Liverpool's title dream at threat from Kolo Touré's errors
The defence is the one part of their team that is obviously not up to title-winning standard
Thursday 13 February 2014
It is not just Manchester City carrying the torch for cavalier football this season. It remains to be seen whether Manuel Pellegrini's side can outscore everyone in sight and take the Premier League title, but if they do not, it might even be Liverpool who beat them at their own game.
After Wednesday night's thrilling 3-2 win at Fulham, Liverpool are just four points off the top, their best position at this stage for years. Like City, Liverpool are aiming for the top fuelled by an avalanche of goals. They have 66 in the league already, just two fewer than Manchester City and 18 more than anyone else.
But as their manager, Brendan Rodgers, must know, this is their only way of succeeding. Because Liverpool's defence is the one part of their team that is obviously not up to title-winning standard. On Wednesday night at Craven Cottage they conceded two more poor goals, both from comically bad attempts to clear simple crosses by Kolo Touré and Martin Skrtel.
As Rodgers admitted after the game, the issue was not especially structural or tactical, more that their defenders keep making mistakes. "We've defended poorly at times this season," he said, "mistakes and individual errors that have cost us." His defence of Touré, who gave away an own goal, was not the strongest you will ever hear from a manager after a match. "Listen, Kolo is a great guy," Rodgers said. "It was one where it was unfortunate for him. His team-mates got him out of jail."
In their 26 league games this season Liverpool have kept just seven clean sheets, as few as Swansea City, Newcastle United, Aston Villa and Crystal Palace. Even Norwich have earned more. West Ham have nearly twice as many.
The problem, or part of it, is that Rodgers has not found a settled centre-back partnership. The summer signings Mamadou Sakho, Tiago Ilori and Touré came in to supplement Daniel Agger and Skrtel – and the result has been a season of alterations, including a spell with three centre-backs rather than two. Agger, their most talented option there, has had a season disrupted by injuries and has started just nine league games. Skrtel, despite his inconsistency, has been the most involved, with 24 league starts. Touré, who after gifting West Bromwich Albion an equaliser earlier this month is growing increasingly error-prone, has started 15, Sakho just 12. Ilori has not featured at all and has been loaned to Granada in Spain.
In the long term, Liverpool will probably find the best possible partner for Sakho, even if that means the departure of Skrtel or Agger, but for now they have 12 league games left and they need to stop conceding. Even in recent weeks, 2-2 draws with Aston Villa and West Bromwich would have been preventable had they defended properly. If they had won those games, rather than drawn, they would be top now.
But with Manchester City and Chelsea still to come to Anfield, just some defensive improvement could well let Liverpool climb even further up the table. Indeed, Jose Mourinho claimed last night that Rodgers' team have the edge on their main rivals as they are not involved in European competition. "The league is amazing but Liverpool have a big advantage because of the fact they don't play in the Champions League," the Chelsea manager said.
Although Liverpool have a different challenge on Sunday – Arsenal away in the FA Cup – it is hard to discuss the title race without them now. Jordan Henderson, though, is happy with their status, even compared to Chelsea's "little horse". "I think the manager said [Liverpool are] a foal?" the midfielder said. "I think we've just got to keep doing what we've been doing and not worry about anyone else."
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