WHAT makes a good defence?
Is it clean sheets? Is it a high tackle percentage? Is it restricting your opponents to as few goalscoring chances as possible?
Or is it just the way we feel about it?
I spend a lot of time these days paying careful attention to the language we all use in every aspect of life, not least, for the purposes of these pages, in relation to what we all think about football and Liverpool FC.
Something that has struck me revolves around the above questions and links to interesting articles that I’ve read in recent months relating to how facts don’t change our minds. Search the term “why facts don’t change our minds” on Google and you’ll find a number of pieces quoting various studies carried out at elite academic institutions over the years which refer to this unusual phenomenon. As you would expect given the political landscape of recent years, those articles largely relate to politics and our opinions related to topics close to our hearts at a national and international level.
What’s of interest here, though, is how the same quirk of the human condition applies to what we think about our football team, its players, manager, coaching staff and everyone from the people in the canteen to those in charge of the ownership group.
In relation to the defence in particular, I’ve heard various people say over recent weeks, even after fairly convincing wins, that they just don’t “feel” that they can trust the defence not to throw games away from winning positions. Someone even said to me after we won 4-1 away at West Ham that they were sick of us throwing points away from winning positions. My pointing out the fact that we hadn’t thrown anything away from a winning position that week didn’t appear to even scrape the surface of their belief and their feeling that the defence is unreliable.
It’s worthwhile, then, us taking a look at some facts to put everything else here in context.
So far, we’ve conceded 20 goals in 18 league games, or an average of 1.1 goals per game. Twelve of those goals came in three games away at Watford on the opening day of the season, Manchester City (four goals being conceded after Sadio Mane was sent off) and Tottenham Hotspur (no mitigating factors to report).
Which means that if we exclude those three performances as outliers given that they represent only 16.67 per cent of the league games we’ve played, we’ve conceded eight goals in 15 games, or an average of 0.53 goals per game.
The benchmark against which everyone is being compared this season, Manchester City, has conceded an average of 0.67 goals per game across its 18 league games (albeit no exceptions need to be made for games in which the City team has imploded defensively).
We’ve also already had eight clean sheets, against the 12 we had in the entirety of last season.
Similarly, in the Champions League, we conceded an average of a goal a game through the group stage and kept three clean sheets, meaning that we conceded six goals in three games, five of them home and away to Sevilla.
Despite all of that, I think that our fan base would, largely, have the same opinion as those people who have expressed their feelings to me lately, and that the relaying of facts that show, as a whole, that our defence is actually fairly reliable, won’t make a blind bit of different to the way many people think.
This might be linked to another interesting condition of the human brain that I read about a few weeks ago and mentioned on a TAW Player Review show, which was, basically, that our memories are based on peaks and troughs in emotion rather than on a general average of how we feel over any consistent period.
The example given was a family day out to a theme park. If you have ever been to a theme park with your family and think carefully about how that day felt on a minute-by-minute basis, the chances are that generally speaking you would have been happier sitting at home on your couch watching TV.
There’s the endless queueing, the high prices and the rip-off fairground games that are by design practically impossible to win. But then there are the highs. The fun, exhilaration and laughter of going on a rollercoaster that made your mum wet herself (figuratively speaking of course), or the log flume that got you all soaking wet while laughing hysterically at each other every time another wave crashed into the pretend canoe.
The key thing is that when you look back at that day, it’s likely that a smile creeps over your face at the happy memories, and the general misery of the minute-by-minute part fades away.
In my (absolutely-not-qualified-to-give-a-real-opinion-about-psychology) opinion, the same trick is at play constantly when it comes to football.
We form an opinion based on a series of specific experiences, which then sticks steadfastly in our minds regardless of any pesky facts which support a contrary view. The same point applies to supporters reminiscing about football, or life in general, in the good old days. To listen to supporters who remember the days of Bill Shankly and Bob Paisley, it often sounds as though a Liverpool player never misplaced a pass, never conceded a goal (especially from a corner) and the team never lost any games. The seven trophy-barren years under Shankly are conveniently forgotten and replaced, instead, with a warm, comforting memory of how great things were back then.
Think for a second about Dejan Lovren and what immediately springs to mind? For me it’s him charging at a header on the halfway line against Spurs and completely missing it, allowing the opponent to break and score. But, since that calamitous game, Degsy has been playing for weeks now in a solid defence that has been pretty reliable, keeping seven clean sheets and only conceding seven goals in 12 games in all competitions, with only four goals conceded in nine Premier League games.
