THE current incarnation of the football team representing Liverpool Football Club continues to be the craziest version I have ever witnessed.
On checking Twitter at half-time yesterday I discovered what you’ve no doubt seen since — that following Burnley’s goals at Old Trafford Liverpool now has the best home defensive record in the league, conceding only three goals.
Yet, despite how solid the Reds are at home, we’ve conceded 20 goals away from home and only West Ham United and Stoke City have conceded more.
We’re the Jekyll and Hyde of Premier League defences.
This, though, in fairness, is where taking snapshots during the season can completely skew statistics, because I’m not sure how many other sides have already played away at Manchester City, Tottenham Hotspur and Arsenal (three of the top five goalscoring sides in the league — with us and Manchester United being the other two).
Watford are the eighth highest scoring side in the league as well, so 15 of the 20 goals we’ve conceded on the road have come against high-scoring teams and it wouldn’t be unreasonable to suggest that on that basis alone we could expect our away record for goals conceded to improve in the second half of the season because we’ve literally got fewer teams to play who are capable of scoring bucket loads.
On the flip side, we’ve only played three of the top nine goalscoring sides at home, so everything could look completely different come the end of the season.
If the league was decided on home or away records alone, we’d be sixth on our home form and fourth on our away form, yet we are unbeaten at home and have had those all too familiar calamities on the road. The three goals we’ve conceded at home (to Burnley, Everton and Chelsea) have also cost us six precious points, whereas most of the nine we conceded to City and Spurs were damaging to the ego but made little difference to our points total.
Overall, we’ve got the third best goal difference in the league (behind only City and United) and have lost only those two away games all season.
Since the defeat at Spurs, our Premier League goal difference is plus 25, which is only the third season since 1988 we’ve achieved that over 11 successive games, and only the 11th time since 1904. It’s also the first time since 1980 that we’ve had a goal difference of plus 23 or more in successive seasons after 20 games, and we scored our 75th goal of the season against Swansea after only 29 games, which was more than we scored in the whole of the 2014-2015 season.
So, interesting statistics, but where do they leave us?
I’ve said a few times recently that I still can’t decide whether all of the above means that we’re just a couple of tweaks from greatness or a million miles away from being where we all want us to be.
There can be no doubt that this is as scintillating a Liverpool attack as I’ve ever seen in my adult life, and I’ve lost count now of the number of times I’ve left a game saying that the opposition were absolutely shite, when the reality is that the Reds have just made them look that way. But the doubts still remain about the other end of the pitch despite being the meanest home defence.
63 – Roberto Firmino has been directly involved in more goals in all comps for Liverpool under Jurgen Klopp than any other player (38 goals, 25 assists). Thriving. pic.twitter.com/fcuu5MixNr
— OptaJoe (@OptaJoe) December 26, 2017
The blanket that Rafa Benitez often talks about appears to be pulled right up to our collective noses, with our feet left out in the cold whenever we leave home for the night.
But are we getting closer to the balance that all great teams need, between attacking with verve and defending with grit?
On the face of it, we appear to protect our defence at home far more securely than we do when we leave Anfield, which means that our unpredictable centre backs and goalkeepers, in particular, are less exposed on home turf. On the road, it seems as though we rely far more heavily on moments, with an array of individual mistakes springing to mind whenever we think of those 20 goals conceded.
This is where, ultimately, I think we will soon find out if we are just a few tweaks away from finding real balance, because if we’re building a side that is heavily reliant on individual moments, we simply need better players who are more consistent, more reliable and make fewer mistakes.
The problem as I see it is that if you have David De Gea in goal, you can get away with having Chris Smalling and Phil Jones as your centre backs, or if you had Rio Ferdinand and Nemanja Vidic as your centre backs at their peak you can potentially get away with having Simon Mignolet in goal, but Mignolet, Dejan Lovren, Ragnar Klavan and Joel Matip seem to take turns to make a calamitous mistake, which leads to uncertainty and insecurity about the whole enterprise when they form the core of the defensive unit.
— The Anfield Wrap (@TheAnfieldWrap) December 26, 2017
Would having a much better ‘keeper who is dominant and controls his defenders make the lives of our current centre backs easier? It’s hard to argue otherwise, and I’m sure we’d all like an offer being made for a world-class keeper but the great Borussia Dortmund side built by our manager hardly had a goalkeeper of world renown so I’m still not convinced he thinks he needs an upgrade in that area.
We’ll also hopefully find out within a few days whether Virgil Van Dijk will at long last be joining us, and it will be nice to know one way or another so that we can all move on with our lives. I’m still intrigued to see whether throwing the likes of Van Dijk into our side would make a massive difference, or whether the way we play is always likely to make centre backs and goalkeepers look like clowns at times given how exposed they can be, regardless of how good they look for other sides.
It’s only by improving on the players that we’ve already got, though, that we’ll see whether the issues we’ve experienced away from home in particular are systemic or player-based, and it will be interesting to see how Klopp deals with next summer after backing the likes of Mignolet and Lovren for another full season and getting very similar results.
Even for a developmental manager like Klopp, there surely comes a point at which he has to accept that a certain player has reached the limits of his potential and simply needs to be replaced if the team is to move forward.
Very few sides ever achieve true balance between attack and defence, which is what makes it so special when a team does manage to pull it off, but whichever way our manager decides to go in order to find that harmony between scoring goals at one end of the pitch and keeping it tight at the other, we might well be closer than we’ve been since we last won the league to seeing a team that can simultaneously have the blanket pulled up to its nose while tucking its feet in just enough to keep them warm.