There are two dominant issues in Liverpool World. The fight to keep Philippe Coutinho rages, with the player reportedly handing in a transfer request at the end of last week. The second, which involves Virgil van Dijk’s protracted – and increasingly acrimonious – departure from Southampton, would appear to have been emphasised by Saturday’s draw with Watford.
Liverpool were fun at Vicarage Road. Flawed and self-defeating, but good to watch and value for money. The two goals they scored from open play were well worked and the move which brought Heurelho Gomes rushing to Mohamed Salah’s feet was also nicely constructed. Unfortunately, it was a lopsided performance: Jurgen Klopp’s teams conceded three comedic goals, sending the supporters clamouring for van Dijk.
It’s an obvious solution. When a team continues to let in goals unnecessarily, the spotlight falls on the centre of defence – and particularly so when the bulk of those occur during set-piece situations. Importing a superior centre-back offers the illusory promise of a quick, easy fix.
Last season, Klopp appeared as a guest on Sky Sports’ Monday Night Football. Among the topics discussed was this perennial fragility and, in explanation, the German described how he had been forced to construct his marking schemes around his side’s lack of height. He had a point: Ragnar Klavan, Joel Matip and Dejan Lovren are well-equipped to deal with physical opponents, but they are the exception. Within the context of the last year’s Premier League top-six, most other managers were able to source defensive assistance from a bulky forward or obdurate midfielder. By contrast, Liverpool were – and remain – waif like.
So Klopp had a point. But that would be an easier explanation to bear if his team were regularly conceding goals from lost aerial duels or if, at set-pieces, his markers were continuously being over-powered in the six-yard box. Vicarage Road certainly wasn’t that. Watford are built to be powerful and, admittedly, carry more physical threat than most, but they neatly capitalised on dysfunction rather than charging through Liverpool.
Of course, Klopp could improve his defence in a literal sense with some investment. Van Dijk is definitely a superior player to any of the incumbents and his addition most likely would bring a marginal improvement. The temptation, though, is to believe that this is more of a system problem and that coaching failures lie at its heart.
That may be a weighty accusation, but it’s not without foundation. When Stefano Okaka opened the scoring on Saturday lunchtime, it was from inside the six-yard box and with only Roberto Firmino close enough to challenge for the ball. Zonal systems can create anomalies sometimes, but that was particularly hard to excuse. Between Roberto Pereyra’s formulaic delivery and Okaka’s routine run to the near-post, Liverpool’s marking system failed to adjust to what was inevitably about to happen.
It was fitting, because this has become their defensive association; rather than timidity, the most familiar Liverpool trait is confusion. Individual errors have certainly swollen the goals-against tally in recent seasons, but that column is more commonly filled by hesitation, bad positioning, or overly impulsive decisions. Moments, for instance, during which covering players are facing their own goal, scrambling to recover ground or make a block.
Recent fixtures, encompassing those at the end of last season, illustrate just how delicate Liverpool are. Against Crystal Palace at Anfield for instance or Stoke away, when opponents converted simple chances from unchallenged and short-range positions. Ashley Barnes’s goal for Burnley in March is another ugly example, as too Sergio Aguero’s equaliser in the game against Manchester City at The Etihad. It may not be footage which flatters any of the defenders, but it still suggests a deeper problem; too often, a single pass or cross is all that is required to turn Liverpool dizzy. Now, add all three goals from the weekend to that list.
Tellingly, that’s not something you see when watching the very best teams. Players encased by a structure within which they’re comfortable rarely look out of control; how often, for instance, are Tottenham’s Toby Alderweireld and Jan Vertonghen asked to step outside their comfort zone during a game? How many times are they even required to leave their feet or to turn around and face their own goal? Goals against teams of that standard are a reward for hard graft and determined, focused chiselling at the rock wall. By contrast, a firm nudge and Liverpool’s bricks start trembling.
Spurs are a pertinent example of why the system matters and Vertonghen in particular is testament to why players are reliant on their surroundings. Prior to the arrival of Mauricio Pochettino (and later Alderweireld), the Belgian was a gifted, elegant, but ultimately accident prone centre-half. His individual footballing quality wasn’t quite irrelevant, but it was blighted by the limitations of those around him – and, of course, by naivety in the technical area. Fast forward four years, add in the right partner, the appropriate protection from midfield and a style of defending which suits him, and he has evolved into one of the best defenders in the country.
For Jan Vertonghen, read Virgil van Dijk. Until Liverpool calm the chaos, his worth to them will be marginal. Unless it’s a move combined with some training-ground introspection, it would equate to throwing good money after bad.
In the interests of balance – yes – Klopp’s style of football can be splendidly effective. The swarming pursuits of the ball, the quick turnovers in possession and the blitzkrieg attacks often produce some of the most watchable sequences in the English game. The trouble, though, is that the same read-and-react, ad libbing mentality has leaked into the their defensive play, too, creating unstable ground for any centre-back of almost any ability.
The remedy lies on the training-ground, not in the transfer-market.