That’s pretty impressive by any measurement.
What clearly affects most of us, then, is the fact that what we believe or feel about Lovren, Ragnar Klavan, Joel Matip, Alberto Moreno, Simon Mignolet and Loris Karius in particular is that, while they might be able to put a run together, they’re ultimately unreliable and will, sooner or later, make a mistake which shows their true colours.
But isn’t that every defender and goalkeeper in the world? Don’t they all, sooner or later, make a mistake? I said after the Spurs embarrassment that something we don’t often see from these Liverpool players is them digging each other out. John Gibbons said on the most recent Anfield Wrap free show that Lovren never seems to get away with making a mistake, which I completely agree with.
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The fact is that every player makes mistakes, including legends who played in great teams for Liverpool and for our rivals, but, importantly, they were often spared their blushes by a teammate who rescued them, which means that no one remembers the mistake and, instead, we can focus on the great saving tackle that they made in a cup final which dominates our memories like a rollercoaster at a theme park.
When I think of Jamie Carragher, I think immediately of him dragging himself around the pitch during extra time in Istanbul, screaming at his teammates while making last-ditch interceptions to prevent AC Milan from breaking through. Carra made multiple mistakes in his career that he’ll acknowledge himself, but our overall memory is that he was great, which was no doubt helped by the fact that he had the likes of Sami Hyypia to rely on if things went wrong.
My overall view of our defence and its constituent parts is summed up by reference to Carra. I think we’d all say that he wasn’t the most gifted player ever to wear the red shirt as part of the last line of defence, but he had some important characteristics that I think have been lacking in recent years and which have led to many of the problems we’ve faced.
Carra showed grit and determination in abundance, and very rarely missed any games.
Those factors meant that, alongside his colleagues who showed similar characteristics, we often had a settled core which could learn to play together and cover for each other. My biggest concern with all three of Lovren, Klavan and Matip is that they all seem to miss games regularly for mysterious reasons. I’m not sure I’ve ever heard of a centre back being ill as often as Degsi, and Matip is currently out again with one of those rolling one-week injuries picked up in the Asda. It can be no coincidence that Lovren and Klavan have had a few games alongside each other, allowing them to get used to the other’s movements and particular way of playing, which has led to a generally more stable appearance at the back.
Obviously, however, it’s up to the players themselves to change whatever image we have of them by performing consistently over a long period of time, which should slowly alter opinions and allow individual mistakes to be put down to precisely that, rather than us all using them as confirmation of what we already feel and believe. If that isn’t possible, we simply need to find individuals who can perform consistently at the levels we’ve seen in recent weeks.
When looking for new players, especially at centre back, my number one priority would be to secure recruits with impeccable attendance records, which often goes hand in hand with a high level of grit and determination. They can have all of the ability in the world, but if they’re not available for selection consistently it’s a waste of everyone’s time.
After all, I can’t imagine Carra ever missing a game with a cold.
Pics: David Rawcliffe-Propaganda Photo
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Nice piece Paul. I think it will take a prolonged period without a result like the 16.6% of games you mention. Watford, city, spurs and seville. All games where we have conceded 3+ goals. Thats 4 out of 26 which is quite a lot. Since the full backs have shown more discipline rather than the abandon in earlier games it seems to have made a difference. Also the shift in shape in some aways games has afforded the defence better protection. In fact if you look at the last 3 goals we have conceded the everton pen was a bad decision, the brighton pen was a worse decision (!?!?!) and the chelsea goal was a complete fluke. Will probably take another few months without having “one of those days” before trust will return fully though. A large part of it may be borne out of the frustration after the failure in the VVD saga in the summer.
if we get “another few months” without having “one of those days” we’ll have the best CBs in Europe!
5 games in 27 then
Stats can prove alot, but as a football supporter its experience which informs our perceptions. We’re a boss football team, outside of City, Chelsea and on their best days arsenal and Spurs I dont think any other side has a hope in hell of giving us a proper open game of footy. So for a majority of games we absolutely boss it, we win by a few goals and everyone goes home happy. The issue with using these statistics to talk about our defence is what are they really saying. When we kept a clean sheets against say Arsenal and United earlier in the season was it because the defence was boss or was it because our opponents were played off the park (Arsenal) or had little ambition of playing any football (United)
The acid tests for this defence is quite simple in games where we’re not as boss. Or even in the moments where our boys ease off abit can we trust the defence to see us through. More often then not we can’t.
