Liverpool’s defensive crisis impacting offensive powers in pursuit of Premier League title

To divorce Reds’ attacking issues from loss of key defenders would be to misunderstand their methods

Melissa Reddy
Monday 18 January 2021 11:53
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Liverpool's unforgettable 2020

On Sunday evening, Manchester United became the first side to stop Liverpool scoring at Anfield in a Premier League match since Manchester City managed to do so in October 2018.

The goalless draw was Liverpool’s 43rd home game in the division since then, but Ole Gunnar Solskjaer knew it was not something to trumpet about.

“I’ve got to be honest and say I’m a bit disappointed at the moment,” the United manager admitted.

“With the injuries they’ve had, you think you might be able to come here and get a win. We didn’t.”

READ MORE: Premier League table and fixtures – all games by date and kick-off time

Liverpool have not been themselves since mid-December, with their centre-back crisis impacting their psychology and offensive powers rather than their defensive numbers.

And actually, if you scroll back further, the reigning champions have won just six of the last 15 fixtures in all competitions – one of them courtesy of a second-half blitz against Aston Villa’s kids.

The victories against Leicester City and Crystal Palace were the kind from a team capable of going back to back and retaining the title, as was the vital home triumph over Tottenham.

The problem is they have been anomalies rather than the norm for Liverpool.

Jurgen Klopp’s men have gone three top-flight matches without scoring for the first time since February and March 2005.

Against United, it has to be said that midfielders Fabinho and Jordan Henderson were excellent in the heart of defence.

As Klopp analysed: “They played really good football, made our build-up flexible, made it really difficult for United to press – I can’t remember a real pressing situation of United and they are pretty good in that actually.”

Another point to note is that no change of personnel can legislate for Roberto Firmino, for example, only mustering a tame shot or making a poor decision and not picking out Andy Robertson when the left-back was free.

The unavailability through injury of Diogo Jota, who was the league’s in-form player before his setback, also cannot be overstated.  It was also unhelpful that for a large stretch, creative players like Xherdan Shaqiri and Naby Keita were also sidelined, the latter remaining so.

However, to divorce Liverpool’s attacking problems from the loss of Virgil van Dijk, Joel Matip and Joe Gomez would be a misunderstanding of their methodology.

As already explored in these pages, variety in possession at the back has been removed without Van Dijk’s superb long diagonals and the ability of his two partners to step out with the ball. But not having the senior centre-backs available also affects the position of the full-backs, who are not as high, which allows the likes of Sadio Mane and Mohamed Salah to tuck inside.

The level of risks the team takes further up the pitch diminishes as there is a fear of being left exposed. The midfield having to cede its world-class anchor in Fabinho and the tempo-setter as well as coverer of the fullbacks in Henderson is counter-productive as well. It is going to be a difficult dilemma for Liverpool to solve because the inaction of clubs in the January window illustrates the influence of the pandemic on transfers right now.

Self-isolation periods and the lack of training time and a chance to settle due to the stacked schedule mean the majority of teams are apprehensive of doing deals, especially if it’s with a short-term view.

Klopp and Henderson have both insisted that the tonic to the drought is to keep creating chances.

“The only possibility you have to score goals is to create situations and to be ready to fail and to do it again,” the Liverpool manager said. “That’s a massive difference between when you are flying and you score with pretty much each chance you have because then you deal with the missed chances better. It is just information. That is the difference and nothing else.

“We will create chances and we will score, but I know, now we face Burnley on Thursday and they are not famous for conceding an awful lot of goals.

“Then a few days later we play again against United and they obviously defend with all they have. It is not that we just decide from now on we want to score again and now we will do it, but I see the boys really in the situation and I will help as much as I can so that we change it as quickly as possible.”

Henderson added: “We’re not getting any luck in the box at the minute. That can happen in football – you have to keep going, keep working hard, and hope it’ll change quickly.”

Liverpool have no choice but to ensure it does, especially with Manchester City in the ascendancy, before they lose greater grip at the top and enter the traffic to try and secure a Champions League place.

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