Liverpool’s defence has been shaky for a number of years now. Not since Rafa Benitez left could anyone really say we have had a decent season defensively. Under Benitez we were compact, solid and difficult to break down. Even limited players like Steve Finnan we made to look better than what they were as they contributed to a well-drilled unit. Since Benitez left Liverpool have fell under the management of Roy Hodgson, Kenny Dalglish, Brendan Rodgers and Jurgen Klopp. None have been able to emulate Rafa’s defensive structure.
It may be facetious to blame this solely on coaching and that is probably correct. After all, it isn’t managers who go out on to the pitch to play the game. Recruitment has been a massive factor in Liverpool’s continually poor defensive record. Since 2010, our centre-half pairings have consisted of the following names; Daniel Agger, Jamie Carragher, Martin Skrtel, Sotirios Kyrgiakos, Mamadou Sakho, Dejan Lovren, Emre Can, Kolo Toure, Sebastian Coates, Joel Matip, Ragnar Klavan, Andre Wisdom and Steven Caulker. Some names have become iconic at the club. Most don’t even deserve to be mentioned in the same breath.
At present, Liverpool have conceded 318 Premier League goals since Rafa Benitez’s departure. The lowest being 40 goals during the 2011/12 season, the most being 51 during the 2013/14 season. This term, we currently have 42 goals against our name. To give you some context, the combined total of goals against the Premier League champions for each season since 2010/11 is 243. That’s a 75 goal difference. Makes for unsettling reading, doesn’t it?
So what are the issues? Why has constructing an effective defence been such an issue for Liverpool? Is it solely coaching? Is it solely recruitment? Is it neither? Is it both?
In my opinion, obviously, there is a coaching element associated with this issue. It is no coincidence that both Brendan Rodgers and Jurgen Klopp are extremely attack-minded managers and we have conceded our highest amount of goals under these two managers. As mentioned before, we conceded 51 goals under Brendan Rodgers in 2013/14 and we nearly won the league that season! But recruitment has to be questioned too, not just of the players but of the managers also. Roy Hodgson was clearly never good enough to grace an Anfield home dugout. His signings were abhorrent and his tactics were the worst I have
seen in all my years going the game. As far as players are concerned, players like Sotirios Kyrgiakos and Steven Caulker didn’t deserve to share a dressing room with the likes of Jamie Carragher and Daniel Agger, never mind a pitch.
The current crop, unfortunately, deserve the criticism they are about to receive. Let’s start at centre-half. Contrary to popular belief, I think Klopp was right to get rid of Sakho. Sakho had pace to recover and make goal-saving tackles. The reason he needed this pace was to recover from his own poor positioning. Alberto Moreno copped a lot of stick from the stands last season and it was partly Mamadou Sakhos fault. Moreno played the game 10 yards higher than he needed to be. But Sakho also dropped 5 yards deeper than he needed to be. This would result in a 25-yard gap between the Sakho and his full back. Imagine a channel like that for a striker like, say, Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang!
The centre back exit door should not have stopped revolving at the Frenchman. Dejan Lovren has just signed a new contract. Lovren is a decent defender and, to be fair, I wouldn’t sell him. He is a good third choice centre-half for any top four side. He is not a starter though – and he certainly isn’t worth £100,000 a week. Lovren is rash and surprisingly weak in the air. He was bought as a leader. But leaders cannot be bought. Leaders are cultivated over time. They mainstays of dressing rooms who watch players come and go, welcoming the new boys and paying tribute to the leavers. This translates onto the pitch.
Leadership is a major issue in Liverpool’s defence. With little coming from a goalkeeper short on confidence or authority, it is essential that the centre-halves take control of situations and talk to each and their goalkeeper. But they never do. This isn’t just a Lovren problem, although, as the longest serving player in our back four, he is the main culprit. Matip and Klavan are also culpable. Matip has improved us. He is quick, reads the game well and slightly better in the air than Lovren. But a leader he is not. If Liverpool are to improve their defence over the summer then a strong centre back is a must. While you may not be able to buy a leader, you can buy players so good that they give everyone else confidence just by being there. Here is the trouble though – there aren’t many centre-halves in world football at the minute who do that. There certainly aren’t any who are available. Usually, I’d make suggestions possible players here but I can’t for the reason that there simply aren’t any suitable candidates.
Virgil van Dijk seems to be in the frame but there are a couple of concerns surrounding him. First of all, Chelsea and Man City are also rumoured to be in the running. Both can offer higher wages and if we’re completely honest with ourselves, a higher chance of silverware. Secondly, Southampton are asking for a staggering £50 million for the Dutchman. It is an awful lot of money for a player with limited international or continental experience. Finally, is van Dijk an improvement on what we already have? He is extremely quick and is a good ball player. But he isn’t a stranger to mistakes and can lack concentration at times. All of a sudden that £50 million seems an awful lot more expensive.
We said before about Alberto Moreno’s poor positional sense and, if you take into account his lack of playing time this season, it’s painfully obvious that his days may be numbered. James Milner has done very good this season as a left back considering he isn’t a left back or even left footed. But it has become clear over the past few games that is a temporary solution. His crosses have been poor, his positional sense has been highlighted and the effects of a long season are starting to take their toll on the 31-year-old. With Jon Flanagan coming back from a disappointing loan spell at Burnley and Nathaniel Clyne’s consistency meaning the right-back position is suitably covered, any money spent on the defence should urgently be spent on a new left back.
Luckily it may be a bit easier to find a decent left back. Ryan Bertrand fits the bill for me. Bertrand is now 27-years-old. He is the prime of his career and has shown up in big games for Southampton. His performance in the EFL Cup final was very impressive for a start. He has also put in a number of good performances for England when called upon. While the price tag may be a bit high, it would be worth it to replace Moreno and improve on Milner.
Every summer seems to be a massive summer for Liverpool. This one is no different. We will be coming off the back of an impressive season, despite a mini collapse in January and scraping into the Champions League (touch wood!). Nonetheless, we will hopefully be a Champions League side and, currently, we will struggle massively against Europe’s elite with the defenders we have. Klopp cannot deny that improvements are needed defensively. He has to get them right.