Paul Spillane analyses Liverpool’s considerable issues at centre back with Jürgen Klopp finding it difficult to find consistency and quality at the back.
Liverpool over the years has been graced by a plethora of great central defenders. Alan Hansen, Tommy Smith, Mark Lawrenson, Jamie Carragher, Sami Hyypia and Daniel Agger to name but a few.
We as fans, however, can all agree that in recent times, the centre back role has been the one position where we have shown a distinct lack of stability and leadership.
Why has this been the case?
For a good number of years now, Liverpool’s centre backs have by and large failed to create an ever-lasting impression on the fans.
Ever since the retirement of one Jamie Carragher, we have desperately been lacking a leader at the back, and this has partly contributed to our sheer inability to operate as a solid outfit in defence.
Carragher was a strong, versatile and consistently no-nonsense centre back. His work-rate and commitment on the pitch helped him to be regarded as one of the finest centre-backs ever to play for Liverpool. How I long for a player like him to grace Anfield again.
I remember when we first signed Lovren. Granted the fee was excessive and he had only completed one full season in the Premier League, but on his debut, a friendly vs Klopp’s then Borussia Dortmund side, he truly looked capable of filling the void left by Carragher’s retirement.
He was commanding of his fellow defenders, strong in the tackle and was a great physical presence all round. This is the Lovren we all wish we saw on a regular basis, however, his decision making in his three seasons on Merseyside has been less than ideal at times.
This summer we should without question invest in a new first choice centre-back to play alongside Matip. I would not, however, look to sell Lovren, as he would no doubt prove to be a very capable third choice option.
Injuries this season has been a bugbear on the team as a whole, especially at centre back. Lovren and Matip have only played 14 games alongside each other. That is not near enough for any team’s first choice pairing!
As a consequence, Ragnar Klavan has been thrown into the starting line-up far too many times than he ideally should. Signed as a third-choice centre pack cover, and has ended up playing more games than Matip! At 31 years of age, he is quite clearly not the preferred choice, but injuries have forced him into the side on a regular basis this season.
Solid defences are built on the foundations of a good partnership. Tottenham’s Toby Alderweireld and Jan Vertonghen, for example, are one of the league’s finest defensive duos contributing to Tottenham’s strong position in the table.
Granted, our centre backs are not as talented as perhaps others in the league, however, you only see improvement by building a strong partnership between two defenders. The statistics aren’t lying when they say that (up until the weekend’s loss to Crystal Palace) Liverpool were unbeaten when Lovren and Matip have started alongside each other.
It is worth considering how many goals we might have conceded this season if they were able to play consistently alongside each other.
The truth of the matter is that none of our current centre backs is reliable enough to play every game.
Even Matip, who has proven to be a great addition picked up on the cheap, has only started 22 games this season. It is a great shame that his season has been hampered by injury as we have seen signs of a superb centre-back beginning to adjust to Premier League life. All we can do is hope he stays long clear of injuries next year because he is a very talented player to have in the ranks.
Fans have called for Joe Gomez to be reinstated into the fist XI after a season of inconsistency and difference defensively.
So much expectation has already been placed on the youngster, thus supporters must be patient if they want to see him prosper in a red shirt. This year has all been about regaining match fitness ready to stake a claim for the first team next season. He showed great maturity when he was flung into the side at the beginning of last season thus I would have no qualms in bringing him into the first team in the future.
In my view, we need a new Hyypia and Henchoz partnership, similar to what they had under Gerard Houllier in the 2000/2001 treble cup winning season. Players arriving as relative unknowns to becoming fan favourites at the club. Transfers that proved sometimes you don’t need to spend over the odds for quality players.
The task to suddenly turn Dejan Lovren and Joel Matip into world beaters overnight is a little far-fetched. However, they will continue to be Klopp’s preferred centre-back pairing for the remainder of this season.
We must have hope, therefore, that they will keep fans from labouring on about more ‘poor defensive decisions’ costing us, which has been the talking point from far too many a game this season.
We still have a great chance of finishing in the top four, with the reward of a return to Europe’s most elite competition. A new centre-back is an absolute must. Someone who not only possesses great awareness and physicality but who is also capable of taking command of the back line.
With possible Champions League football on the cards, our chances of attracting top quality additions will only further be enhanced.