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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 mohd

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Upheaval in La Liga?

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An Article by a Fan: Finally, Liverpool have finally won the Premier League

An article by Ahmad Asyraf Bin Aziz It certainly has been an interesting period for us all, specifically for soccer (of football, I don’t know which word this site prefers). Months were spent just waiting around, speculating whether seasons would be cancelled or voided. As a Liverpool fan, that would have been my greatest nightmare. […]

Manchester United’s Return: The Reds Go Marching On…

An Article by Khertan Harshad Ramanan The Season It has been a rollercoaster of a season for Manchester United, the players, the manager and the fans. It was a dream start for United as they ruthlessly overcame Chelsea 4-0 on opening day which gave fans huge expectations. However, the score in that match did not […]

Manchester United’s Return: The Reds Go Marching On…

An Article by Khertan Harshad Ramanan

The Season

It has been a rollercoaster of a season for Manchester United, the players, the manager and the fans. It was a dream start for United as they ruthlessly overcame Chelsea 4-0 on opening day which gave fans huge expectations. However, the score in that match did not entirely tell the whole story as Chelsea was dictating the play for most of the game. Solskjaer’s men would go on to score six more in their next eight league games. As a result, after nine matches United found themselves sat in 14th in the table, having picked up 10 points winning only twice.

At that point, I predicted United would be finishing in 7th in the table, knowing that a long-term injury to Pogba and Martial would make it hard to go against teams using low-block defence. As predicted, the Red Devils faced an ailing Bournemouth and were defeated after their former striker, Josh King, scored the only goal. United were struggling to score against sides that used a low-block to defend, especially without Pogba and Martial. All the other teams noticed the issue and played United accordingly as a poor string of results kept piling on.

The lowest point of the season was when United lost to Burnley 0-2. In rare scenes at Old Trafford, the team were booed off at half-time and full-time. Former player Darren Fletcher described the atmosphere on the night as “toxic”, with fans voicing their anger towards club owners the Glazers and chief executive Ed Woodward. After the game, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer conceded it wasn’t good enough, with the team “lacking ideas”. In the weeks following the game, Solskjaer would solve this problem with the Fernandes signing. It was mid-January, and United would not lose a game for the rest of the league campaign.

The Bruno Effect

 Who knew that one single player was all that’s needed to turn this team around? Bruno Fernandes came from Sporting Libson for £47m and now he’s looking like a huge steal. He came in and gave the confidence that this side needed. He was that creative spark that was needed to help the team penetrate low block defence and ever since he came to Manchester United has only lost once in twenty-two games and that is astonishing. He has a record of 10 goals and 7 assists in 18 matches so far and he has only arrived in January.

 With the coronavirus pandemic bringing football to a halt, it allowed vital players such as Rashford and Paul Pogba to return back to match fitness, adding even more quality to the squad. Now with the full squad ready, United looked like one of the biggest threats in the Premier League. Since Bruno’s arrival, the Red Devils collected 32 points in just 14 games leading United to finish 3rd in the league, securing Champions League Football and are currently in the semi-finals against Sevilla on Sunday.

The Future

Now with Champions League football, Manchester United has the chance to beef up their squad by adding in new talents to make this team title contenders. With the likes of Jadon Sancho, Jack Grealish and Van De Beek closely linked to Manchester United, the club now has to get the job done by signing these players and back Solskjaer up as he fulfilled his promise of bringing Manchester United back into Champions League.

I am very excited for next season as a Manchester United fan. It’s been seven years since I felt this alive watching United.

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An Article by a Fan: Finally, Liverpool have finally won the Premier League

An article by Ahmad Asyraf Bin Aziz

It certainly has been an interesting period for us all, specifically for soccer (of football, I don’t know which word this site prefers). Months were spent just waiting around, speculating whether seasons would be cancelled or voided. As a Liverpool fan, that would have been my greatest nightmare. Being born in 1996, I’ve never witnessed them win the EPL, and for a time, I thought I never would. Multiple close calls led me to believe that luck was simply against us. Even this season, with such a huge point lead after Christmas, I didn’t dare claim that the league was ours. Only recently in March did we all say, “Hey, maybe we do have a shot at this.” Alas, COVID-19 almost immediately crashed head-on into our dreams. With other leagues like Ligue 1 cancelled, our dreams of finally getting the trophy after 30 years seemed to have been thwarted once again. But perhaps God took pity on us, and our fortunes took a reversal as the EPL resumed, albeit with various restrictions. And as fast as the league resumed, it almost quickly ended for Liverpool, clinching the title just after 2 games after the restart. Yes, there are still various records Liverpool can achieve. But after 30 years of not seeing the trophy, and achieving it in record time, I think it’s fair to be satisfied with how the season has turned out. Records can always be broken, but achievements will stick with you forever.

