Defending well is key to title challenge
No team wins the Premier League title with a bad defence. It doesn’t happen. You need to have that solid platform at the back to build on going forward or you concede too many goals and put added pressure on your forwards. Look at us in the 2013/14 season, our undoing was our backline. We couldn’t hold tight and it cost us – especially in the horror show that was the 3-3 draw against Crystal Palace. Although that game didn’t ultimately cost us the title (I would point the finger at Chelsea myself) it showed that we couldn’t defend well enough to get over the line. We scored just one less goal than champions Manchester City that season – but we conceded thirteen more. That was a key difference along with the two points they pipped us by in the table. Had we beaten Palace, we would have still missed out on goal difference.
Another season many would point to is the 1995/96 season where ourselves and Newcastle United pushed Manchester United in the title race. But we actually conceded one less than Alex Ferugson’s side and Kevin Keegan’s side let in just two more. It was a strange season when you just look at the table, because we only scored three fewer than United. It wasn’t United’s best season defensively, but they still won the title after a strong finish.
Roll forward to this season and people are complaining about our attack not being as explosive as last season. We have scored ten less goals than Manchester City so far – but we have conceded just three, same as them. The defensive improvements made in 2018 have been huge and will prove absolutely crucial if we want to push on and challenge for the title for the first time under Jurgen Klopp. The German has recognised that you cannot expect to win the title, especially against a side as dominant as City were last season, when you’re leaking goals at the back. That is much of the reason why he was prepared to wait, and subsequently smash the world record, to bring in Virgil Van Dijk from Southampton. The Holland international is a world class centre-back who brings composure and leadership in abundance. We have kept six clean sheets in nine games so far this season – which is the best record across that many games in the history of the club. That isn’t solely down to the introduction of Van Dijk, but he has played a huge role.
The signing of Brazil international Alisson Becker has been another masterstroke by Klopp and his team. He was another who cost a world record fee for a player in his position, although that has since been eclipsed, and has proved to be worth every penny based on his output so far. Some will point to his error against Leicester City, but he learned from that very quickly and all the positives far outweigh that one glaring negative. He offers the kind of confidence and certainty behind the defenders that hasn’t been seen since Pepe Reina was at his best for the club. It was a deal that had to be done if Klopp wanted to close the gap on City this season. They have a top class number one in Ederson and we have now got the man keeping him out of the Brazil side.
It hasn’t just been those two making big differences to our defensive solidity. Scotland skipper Andrew Robertson is another who can take plenty of credit for the improvements we’ve seen at the back. His tireless work rate and fine positioning have also been key elements in the back four. The former Hull City left-back is a huge upgrade on Alberto Moreno. He doesn’t make the basic errors we’ve seen from the Spaniard and he is infinitely more calm and assured. The emergence of youngsters Joe Gomez and Trent Alexander-Arnold is another key facet in our upturn in defensive form, with each spurring on the other as they seek to lock down spots in the side.
Croatia international Dejan Lovren has improved since Van Dijk arrived also. He managed to achieve the unlikely feat of playing in both the Champions League and World Cup finals, unfortunately losing each, in the same year. Question marks still remain for many over his concentration and focus, but it’s undeniable that he looks more solid with Van Dijk alongside him at the back. The former Southampton man has shown a resolute determination to prove his doubters wrong, which is admirable, and has made the optimistic claim that he is one of the best centre-backs in the game. Most would disagree with that, but it shows where he has his sights set. He could prove to be a useful player this season with Gomez still developing as a central defender and Joel Matip prone to injury.
Something many have overlooked when complaining about our attack not being as cohesive and dangerous as last season is that we are now in the position to grind out 1-0 victories. We have struggled to do that in recent seasons because there was always the risk that one of the defensive players would have a lapse in concentration and cost us a goal – and, in turn, points. Winning games while playing far below your best is a trait of champions and we look to be developing a canny knack of doing just that. Six clean sheets in nine games in a fine return and if we can keep that kind of ratio going, we will likely be there or thereabouts when the last ball is kicked in May. It is unfortunate that we are trying to overhaul a side as brilliant as the one Pep Guardiola has put together at The Etihad, but there’s no point in complaining about that. We need to carry on trying to reeling them in and putting pressure on them. To have the same number of points as them despite scoring ten less goals and being way off our best going forward represents a fantastic start to the campaign.
The way we have pressed opposition sides has changed this season. We are setting up in different ways depending on who the opposition are. We went after West Ham in the opening game of the season because we knew they were a team under a new manager with several new faces. They weren’t settled and Klopp recognised that we could quickly shake them up. It worked and we got the 4-0 win our performance deserved. The way we controlled the space against Spurs was different to that. We pressed at the right times in the right places and restricted how long and how much room their key players had to create chances. The 2-1 scoreline was not representative of how dominant we were that day – against a side who have made their best start to a Premier League season. Our pressing against Chelsea was also different. We tried to smother their defenders and deny them time on the ball and we should have profited more from the success we had in doing that. Our finishing let us down that day, until Daniel Sturridge’s late thunderbolt, and we could have taken all three points. They will also feel that they could have won that game, however, thanks to the opportunities they had to score. Maurizio Sarri had a plan to exploit the space in behind us when we pressed high and the success of the tactics from each manager perhaps indicates that a draw was in fact the fairest outcome.
Some fans need to realise that should, most likely when, our attacking players hit their stride we will be in a great position to really threaten City’s position as champions. To be level on points with them without our forward being at their best is a credit to the way the team have defended so far this season and it shows that we have the players to make a serious go of winning our first title since 1990. A bigger concern for me would be our midfield, which has so far lacked a player to link it to the attack. Xherdan Shaqiri will feel that he could be that man and his assist for Mohamed Salah on Saturday will add weight to his claims. His fellow Summer signings Fabinho and Naby Keita haven’t got into their stride either, so there’s plenty of room for development and improvment in the centre of the pitch too.
Things are very much looking up and we quite possibly have the best Liverpool team the Premier League era has seen.
So we should all be enjoying it – not complaning because all the parts aren’t firing just yet.