitch will always get the headlines and goals might always pay the rent, you’ll never get a mortgage to buy the house if you’re always in your overdraft.

Up the tight-arse Reds.

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  1. That threesome has absolutely saved our asses the last month and a half. Nice to see them getting positive ink. It’s essential that we add a third of equal or better quality (along with a health and developing Gomez) to account for the added games and injuries. I like Klaven but he isn’t consistently good enough and Lucas should never ever play back there again as he only gets by on heart and effort.

  2. The concern I have for both going into next season is their injury record. This season, we could have been in for a real title challenge having lovren/Matip available more, hopefully next season we have a settled centre back pairing for 90% of our games then we will see a big difference in the goals conceded. Nice article Andy.

    • Dog Ears

      Totally agree. Lovren & Matip are great together but both are susceptible to injury. If they can improve on that front, I’m confident about our chances next season.
      As for Mignolet – credit where credit is due. He’s been one of the most consistently good keepers over the last few months. Can’t really remember any fuckups from him. Saves us a few points too.

  3. Yes we are conceding less but we also don’t look dynamic going forward! More work required to get the balance right! With Better players I think the overall play will improve and the clean sheets will remain

  4. Not read this yet, haha, but I completely agree (well, not with the tweet that Lovren /Matip have played 25 times together. I make it 15). But, the difference is stark. Nice that you mention John Achterberg too. We can’t all blame him everytime Mignolet makes a howler and ignore him when he’s doing well.

    My view is, we’re nearly there now. I’m well happy to keep Mignolet. I don’t think there’s been a better keeper this season in the Prem. Matip is ok. He has the odd exceptional game and the odd average one. Overall though he’s good enough. Lovren is my issue. I think there’s room for improvement. When he has a good game (of which he has quite a few) everyone seems to say he’s been given a hard time. He hasn’t though. There are still too many errors. His decision making is rash. He’s a little too much on the front foot for me. Needs to think of the consequences of flying out but I think he’s gradually improving after a tough start and I look forward to having the 3 you mention with 1 more quality player among them. Providing 2 of them don’t get injured at the same time I think it bodes well.

    Like you say though, our goals conceded record is massively improved with decent centre halves. Lovren, Matip nor Mignolet haven’t been the reason for us dropping points this season outside of the ones even the best teams suffer. It’s been the lack of back up as we all know. I wouldn’t like to say where we’d have ended up had we had them together all season like Chelsea. I have an idea and it’s a lot better than where we are. Calls to sell Lovren are just pathetic. We just need 1 more who’s better than the 2 we have and we’ll do well.

  5. Great read, as always, Andy. I find it interesting that this partnership seems to have so much potential, but clearly one of Klopp’s highest priorities for the summer is finding a CB for the starting IX.

    I think it was still a season too soon for Mignolet, but he may actually have the Kop on his side in the fall. Stranger things have happened. But not much.

    I’ve read people saying we should stuff Clyne because he offers nothing going forward, but I think his defensive contribution is too massive to deny. For a team that pushes up so high, having a RB with the pace to get back is invaluable.

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