When it comes to the Premier League‘s final standings, Liverpool‘s ultimate position in the English table – and resultantly whether they qualify for the Champions League for the first time since 2009, stage an audacious late charge for the title or fall short of both aims at the final hurdle – will undoubtedly be determined by how many goals they can score between now and the end of May.
I guess you could say that about any Premier League side – or for that matter, any club in any league in any part of the world – but while Chelsea, Manchester City and Arsenal don three of the best four defensive records in the division, Liverpool have conceded 35 times already this term – a statistic only three goals better than 16th-place Crystal Palace.
While the Reds’ ruthless SAS strikeforce of Daniel Sturridge and Luis Suarez are considered to be arguably the best in the English top flight, the same cannot be said for Liverpool’s rather frail backline, who have kept just seven clean sheets so far this year – the lowest amount in the Premier League’s top half.
When Glen Johnson is featuring regularly at left-back, £15million signing Mamadou Sakho – the most expensive purchase of Liverpool’s summer – has managed just twelve league starts all season and loan flop Aly Cissokho is still depended upon as back-up despite being one of the weakest performers on the Anfield roster, you know that something has intrinsically gone wrong.
Right now, Brendan Rodgers faces a situation where his best centre-back pairing remains unclear and full-back selection has become a case of whoever is fit enough to play most likely will. It’s safe to say that Liverpool’s defence isn’t what you’d describe as ‘top four quality’.
In obvious ways, Liverpool’s defence is their biggest burden, and if it wasn’t for the form of Luis Suarez and Daniel Sturridge this season, who have netted an incredible 42 Premier League goals between them, the Reds would probably be struggling for a Europa League spot right now.
But there is a flipside to that proverbial coin – is it possible that, as well as being Liverpool’s potentially most fatal of flaws, their shaky defence is also their greatest blessing?
The juxtaposing quality of the Reds’ defence and attack makes them an incredibly difficult opponent to gauge. How can you accommodate your game plan for both at the same time, whilst also considering Liverpool’s quality on the ball in the middle of the park?
Sitting deep only plays to the Reds’ strengths – the more Steven Gerrard, Philippe Coutinho and Luis Suarez get on the ball the more likely the Anfield side are to score. All three are visionaries, capable of unlocking defences with their guile and craft or getting on the scoresheet themselves. At the same time, you’re throwing away your greatest chance of winning the match, by not relentlessly attacking and probing an incredibly uncertain defence – undisputedly Liverpool’s biggest weakness.
Premier League teams have realised this, especially when the Reds are away from home, They’ve conceded 23 goals on the road this season, which is the fifth-worst record in the top flight, and resultantly, opponents have felt compelled to take advantage of the Anfield side’s defensive frailties.
But in return, that allows for Liverpool to enact their most effective mode of scoring – the counter-attack. The Reds have found the net six times on the break this season, which according to Whoscored.com makes them the most dangerous and consistent counter-attacking threat in the Premier League.
Looking at the players, it’s easy to understand why; Daniel Sturridge, Raheem Sterling and Luis Suarez are perhaps the most penetrating front three in the division in terms of pace, dribbling ability and lethality in front of goal, whilst a stretched game allows Steven Gerrard to do what he does best – those world-class long-range passes from one end of the pitch to the other, taking players and often entire departments out of the game with a single accurate propulsion of the ball.
If Liverpool had a Vincent Kompany or John Terry in their ranks, this tactical conundrum for their opponents would not exist. A strong defence, in addition to a possession-centric midfield and a speedy attack, suggests that sitting deep and hitting on the break is by far the most sensible and realistic approach to claiming a result. There would certainly be no great benefit of attacking a side that can easily nullify your threat going forward, only to take advantage of the space left behind.
But whilst Kolo Toure continues to add to the Premier League bloopers reel, Martin Skrtel’s ill-discipline verges upon 90’s football territory and Aly Cissokho struggles to make a single forward pass without losing the ball, Liverpool’s opposition are in effect obliged to try and take advantage, even if it does result more often than not in the Reds taking all three points.
More than any form of thought-out philosophical master-plan from Brendan Rodgers, this has been by far the most tactically beneficial influence on Liverpool’s season.
Patching up the Reds’ defence, especially at full-back, will most likely be the Anfield gaffer’s first port of call in the summer transfer window. They’ve already been linked with a variety of defenders in the tabloids, ranging from Sheffield United’s Harry Maguire to Chelsea’s Ashley Cole, and Arsenal’s Bacary Sagna to Wolfsburg’s Ricardo Rodriguez.
But bizarrely, that process could in effect nullify Liverpool’s greatest and most potent weapon – the tactical uncertainty their oxymoronic defence and attack generates in opponents – and paradoxically, improving the Reds’ defence could make it much harder for the Anfield side to score.