It brings me great joy to see my Manchester united friends who own this page in great misery as they witness their greatest rivals lift the trophy. But since they are my friends, I know it brings them much pain even to attempt to praise Liverpool’s season. Hence as a courtesy, allow me to do the honours. Liverpool has been dominating for 2 seasons to a point where losing to Watford or getting kicked out of the UEFA Champion’s League this season counts as a victory for their bitter rivals, celebrating as if Liverpool got relegated. And while it’s easy to get triggered by such petty comments, fans should take this as a compliment, highlighting how far Liverpool has come. This used to be a team that lost 6-1 to Stoke City on the final day of the league. And in that spirit, I think it’s important to examine this Liverpool side and analyse the team that achieved it all.

What I find very impressive about this team is that it defies what was deemed to be commonplace for most top clubs. When you think of title-winning sides, you often see superstar level players who help them reach such heights. However, when you look at Liverpool, the formula is slightly different. Very few players entered Liverpool as superstars. One could perhaps make the argument for Alisson and van Dijk. But the former had only one season of European football prior, and many felt he would not be worth the 56 million pounds. Similarly, many felt van Dijk wasn’t worthy of being the most expensive defender, at 76 million pounds. He only played for mid-level teams such as Celtic and Southampton and has only 16 caps for the Netherlands. Don’t get me wrong; we all knew they were good players. But superstars that could carry a team to winning titles? I don’t think any of us thought that. These two could be the only reasonable argument for Liverpool having bought “superstar” players. That speaks a lot to the quality of the other purchases Liverpool have made.

Let’s look at the forwards. Sadio Mane was a gifted winger at Southampton and Firmino was bought just as he made his first cap for Brazil. Salah was always remembered as the Chelsea flop, no matter his prolific performances at Roma. When you look at them now, you see an intimidating front 3, capable of making defenders shiver in fear. But before they arrived? They weren’t really names that caused Liverpool fans to be jumping in joy upon their arrival.

Now to the midfield, which honestly, I find the weakest part of the current squad. Wijnaldum was a player who came from a Newcastle side that was just relegated. Fabinho played well in Monaco, yes. But he had only 4 caps to his name and didn’t have a good time at Real Madrid. Many didn’t think he could keep up with the pace of the EPL, and his first few games for Liverpool almost proved that right. Alex Oxlade Chamberlain was someone who could barely make the Arsenal team sheet (although to his defence, some of it was due to his injuries). Naby Keita could perhaps be argued as a superstar signing as many fans eagerly anticipated his arrival. This was also due to the fact that we had to wait a year before his arrival. However, injuries limited his appearances this past 2 seasons, so the successes can’t really be attributed to him. Jordon Henderson, whom I used to berate many times, came as a promising winger from Sunderland and has never played in that position after the first season. James Milner arrived as a free signing who was well past his peak. Shaqiri was stuck at his “promising potential” stage for the longest of periods since his time at Bayern, and no one was really elated after it was announced that we would be signing him from Stoke.
How about the defence, which has been Liverpool’s greatest weakness prior to Alisson and van Dijk’s arrival? Matip, a free signing from Schalke. Joe Gomez was merely a teenager from Charlton. Promising potential yes, but far from being star quality. Robertson, an 8m signing that most fans didn’t have much hope for due to our poor luck with left-backs for some reason. Trent Alexander Arnold was a youth academy player who suddenly shot to greatness. Lovren, well let’s not get started on that.

You look at the Liverpool squad now and perhaps you see an immensely strong squad filled with stars. But when you take a step back and examine the players and before they arrived, they were all good players no doubt. But stars? I doubt so. Winning teams conventionally excel with superstar signings. People who would serve to be some sort of final key to unlock the puzzle. And with Liverpool, this wasn’t the case, which was what makes this past 2 seasons even more impressive.

Some may want to make comparisons to the Dortmund side, with Klopp having an even smaller budget back then, but still managing to create a team to dethrone Bayern for a short period of time. However, players who were stars at Dortmund struggled once they left. Gotze, Kagawa, Sahin, Mkhitaryan just to name a few. Could this be an example of the effect Klopp has on his players? That he makes good players seem great? This could all just be a coincidence and perhaps we can only tell if the current Liverpool stars get pulled away from Anfield, but it is an interesting question to ponder over.

To conclude, let me just say this. The start of a Liverpool era is upon us and I am looking forward to savoring ever moment of it.