Why Liverpool's Defence May Not Undermine Their Title Bid
So right now Liverpool’s title bid is picking up steam. After their 6-1 demolition of Watford, the Reds are top of the league, one point clear of nearest challengers Chelsea. The nature of their win against Watford as much as anything else is what has impressed people the most. But one niggling complaint about Liverpool, one that has existed for years and was, many people claim, their downfall in 13/14. That they conceded too many goals. And this is what I want to dispute. I want to dispute both the suggestion that they’re going to concede as many goals as in 13/14 and moreover, that that inherent weakness will be enough to stop them winning the title.
Yes, Liverpool aren't as good at defending as Chelsea, or Spurs. That's a given and that's simply not going to fix itself overnight. But Chelsea, currently nine goals conceded from eleven games, had the best defence in the league in that infamous 13/14 and they didn't win the title that year either because they bottled it at home to Sunderland. For all the talk about not winning the league by scoring but not defending, Liverpool actually scored less than title winners Man City that year. I mean even look at last year, Leicester didn't score the most or concede the least. They just had the most points.
My basic point is that goals scored and conceded don’t win titles. Points win you titles. And yes, goals scored and conceded are a good metric, but ultimately, Liverpool fans could comfortably argue that the glut of chances missed in for example their 2-2 draw with ten men Newcastle, a game which should have been won even with two goals conceded, was as much at fault for Liverpool’s title race defeat as any other result. I agree that yes you need to be able to attack and defend to win the title, but I do dispute that the team who is the most “balanced” will inevitably win the title. Chelsea were the most “balanced” side in 13/14 and lost. Spurs were the most balanced side last year and still lost the race. Whilst a porous defence can cost you points, if you’re scoring enough to compensate, then it doesn’t matter. What matters is the results.
Moreover, Liverpool's defence has improved immeasurably with Joel Matip at the helm. Liverpool conceded five goals in the opening two games of the season, both without Matip. Since then, they’ve averaged just one goal a game conceded, whilst scoring over three per game in that time. If Liverpool continue concede on average one goal every game Matip plays in, they'll concede less than 45 goals this season, which I would wager will be enough to win the league, should they score over 100 (as again, they’re currently projected to do). Again, there's no guarantee that either of those things will happen, it's pure speculation.
Another thing that often gets overlooked with defences is time spent building a defensive partnership. Spurs have the best defence in the league for a multitude of reasons. Their system is set up to defend rather than attack, they have a brilliant goalkeeper, Dier and Wanyama are excellent holding players, but above all, they have a settled back four and a central defensive partnership that works. Two CBs that are used to playing together, play together week in week out and develop a partnership. Yes it helps that Alderweireld is the best CB in the league but Klopp is not aiming to build a Spurs level defence so much as say an Arsenal level defence. Liverpool will always concede more goals than Spurs and Chelsea because of the way that their system is set up, but they will also score more goals.
The point here is that Matip and Lovren need time and plenty of games together in order to develop a partnership. So far they've only started six games together this season. Six games together is not enough time for two central defenders to bond, especially with an auxiliary left back and a converted defensive midfielder ahead of them in a system that is built around scoring goals not defending. So in order to properly judge Liverpool as a defensive unit, we need to give Jurgen Klopp time to properly build that defensive unit, especially given that Matip was injured for significant parts of pre-season, and Lovren has been ill several times this season.
There’s no denying that Liverpool have defensive issues, and whether or not those defensive issues end up hampering their title challenge remains very much to be seen. But there’s plenty of reasons to undermine the fallacious claim that this is “just like 13/14” where Liverpool allegedly lost the title because of their poor defensive record. And moreover, a lot of the rhetoric is false.
We need to factor in the five goals conceded before Matip was playing regularly alongside Lovren, which also takes into account the lack of experience of Milner at left back (who was missing for the only game since the opening two where Liverpool have conceded more than once, as well as the Arsenal game) and Henderson’s lack of experience at defensive midfield. Since those opening two fixtures, Liverpool have conceded nine in nine games. Whilst complacency whilst winning is certainly an issue, Klopp won’t be too unhappy if his team concedes when they’re 5-0 up.
Moreover, whilst a lot has been made of Liverpool’s defending off set pieces, the team have only conceded three goals off corners all season, against Swansea, Hull and West Brom, and this is one of the lowest tallies in the division. Whilst goals from headers remain a problem, as evidenced against Crystal Palace, one of Klopp’s primary defensive tactics is to limit crosses into the box, and Milner and Clyne have been very good at doing that.
Individuals errors also remain an error, but it’s telling that most of the key players for individual errors (Mignolet, Skrtel, Lucas, Moreno) have either been sold or in the main case, marginalised by Klopp. Lovren remains an issue, but he is improving, and he’s also starting to contribute in the air at the other end, which slightly redeems his position.
And this is before touching on new keeper Loris Karius. Karius showed a lot of promise in Germany, but is yet to hit the ground running at Anfield. Again, it’s simply a case of giving him time. Karius performed very well against Watford, making two or three very good saves. Analysis shows that he will never be a strong taker of crosses, but analysis shows that unlike Mignolet, who comes and flaps, Karius prefers to stay on his line and let his defenders deal with crosses. Whilst some may see this as less than ideal, it’s certainly part of Klopp’s tactical game plan, and certainly a significant improvement on Mignolet. When Karius settles, he will have a big impact on Liverpool’s goals conceded column. And unlike Mignolet, he does not appear prone to high-profile errors.
Overall, whilst Liverpool’s defence is currently not as solid as some of their main contenders, we can isolate the main reasons for that. There is clearly both room for improvement, and plenty of reason for Liverpool fans to believe that they will see that improvement. Moreover, they have other strengths, and strengths which mean that their less robust defence may ensure that they do not drop points on their opponents.
Liverpool have only failed to score at least twice on three occasions this season, winning every game where they have scored two goals or more. The downside is of course that they have failed to win every game where they haven’t scored twice, but given that the only scoreline that you can win by if you score less than twice is 1-0, two points from three games where you score at most once is far from a disaster, particularly if you have a hit ratio of 78 percent. If Liverpool win 78 percent of games, they’ll end up over 90 points. That you would suspect, will put them in the mix.
It may be too early to draw any significant conclusions about Liverpool’s title challenge this season, but if they can keep Karius, Matip and Lovren fit and playing together all this season, then over the course of Klopp’s reign they will concede less goals. Whether or not that will be enough when May rolls around remains to be seen.