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.
- 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.
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.