Liverpool: How Jurgen Klopp turned around an ailing defence
Liverpool started last season with a shambolic defensive showing, suggesting their Achilles heel from 2016/17 was showing no sign of going away.
The 3-3 draw at Watford was a game that sums up the Reds in the post-Rafael Benitez era: they dominated possession, created more chances than their opponents but ultimately gifted avoidable goals to them.
Every one of Watford’s strikes was error-strewn — from woeful marking to failure to clear a corner in the dying seconds — and, having missed out on Virgil van Dijk, there was concern that the defence would again derail Liverpool’s campaign.
It was a tag that stuck with the Reds during those early months of the 2017/18 season with the 5-0 thrashing at the hands of Manchester City not helping matters, albeit with Liverpool down to ten men. Even worse was the performance away to Tottenham at Wembley in October: Dejan Lovren suffering a disastrous day at the office and Jurgen Klopp’s side eventually succumbing to a 4-1 loss.
At that point, Klopp found himself under more pressure than he has ever been in at Anfield and his decision not to find an alternative to Van Dijk looked to be coming back to haunt him. While some excellent form continued, both in the Premier League and the Champions League, defensive meltdowns were never far away, further feeding the narrative that Liverpool were inept at the back
Two more 3-3 draws again showed the Reds’ ability to capitulate from nowhere: a three-goal advantage blown in Sevilla and a 2-0 lead at Arsenal quickly becoming a 3-2 deficit, only for Roberto Firmino to earn his side a point.
It must be acknowledged that the ‘Liverpool’s defence is holding them back’ narrative did occasionally feel unfair whenever it made its way into newspapers and onto television shows. For example, Liverpool actually kept ten clean-sheets between October and December.
It was impossible to deny that it was the main weakness holding them back, however. Slowly but surely, though, the deafening sounds of criticism have become increasingly quiet.
There are several factors playing a part in Liverpool’s change in fortunes at the back.
The signing of Virgil van Dijk is the obvious catalyst. Klopp finally got his man in January after Southampton’s previously stubborn stance softened. Many were quick to baulk at the £75 million price tag but the 27-year-old has been worth every single penny and has to be considered one of the world’s best centre backs.
His performance in Monday’s 2-0 win at Crystal Palace was his best yet for Liverpool. All facets of his game were both commanding and immaculate. The Dutch skipper’s sheer aura and influence have improved those around, not least Dejan Lovren; perhaps the most divisive individual at Anfield since he joined in 2014.
The Croatian is someone who will thrive with a world-class colleague alongside him and his performances were vastly improved after the turn of the year. He was Liverpool’s best player in the Champions League final loss to Real Madrid and he excelled at the World Cup, helping Croatia reach the showcase event against France.
Trent Alexander-Arnold and Andy Robertson also continued to improve all the time, ending the season as two of Europe’s most exciting young full-backs. Blessed with great speed and attacking quality, the pair were also largely excellent in a defensive sense, making up an almost unrecognisable backline from that Watford game last August.
Lovren and Alexander-Arnold may have started on that eventful afternoon at Vicarage Road, alongside the laid-back Joel Matip and erratic Alberto Moreno but they grew in stature as the months progressed.
Joe Gomez also shone at Selhurst Park on Monday. Alongside the man he has described as a ‘big brother’, he will learn so much from having such a wonderful central defensive partner and will be a future England regular in no time.
Then there’s Alisson, of course, who will make a seismic difference in goal, bringing an all-around presence that has been missing since Pepe Reina’s best days. Brazil’s number one showcased his ball-playing expertise against Palace.
However, it was his confidence and unruffled style that stood out just as much as his ball-playing with no suspicions of the all-too-familiar moments of madness that have plagued Liverpool’s goalkeepers in recent years.
The constant talk surrounding Liverpool’s defence has become a thing of the past almost without realising, barring the odd lazy opinion that will arise when a soft goal is conceded. The Reds started their Premier League campaign with a routine 4-0 win at home to West Ham, meaning they now haven’t conceded at Anfield in the league since February.
Since that loss away to Spurs last October – 31 matches ago – no team has conceded fewer league goals (22) and shots on target (70) or recorded more clean-sheets (15). The key to Liverpool going from top-four hopefuls to genuine title contenders was fixing a defence that had proved problematic for too long.
They have achieved that in emphatic fashion.
The attack is devastating and the midfield is strong. But with Van Dijk marshalling the troops, the unflappable Alisson between the sticks and the likes of Lovren, Alexander-Arnold, Robertson and Gomez all improving, Liverpool will continue to thrive defensively.
Whether they have enough to clinch glory over Manchester City remains to be seen. But it won’t be a constant stream of defensive shortcomings that prevent the holy grail from coming back to Anfield.
Those days are a thing of the past.
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