Liverpool’s passive defence and rusty midfield killing title dream

Liverpool’s passive defence and rusty midfield killing title dream


There’s a reason Nat Phillips doesn’t start for Liverpool anymore.

He’s nowhere near as good on the ball as the four players ahead of him in the pecking order, Virgil van Dijk, Joel Matip, Ibrahima Konate and Joe Gomez. He’s also much slower, meaning he struggles in Jurgen Klopp’s preferred high-line.

I understand all this, and I’m not for one minute demanding his reintegration into the side – but my word – have I missed his aggressive, front-foot defensive style recently.

Liverpool have conceded 18 goals this season, slightly better than one per game. Often, the goals we let in feel a little… ‘meh’. The opposition hasn’t done anything too special – we haven’t done anything too horrendous – they’ve just been allowed to shoot inside the box and the effort has found a way past the keeper.

This was the case v Leicester City just after Christmas when Ademola Lookman scored, and yesterday when Christian Pulisic got the equaliser for Chelsea. Both Tottenham’s goals in the 2-2 on December 19 came from average through-balls and and an inability from our defenders to get back and put a challenge in on the onrushing striker.

It’s simply too easy to score against us at the moment – and that’s pretty much regardless of who starts between the sticks, in central defence and holding midfield. Remember, Fabinho anchored us at Stamford Bridge, with van Dijk at the back. Caoimhín Kelleher put in the performance of his career in place of Alisson, so it’s not solely a case of personnel.

The defenders are being passive; playing the percentages, instead of putting in last-gasp tackles. It’s almost like they want a player to shoot from a certain position, in the hope that providing they usher them into a certain area, the keeper will be able to cover it.

Van Dijk has been especially guilty of this. He did something bizarre v West Ham in our first defeat of the Premier League season, where he ran alongside Michail Antonio as the striker sprinted towards goal, without ever coming across to close him down. He did the same for Pulisic’s strike yesterday, and stood off Lookman in the loss to Leicester.

Of course, van Dijk’s brilliance lies in his composure and his calmness under immense pressure. He doesn’t put a tackle in unless he needs to, but recently, he’s probably needed to and still hasn’t.

Ibrahima Konate is going to be world-class, but he has a big weakness in his game right now in covering balls played between himself and our fullback.

Phillips is unlikely to play for us again, but his old-school, body-on-the-line method is sometimes required – especially perhaps when we’re trying to protect a lead – something we’ve been horrendous at this season.

Manchester City and ourselves have both led 17 times in the Premier League this term. They’ve won all 17, while we’ve won just 12.

That’s what has made our chances of securing the title now so slim – their relentless brilliance and our inability to see out games.

A big part of this is because of a stuttering, ever-changing midfield. Klopp’s strongest three, on paper, is Fabinho, Jordan Henderson and Thiago, but they’ve only started together on the grass twice this term.

Thiago has won every game of the nine he’s started – with Liverpool scoring 25 and conceding just two – but his horrendous availability makes him far less effective than he should be.

Ability-wise he’s world-class, but the man he replaced, Gini Wijnaldum, could play 38 games a season and we’re lucky if we get half that from the mercurial Spaniard.

Thiago’s current hip injury is ambiguous, frustrating and the kind of issue we’ve learned will likely keep him out for the month.

How we could have done with someone of his passing ability v Chelsea? The basketball-style nature of the game was largely because we couldn’t keep the ball in central positions.

Fabinho is always rusty and sluggish after returning from a break, and he’s been nowhere near his best since returning from COVID – perhaps understandably.

Jordan Henderson and James Milner show heart and desire, but at 2-0, we needed players who could slow the game down and retain possession. Both failed to do this and instead, aimlessly lofted the ball forwards, handing Chelsea a chance to mount another attack.

The reaction to Henderson’s performance online has been over the top, predictably, but the montage below shows you the turnovers he was guilty of.

Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and Naby Keita have had good games, but the reality is Klopp trusts neither fully. A 36-year-old Milner started ahead of both in one of the biggest games of the season.

We have eight midfielders in total, which should be enough for three positions, but not when nearly all of them are injury prone. The fact we chop and change so much centrally has meant partnerships haven’t formed. When Fabinho and Thiago play, we’re superb, but getting both on the pitch at the same time has proved almost impossible.

FSG should have backed Klopp and strengthened in the summer. We need another midfielder and an attacker, but neither were bought nor will be this January. You could argue that it’s COVID more than anything else that’s ruined our season – and this is fair; our squad has been ripped apart during the busiest part.

But it wasn’t impossible to predict that injury-prone players would pick up injuries, or that COVID would cause issues – and definitely not that we’d be without Mo Salah, Sadio Mane and Keita during the AFCON. Ignoring this was beyond foolish, and we now face an incredibly tough month in their absence, especially as more COVID absences are likely.

We can still enjoy a great season, of course. The Champions League is our big target, and the League Cup winnable, too. But the past few weeks have likely ended our pursuit of no.20, which is a shame considering our best XI is as good as anything on the planet when available.

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