Let me roll out a few scenarios, 2-0 up, the boys up front are beginning to roll out the tricks, how many times have we seen the opposition suddenly get a soft chance, usually straight through the middle of our defence. We got warnings against Sevilla (where it went wrong) and Bournemouth (where we escaped). West ham and Leicester scored in these scenarios. Brighton too from a dodgy penalty but they got a few chances before we properly put them to bed.
1 goal up, last 5 minutes, opposition gets the ball and starts going direct. How well do we do? Sevilla, Watford (this season and last), Chelsea, Man united last season. We dont end up in this scenario alot but when we do Im under the impression we dont do well. Perceptions perhaps.
Then there are the games where the defence has to earn its living, Man city away this season, we were down to ten away to probably the leagues best side so we have to give leeway but the team set up its own half and still offered little resistance in that second half. We had no hope of keeping the score down. Tottenham at Wembley, as much as we were undone by Lovrens horror show, we did get back into the game and the defence when tested again failed us.
Ive not included the many games where we had to give one absolute gift of a goal, by mistake or pure stupidity because it is unrealistic to never expect over 38 games for us not to concede the odd chance.
So instead when was the last great Liverpool rearguard performance? Best under Klopp and perhaps the only one, Man city 1-0 at anfield last new year. I think I can remember Dortmund away and United away in the uefa cup being decent Sakho inspired shows as well. Rodgers we had maybe the Arsenal 0-0 away and that might have been it. Not much in over five years! It will take a few of those rearguard performances and a few months of consistency before we as a fanbase start giving the boys at the back a little leeway. The reason we trusted Carra, Hyypia, and those guys was because those lads went to grounds all over europe and did a job on the best strikeforces in europe. We werent the best at footy, so our defence had to be good for us to compete and they were boss. They didnt succeed everytime either, but they won a trophy or two and showed we could trust them with our backs against the wall. We gave leeway to Carras mistakes ie the own goals because he proved he could be trusted to hold off the best teams in europe. Of course they were also helped out by a team built to protect them when they could. Even that defence didnt get unlimited goodwill, John Arne Riise’s career for Liverpool took a bit of an assasination after his mistake against Chelsea in the CL 2008 semi final.
Unfortunately for the boys at the back today these performances are rarely needed simply because there are few who are really going to turn up and outplay us. When teams do outplay us, they arent afforded alot of protection, particuarly in midfield. Maybe if we progress in europe we’ll get a few tests for them to show they can be trusted. But for now this statistics based consistency as we’re seeing it will be written off as being good while its easy, and the implosions and silly mistakes like we saw against Everton seen as our true colours coming back to bite us.
Was going to reply but this pretty much sums it up.
The definition of a good defence is resistance under pressure. How many times have we held out under serious pressure? The defence will never get trusted until they manage to defend under pressure successfully.
Second spot or winning the champions league is doable. Must sign two world class cbs. Present lot have too many mistakes in them.Sevilla, Everton.Can’t afford to drop points.80 points no longer enough to win Pl.
Didn’t you read the article?
Your comment about memories of the Shankly days is completely unfair. I was there and don’t distort the FACTS. His teams[even in the early 60s seasons] had some dire days not passing well and lacking energy. The results and match reports are on lfchistory.net. You talk about facts and then distort them to illustrate that fans like to remember the best times. This spoils what could have been a good article.
I think Paul’s point was that some fans – especially of the older generation – can get a bit misty eyed and forget, that back in the 60s/70s a) mistakes were made, b) some games were dire, c) we didn’t win every game/every trophy going.
“Which means that if we exclude those three performances as outliers…” then you’re gerrymandering the facts. especially if you don’t do the same favour for every other team with which we’re statistically compared. You can’t do that with statistics, and retain the integrity by which statistics work.
Correct. Some lad on youtube took Gareth to task over the same nonsense. Made Gareth look a fool. Then Liverpool’s defence made him (and Paul) an even bigger fool tonight.
Paraphrasing what Tim said above, a good defence can prove itself to be one by showing consistent ability to withstand pressure. Its all good quoting clean sheets in selected games and willfully ignoring games in which we actually conceded goals (in order to suit a narrative).
The simple fact is we can’t really rely on our defence because key members there have a bad error in them almost every other game. And we can be generally brittle in some games as showed again by our 6 min collapse against Arsenal.
Sometimes, Mignolet gets away with these errors and sometimes he doesn’t. It would be the turn of Lovren or Klavan or Moreno again soon. Our forward players must feel so frustrated. Score 3 at Arsenal and still can’t get the win.