Liverpool’s 2-0 defeat to Leicester City in the Carabao Cup yesterday evening has inevitably revived criticisms of the Reds’ ever-porous backline.
The Anfield outfit have now let in 16 goals in just nine games this season and even if the 5-0 hammering from Manchester City – during which they were controversially reduced to ten men – is written off as a bad day at the office, Jurgen Klopp’s side have still conceded more than one goal per game on average, while their only clean sheets have come against a Crystal Palace side yet to score in the top flight and during a 4-0 demolition of Arsenal.
“We always have to defend these situations better. The second ball after the corner, it’s close but it’s not offside. So we need to make it more clear that it’s offside. The only thing you can do is to push up – we didn’t. With the second one it is a throw-in again. Everyone can imagine we know how to defend them but obviously we don’t do it, because always somebody else is doing it. It doesn’t feel too cool but it’s the truth. The game changes in moments like this – you have the chance to do it by yourself or sometimes you are on the wrong side. But that we concede like this, that makes me really, really sick.”
Perhaps most tellingly of the intrinsic disorganisation at the back, Klopp described himself as feeling ‘really sick’ yesterday evening after one of Leicester’s goals started from a throw-in – also the source of a Hoffenheim strike during the 4-2 victory in Champions League qualifying at Anfield last month – and the other from a second ball at a corner.
Despite a common belief in the theory, declaring a lack of quality at the back as the ultimate cause of Liverpool’s defensive woes is too simplistic an explanation. Although the Reds missed out on Virgil van Dijk during the summer and it’s hard to imagine any of their defenders taking starting berths at any of their top six rivals, supporters surely prefer the current cohort to the options available at West Brom, Burnley, Newcastle and Huddersfield to name a few – all four clubs have conceded less than the Merseysiders in the top flight this season.
The key difference though, is obviously Klopp’s philosophy. The German has always favoured attacking flair and explosiveness on the counter to defensive structure and solidity – Tony Pulis, Rafa Benitez, Sean Dyche and David Wagner’s priorities are very much reversed. That was covered up somewhat at Borussia Dortmund by the sheer quality of Mats Hummels and Neven Subotic at the heart of defence, as well as the protection in front from the likes of Sven Bender.
But once again, the difference of a few individuals can’t explain the constant failings of a whole department. During his time in England, Klopp’s side have conceded 127 times in 107 fixtures and in truth, Liverpool’s issues at the back far predate the ex-Dortmund manager’s arrival. They conceded 221 goals in 166 games under Brendan Rodgers too, and 75 in 74 games during Kenny Dalglish’s underwhelming second spell.
Overall then, Liverpool have conceded 1.2 goals per game across all competitions since the start of 2011. Just to highlight how significant that is in regards to Liverpool’s ambitions this season, there have been only seven occasions from a possible 20 over the last five seasons in which sides have conceded more than a goal per game and finished in the top four – two of which involved the Reds.
But arguably biggest influence on Liverpool’s defensive problems is so obvious and simple, it’s continually overlooked by fans, pundits and even the men in the dugout – quite plainly, the revolving door that Liverpool’s backline has become. Indeed, during the last six years, Liverpool have changed at least one member of their most regular defence every summer, or failing that the goalkeeper. In fact, Liverpool started 2016/17, which saw them concede 47 times across all competitions, with a new centre-half, a new goalkeeper and a midfielder shoehorned in at left-back.
Since the start of Dalglish’s reign in January 2011, Liverpool have signed 20 defenders or goalkeepers, all of which have made at least a handful of appearances at first team level. That’s more than three per season, without even taking into account the number of academy products who have featured at the back during that time – John Flanagan, Trent Alexander-Arnold, Brad Smith and Andre Wisdom to name a few.
And it’s not just a question of who’s coming in and out of the club during the transfer windows; this season already, only nine games in, Klopp has used seven different defenders and three different goalkeepers without any starting in every game. Compare that to the situations at Chelsea, where only injuries and suspensions have forced Antonio Conte into changing last season’s back three, or even Manchester City, another side who favour attacking venom over defensive organisation, where John Stones and Nicolas Otamendi – whether it’s in a four or a three – have featured in every game thus far.
Of course, one of the main reasons Liverpool have passed through so many defenders, both season-to-season and game-to-game, is because they’ve consistently failed to convince. But that’s very much a self-fulfilling prophecy; we all know how important familiarity is to the chemistry of a team and particularly to the organisation of a backline, yet just three of Liverpool’s current defenders have made more than 50 appearances for the club – one of which, Nathaniel Clyne, is currently unavailable through injury – and the goalkeepers have been rotated almost without explanation since the start of last season. The level of uncertainty we see when Liverpool defend counter-attacks and set pieces is largely inevitable.
That’s not to suggest Liverpool’s current defensive cohort is at the quality you’d expect of a top four Premier League side – clearly improvements are needed, which is why the Reds were so desperate to sign Van Dijk during the summer. Yet, how can the defenders, whether good enough or not, be expected to find any consistency when they’re constantly in and out of the team or even more detrimentally, coming in and out of the club during each summer?
The simple fact is, transfer and selection policies – especially when coupled with Klopp’s attacking philosophy and the absence of an out-and-out defensive midfielder – are making the life impossible for Liverpool’s men at the back. As counter-intuitive as it may seem considering how lowly-rated some of Liverpool’s defenders currently are, the best thing Klopp can do is keep the current group in tact for as long as possible. A little familiarity can go a long, long way.