Martin King points out that Liverpool have become too concerned with signing brilliant attackers and not enough about signing quality defenders.
It’s easily become the most talked about problem for Liverpool Football Club in decades. Perhaps the only real reason why titles were lost, managers were sacked and fans grew more and more frustrated with the club’s shortcomings, enter the notorious defensive weakness.
For every Liverpool supporter, the 2013/14 season produced some of the best football at the club in years. With the formidable strike partnership of Luis Suarez and Daniel Sturridge central to almost every attack, the Reds scored a league and club record 101 goals on their way to finishing the season as runners-up in the Premier League and following that season, there was great hope around the club that the team could take finishing second-placed as encouragement and build on.
However, exactly why Liverpool became the first team in the Premier League to score the highest number of goals without winning the title could be found in one dreaded statistic: 50 goals. That’s the amount that was conceded by the Reds in the league that season, an amount that proved that despite their brilliance in attack, the team was still poor in defence.
Two years on from that golden season and even under a new manager, who has managed to bring shades of the side that almost won the league out of the current crop, Liverpool still have big question marks hanging over their back-four and have already lost two cup finals under that man, Jürgen Klopp.
Fans, the watching media, the players and even Klopp himself has scrambled for answers within the club – and bear in mind that each of the aforementioned is convinced they’ve already found them – but perhaps the best answers are to be found from two outside sources: Liverpool’s top rivals and the transfer market itself.
Rivals spend big on defenders
So far this season, Liverpool have conceded 20 league goals, the most by any side in the top six.
One of the clear reasons behind that can be found in the fact that four of the Reds’ direct rivals in Chelsea, Manchester City, Arsenal and Manchester United have all showed a willingness to spend big on defenders.
In last summer’s transfer window, David Luiz was repurchased by Chelsea for £30 million. Manchester City broke the bank for John Stones, paying Everton £50 million, whilst Arsenal bought Shkodran Mustafi for £35 million. All these deals followed Manchester United’s purchase of Eric Bailly for £30 million.
The significance of those deals and the respective fees paid by the clubs to secure them is the common result they share: less goals conceded and better overall defensive displays. That is obviously because the aforementioned centre-backs are, on their day, some of the best defenders in the Premier League and all have the potential to be world class.
Obviously, one may rightly point out that each of their clubs have problems of their own and that signing them won’t necessarily secure the title but Luiz looks much more defensively assured under Antonio Conté, Stones will surely come good under Pep Guardiola and before sustaining injuries, Mustafi and Bailly had made impressive starts for Arsenal and Manchester United respectively.
So, whilst signing them does not necessarily secure the title, it does set their respective sides up well for the present and the future, as it gives each of them the assurance that fewer goals will be conceded with more clean sheets kept.
Analysing Liverpool’s spending on defenders
The most that Liverpool have spent on a defender alone is £20 million, as the honour of being the club’s most expensive defender went to Dejan Lovren in 2014.
Other notable defensive signings include Javier Mascherano, whom the Reds paid £18.6 million to secure the services of in 2008, Glen Johnson, who cost the Reds £17.5 million, Mamadou Sakho (£15 million), Alberto Moreno (£12 million) and Nathaniel Clyne (£12.5 million).
Out of the aforementioned six, only Mascherano and Clyne can be considered by most to be clear hits for Liverpool and considering that less than £20 million was spent on each player, they can also be considered bargain buys for the club.
Without being too harsh on Lovren, Sakho, Johnson and Moreno, each player had – or still has – their moments in a Liverpool shirt but ultimately their days at the club were and still are headlined by poor performances.
Lovren had a nightmare start to his career and despite a number of strong performances in between, the Croatian is still plagued by inconsistencies. Johnson and Moreno were always great going forward but too often guilty of overlapping, leaving Liverpool’s defence vulnerable and Sakho’s case is better left unspoken of.
Overall, what the results of Liverpool’s spending on these defenders proves is that at times, any club may be fortunate enough to make a bargain by spending little on a defender, whose performances may reflect that he costs a more – free signing Joel Matip is a good example of this – however, those situations are few and far between, as the signing of Moreno proves.
Liverpool need to spend big on defenders
The solution to that problem, and the existent defensive troubles is for Liverpool to start following the lead of their rivals in being prepared to spend larger amounts of money on defenders. The fact simply cannot be avoided, higher fees buy better quality.
There is, of course, the issue of spending big on the wrong players. In the case of defenders, Liverpool may have made that mistake with Lovren and unfortunately, when you consider the defensive reinforcements currently being linked with the club, the Reds look set to make the same error in judgement again.
Recently, the Anfield club have been linked with a ‘big money move’ for Newcastle United defender Jamaal Lascelles, in addition to being linked with Southampton’s Virgil van Dijk.
Again, without being harsh, spending big on a Championship defender makes little sense if you have ambitions of challenging for the Premier League title. Liverpool simply need to show a greater bit of ambition. That is, like City, Chelsea, Arsenal and United have done in recent seasons, target some seasoned defensive quality, instead of a player who had, or is having, one convincing season at a lower-ranked club (again, this proves just why the signing of Matip was great business.)
Standing in the way of this, it must be mentioned, could very likely be Fenway Sports Group. The Boston-based club owners have a transfer policy very different to that of Liverpool’s league rivals. Besides their potential-over-finished-product preference, the Americans are very rarely prepared to spend large amounts of cash, not least on defenders.
That will have to change if Liverpool are to start competing with their rivals for some of Europe’s top defensive talents. It’s obviously a risk but every now and then a gamble needs to be taken as the results will surely be worth every penny and more.
And considering that “the results” for Liverpool could very well mean a stronger and more consistently assured back-line, it may well be time to get moving in the transfer market.