Déjà vu: Liverpool’s Defensive Woes Have Returned

An article by Ahmad Asyraf Bin Aziz

As the [self-proclaimed] site resident expert on Liverpool, I have been called upon to write on Liverpool’s current issues. Since my friends are too busy tackling the many, and I repeat many, problems that plague the current Manchester United side, I decided to be a good friend and help them out a bit.

While we currently sit 2nd place with a game in hand, it would be foolish to simply ignore the problems with the Merseyside outfit. While we have been somewhat lucky so far, failure to address these issues might lead to a regrettable outcome down the road. If these problems are not solved, rest assured Liverpool’s rivals will find the motivation to pounce on our current weaknesses and leap ahead. Liverpool were arguably lucky last year, with most of the key players not facing any long-term injuries throughout the campaign. Yet, now, we face injuries to Van Dijk, Fabinho, Keita, Alex Oxlade Chamberlain, Thiago and TAA (with Allison only recently returning).

When Van Dijk was destroyed by Pickford’s stupidity and incompetence in goalkeeping, most of the Liverpool fans had already thrown in the towel. The league had just started, but the prospect of carrying out the rest of the season without him and defending the title seemed like an impossible task. While the hype surrounding Van Dijk might seem extreme, comparing him to great defenders such as Nemanja Vidic and John Terry, the impact he has had on the squad cannot be understated. Liverpool went from a side that won by outscoring opponents, to a more balanced team that kept clean sheets and won more narrow victories. It was less entertaining to watch at some times, but it was the performance of a well-balanced squad who could switch between attack and defence according to what was needed. Granted, the presence of other players such as our great full-backs, and a top goalkeeper are to be acknowledged as well, but Van Dijk helped to add stability in the back line in the form of leadership. As seen by other teams, having great players is not all you need to achieve good results. Good chemistry and a leader that helps organise things at the back is something that many take for granted, but make a massive change to a team. Van Dijk was not only a great defender but offered leadership not seen since Carragher left. He helped to organise the team from the back and also kept people calm and composed, which is essential when you are the last line of defence.

So, what are the options that are currently at Liverpool’s disposal?

Fabinho’s injury is not talked about much due to the focus on Van Dijk, but I feel he is one of the key players in the side. He is slated to return after the international break, but Klopp might have difficulties deciding if he should slot back to his no.6 role, or help out in defence. His absence has been noted in Liverpool’s lack of dominance in the midfield and further exposes the defence that’s already weakened. In the no.6 role, he has often excelled. Attacks usually start from the midfield, and Fabinho is always there to break it apart before anything can materialise. Anchoring the back allows Henderson to roam up and be more creative, displaying his wide range of incredibly impressive passing. His tactical awareness and discipline are almost second to none, which also helps him transition to a great centre back when required, arguably better than the other defenders beside VVD. His leadership skills are probably the closest to VVD to offer that stability and organisation the side is currently lacking. However, he does not have the same ariel dominance as the Dutchman, but he makes up for it with his tactical awareness and tackling.

Joel Matip is finally back, and he has been sorely missed. His record for Liverpool has been pretty solid, with Liverpool gaining 2.25 points per game in all the games he started. However, he was at his best alongside VVD. A decent defender on his own; he doesn’t have the leadership or organisational ability that his counterpart possesses. Furthermore, he doesn’t have the best fitness record. He only played nine premier league games last season.

Liverpool has relied on two youth options the past few games, in the form of Rhys Williams and Nathaniel Phillips, both being handed starts in VVD’s absence. Williams was part of the team that destroyed Atlanta 5-0 in the Champions League, with an assured performance. His reading of the game is good and positions himself well, making sure that there are no gaping holes in the defence. However, unsurprisingly, his confidence can be seen to be lacking at times, and similarly, he does not have the commanding voice that Van Dijk has. Oddly, Williams has played more matches in the UCL than the EPL.

Phillips, started in the 2-1 over West Ham, helping limit the opponents to only four shots after they scored first. While he played well, it would appear that Klopp is favouring Williams ahead of him. Matip has since come back to fitness. When Fabinho returns as well, his chances will probably be further limited.

There is no doubt that Van Dijk cannot be replaced. The best Liverpool can do is to mitigate the damages and avoid more problems. While it seems that a Matip-Gomez partnership will probably the default, Klopp might want to consider putting Fabinho to replace one of them, in order to add stability and inject confidence in the backline. Henderson plays a decent no.6, although slightly less effective. While in the past it leads to an ineffective midfield, it was due to the lack of other creative options. Keita and Thiago can help provide creativity instead. Rhys should probably be given more playing time in the cup matches, to slowly inch him towards being a starter in the future, or so that he will be ready to be called up if necessary. Many might say that we should not have sold Lovren without a replacement, but hindsight bias is a cruel thing. With three defenders and Fabinho as a backup, we can’t blame Klopp for thinking that this was more than sufficient. Plus, do we want to imagine Lovren taking over VVD for the past few games? Liverpool might serve well, however, to attempt to look for a replacement in January, given that the Dutchman will be out for the rest of the season. But given the poor financial situation as of now, perhaps they are better off trying to maximise the most of what they have.

Featured Image by FreeImages.com/oli mohd

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