Joseph Kavaloski discusses how Jürgen Klopp has failed to upgrade Liverpool’s defence as much as he has the Reds’ attack and outlines what can still be done.
Since Rafa Benitez’s departure from Liverpool after the 2009-10 season, the Reds have failed to concede less than forty goals. Unsurprisingly, Liverpool has only reached the top four once in that period, and the team’s defensive liabilities that year likely cost the Reds the title.
This summer, Klopp has added Ragnar Klavan and Joel Matip to the defensive line, but left back and defensive midfield are two areas left without improvement. In attack, however, Klopp has added two starting caliber players in Sadio Mane and Georginio Wijnaldum to a squad that showed no problems scoring goals over the second half of last season. With Liverpool’s first match of the season quickly approaching, Klopp needs to focus on improving the defence in the transfer market, in team selection, and on the training ground.
Two of Liverpool’s biggest problem areas over the past two seasons, center back and goalkeeper, have been addressed this summer, but left back is still a significant concern. Alberto Moreno has moments where he can be a top class fullback, but his inconsistency had a tangible negative impact on Liverpool’s 2015-16 season. While Klopp did show a desire to improve the spot in the recruitment of Ben Chilwell, the young Leicester player was unlikely to unseat Moreno as the starting left back.
Klopp has overlooked a number of players that could be significant improvements on Moreno – most notably Jonas Hector – leaving the squad with only one true option at left-back. Liverpool does not need a huge squad without European competitions this season, but Moreno’s defensive inconsistency could cost the Reds this season and there are no capable replacements behind him.
There is still time left in the transfer window to fill this hole, but Klopp has stated that there will most likely not be any more major signings. Liverpool’s two key targets at left back, Andy Robertson and Chilwell, are staying at their respective clubs and the two other rumored targets, Hector and Jetro Willems, do not appear to be close to an Anfield move. Both fullback positions have virtually zero depth thanks to player sales and loans and if these spots are not addressed, Liverpool could be left completely exposed in the event of a major injury to Moreno or Nathaniel Clyne.
Liverpool’s second most expensive signing of the transfer window, Georginio Wijnaldum, was primarily employed as an attacking midfielder last season with Newcastle but will most likely be playing in the center of the park for the Reds. Wijnaldum did play in a deeper lying role during his time at PSV Eindhoven, but he is an attack minded player that looks to get forward rather than defend. If Klopp decides to primarily use the 4-2-3-1 formation as he did last season, Wijnaldum would likely be paired with Emre Can in the double pivot. The latter likes to get forward in a similar manner to his Dutch teammate, and this could leave the defense exposed on the counter. A midfield pair of Wijnaldum and Can would bring a lot of creativity to the deeper midfield spots, but it could also lead to the defence leaking goals.
In pre-season, this midfield pairing has confirmed a lot of defensive concerns by leaving large swaths of space in front of the Reds’ back line. Wijnaldum will need time to regain his box to box instincts he showed in the Eredivisie, and in the meantime, a 4-3-3 or 4-1-4-1 may be a better formation choice. On the other hand, Klopp could also use Kevin Stewart in a double pivot alongside Wijnaldum. Stewart is extremely conservative going forward and he could provide the defensive cover that Can does not. Whichever alternative Klopp turns to will have its drawbacks, but using a Wijnaldum-Can pairing at the base of the midfield is a gamble that could be disastrous for the defence.
Last season, Liverpool ranked fifth in the Premier League in goals scored despite significant attacking struggles over the first half of the season. This summer, Klopp has made two significant additions to the attack, and the Reds look poised to be one of the most dangerous attacking units in England. To put it simply, an attacking unit of Daniel Sturridge/Divock Origi, Philippe Coutinho, Roberto Firmino, Sadio Mane, and Georginio Wijnaldum is not going to have problems putting the ball in the back of the net. However, a back line of Clyne, Matip, Lovren, Moreno, and Mignolet (until Karius returns from injury) is much less of a sure thing.
Klopp needs to instill a compact defensive system into the team that can be relied upon to get a clean sheet when needed. In order for Liverpool to reach their top four aspirations, the defence likely cannot allow more than 42 goals. In comparison to last season’s mark of 50 in what may be even more of an attack-minded side, this number is going to be difficult, but mandatory, to achieve.
Klopp needs to ensure that players such as Moreno and Can stay positionally aware, and do not leave their defence wide open on the counter. He will need to reinvigorate Wijnaldum’s defensive skills while instilling a strong defensive midfield system that will not leave the defence exposed. Lastly, defending from the front will need to be emphasized as much as ever in order to keep the opposition on their heels and force opposing players into mistakes.
If the Reds hope to win a trophy and qualify for the Champions League this season, the team needs to have a strong, reliable defence. From the outside, it does not appear as though Klopp has not improved the defense as much as he has the attack this summer, but without a ball being kicked in a competitive fixture yet, this notion could be proven wrong. Starting with Arsenal in five days, Liverpool fans will see if the German has his team on the right track defensively.