Liverpool have made a start to the campaign that many supporters could have easily predicted back in August.
The defending just hasn’t been good enough so far and Tuesday’s 2-2 draw with Sevilla and Saturday’s 5-0 hammering at the hands of Manchester City have seen many fans go from frustrated to infuriated. City’s victory was dismissed as inevitable my many onlookers due to Sadio Mane’s first-half red card – which also took much of the focus away from the collapse that followed it. But the way in which Jurgen Klopp’s side gave up two valuable Champions League points against the other side aiming to top the group angered a lot of the supporters and further highlighted just how flimsy the backline has been so far this season.
City cut through the defence at the Etihad with ease following Mane being sent off for the high boot in Ederson’s face after Liverpool had been arguably the better side in the first half, despite going 1-0 behind. But it was one way traffic after that and most of the team appeared to give up the fight and accepted what they must have considered inevitable. It should not have been seen that way, but the second goal quickly arrived and the defence looked utterly incapable of damage limitation.
Despite Ragnar Klavan’s woeful performance against Pep Guardiola’s expensive side, few pointed to the absence of fellow central defender Dejan Lovren as a factor in the manner of the loss. The former Southampton centre-back quickly showed why nobody was saying he was missed when he dropped another of his trademark clangers by failing to clear a simple cross into the box against Sevilla, allowing them to open the scoring. He wasn’t the only player at fault during the build-up to that simple tap-in, but his error was the most glaring. Both Emre Can and Joe Gomez could have dealt with it and Alberto Moreno was caught out of position, as usual, as he watched Wissam Ben Yedder claim a simple tap-in. But Lovren’s failure to clear the ball was the most obvious mistake and he was rightly criticised for it.
But all of this could have been avoided had Klopp decided that it was Southampton defender Virgil Van Dijk or nobody this Summer. The Premier League club made it clear in early June that they would not be considering any offers and were determined to report Liverpool for the “illegal approach” they considered had taken place. But Klopp hung on in there until the last day of the transfer window and no bid materialised following the club’s public apology to Southampton. It has been widely reported that no offer would be made unless the south coast club invited one and none of Liverpool’s rivals were going to make a futile bid to open the door for Klopp to sign his man. With that knowledge, a loan offer for Schalke centre-back Benedikt Howedes, who joined Juventus for the season, should have been the minimum course of action. The German international is a seasoned defender who has previously been in a partnership with Joel Matip at the Bundesliga club. It would have made total sense to bring him in for the season and then go back for Van Dijk.
While it is admirable for Klopp to be determined to sign his number one targets, it makes no sense to do it at the expense of the greater good. It was clear to just about every onlooker that the defensive unit was not good enough and the individuals which comprise it were not up to the task of a domestic campaign with the added Champions League matches. Having Matip, Lovren, Klavan and Gomez as the four central options is not even close to good enough for the aspirations the club and supporters have for this season. Someone like Howedes would have at least added experience and know-how to a backline under mounting pressure following yet another campaign of conceding too many goals.
Another option would have been to attempt to hijack Tottenham’s move for Ajax defender Davinson Sanchez. The twenty-one year old Colombian is a powerful defender with bags of pace and plenty of confidence in his locker. He was relatively expensive at £45m, but with the prices in the current market added to our need for improvement at the back, it wouldn’t have been a bad deal by any means. But instead of offering him the chance of regular first-team action, he is on the fringe at Wembley this season as Spurs further improve an already excellent defensive lineup.
Many supporters have pointed to another option Klopp had available to him this Summer: Mamadou Sakho. But the France international was long cut adrift at Anfield and was always going to be shipped out on deadline day. And it speaks volumes that the only interest he could muster was from Crystal Palace, West Brom and Leicester City. He is severely overrated by many fans and his attitude has held back whatever talent he has at his disposal. An ability to behave himself initially irritated Klopp and then a lack of clarity with the club’s medical staff over the fat burners infuriated the German. His time at the club was in serious jeopardy after being sent home from the preseason tour and he all but sealed his fate by refusing to go out on loan in the Summer of 2016. He had absolutely no chance of being handed a reprieve and I personally don’t think the defence would have been a great deal better off for his presence. He’s clearly a better defender than Klavan, but despite having more talent than Lovren he also makes his fair share of errors. We need better than all three.
Cameroon international Matip shouldn’t be above criticism either. I would say he is clearly our best central defender at present, but he too is prone to moments of confusion which lead to goals. He didn’t cover himself in glory against Watford, City or Sevilla and he needs a more reliable and consistent defensive leader alongside him. Klopp can see this and wanted to partner the tall man with Van Dijk, but once the accusations of underhand tactics were made by Southampton that deal was off the table for the Summer at least. This is where a stop gap deal for Howedes would have made sense again. Perhaps contact was made with his agent to see if something was possible and he said no in favour of joining the Italian champions, but nothing has turned up in the news to suggest that we did look to bring him in. It would have made absolute sense to me and was a metaphorical defensive clanger in a growing catalogue of literal ones.
Anyone who watched Matip play for Schalke and/or Cameroon before he arrived at Anfield would have been aware that he suffers from moments of blurred concentration and a lack of focus, but with enough quality around him he is more than capable of being second fiddle to a lead central defender and it is a real shame that he won’t be partnering Van Dijk until the new year at the soonest (if you’re a huge optimist).
Behind the back four lies another issue: the goalkeeping situation. I personally don’t think Loris Karius warrants being picked in the Champions League, or at home against Arsenal for that matter, following Simon Mignolet’s improvements last season. Signing the German youngster last Summer seemed to ignite something in the Belgian international and he deserved to be a part of the side which started the European campaign this season after his role in securing qualification. Klopp clearly sees Karius as a long-term number one, but the former Mainz man just hasn’t played with enough confidence to be given the nod, for me. Further to the issue over whether or not he should be played is the issue of rotating the keeper behind an already uncertain defence – it just doesn’t make sense to me. We need stability at the back to bring the best out of the players in those positions and it can’t be helping them to see a different face behind them on such a regular basis.
On top of the soft centre in our defence, we have seen the return of Alberto Moreno to the left-back spot and absence from the other side of the injured Nathaniel Clyne. Moreno has impressed with his attacking play so far this season, which is much improved, but his defensive game is still lacking. He was one of several players at fault for Watford’s second goal in the 3-3 season opener and he just watched as Sevilla opened the scoring on Wednesday. Many thought we had seen the last of him when James Milner, a right-footed midfielder, was preferred in the position last season. But, lo and behold, he’s back in favour and doing his best to seize the unexpected opportunity handed to him. Andrew Robertson was signed in the Summer and has so far only been seen in the 1-0 home win over Crystal Palace – a game in which he was a resounding man of the match. He should be given more chances based on Moreno’s continuing defensive struggles, in my view.
In Clyne’s absence, we have seen two relatively untested young talents given chances to show what they can do in the right-back position. Trent Alexander-Arnold has been touted as a potential successor for the former Southampton man and he did his chances no harm with a superbly taken free-kick against Hoffenheim. But his nerves and indecision against City last weekend showed that he still has a long way to go – and he would admit that himself as he continues to develop his undoubted potential. While Gomez showed that he can contribute with a fine outing against Arsenal, he also proved that he is a work in progress with some naive moments against Sevilla – including two bookings that will see him suspended in continental competition.
Many will say that the system doesn’t support the defenders enough and there is some weight behind that argument. But it is not the main factor in the woes we have seen, regardless of the lack of defensive shielding coming from the midfield – which has been another problem for us so far this season. But that’s another story.