Friday 14 December 2018

Comment - Klopp finally facing up to the defensive issues that he should have solved a long time ago

Liverpool manager Jurgen Klopp. Photo: PA
Liverpool manager Jurgen Klopp. Photo: PA

Miguel Delaney

If so much of Liverpool's performance against Tottenham Hotspur on Sunday was depressingly familiar, there was at least one very conspicuous - and potentially very relevant - element to it that was different. It was Jurgen Klopp's reaction to it all, and what that may represent.

There was first of all the day's main talking point of how he took the drastic decision to haul off Dejan Lovren after 31 minutes, an unprecedented and thereby jarring move for the German, but also how he spoke about it afterwards.

This time there was no sniping back at critical questions, no sarcasm, and a concession that "whatever you say about us in a negative way" would be right.

There was also Klopp's reaction to being told that his side had now been responsible for Liverpool's worst defence record after just nine games since 1964-'65, having conceded 16 goals. This did seem to throw him, as he notably returned to it later, almost saying to himself 'I can't believe it'.

The logical question from all that is whether this was then the moment - and the match - that a deeper realisation finally sank in for Klopp, when the penny dropped, when he knew he really had to properly address his defensive issue.

If it is, there will also be the realisation that there is no quick fix to this.

Liverpool's Joel Matip attempts to block a shot from Tottenham's Heung-Min Son. Photo: Shaun Botterill/Getty Images
Liverpool's Joel Matip attempts to block a shot from Tottenham's Heung-Min Son. Photo: Shaun Botterill/Getty Images

Just as every single goal that Liverpool concede is down to more than the obvious individual mistakes that are most directly responsible for them, the flaws in that backline are down to much more than any one factor.

It is in fact a perfect storm of problems, leading to the most imperfect defending the club has seen in over 50 years.

There is first of all the very quality of that backline. Only two of the players at his disposal for the five that make up that rearguard - including the goalkeeper - could really be considered close to title-winning quality. One is Joel Matip and the other is Nathaniel Clyne, who isn't even available right now.

Klopp might have already disputed such notions with eyebrow-raising claims that there aren't many superior replacements or that the existing players are "100pc" of Liverpool standard but it remains difficult to know whether he actually believes that or whether it is mere deflection.

It should not deflect from the fact that he deserves criticism for not doing anything about this already. He is now over two years into the job and so little has been spent on the goalkeeping and central defensive positions even though they were already causing a lot of strife even before his time.

That was clear from how they conceded 48 goals in 2014-'15 and 50 in the title challenge of 2013-'14 but, confusingly, it hasn't been confronted.

Klopp obviously wanted to sign Virgil van Dijk from Southampton but the lack of any kind of back-up plan - for a contingency in the event they didn't get him - is even more confusing. It's also hard not to call it basic poor planning.

On another level beyond simply quality, some close to the club feel that the very lack of competition at centre-half has had a further effect, both consciously and sub-consciously, creating a softness. Klopp said after the Spurs game that it was now an "open race" as to who would start because they were that bad, but it's not like this race has too many runners in it.

As regards Van Dijk, his quality and assurance would have undeniably lifted the level of the defence and ensured fewer individual mistakes were made, but could he really be such a complete fix for the collective? Maybe, given what Liverpool are right now, the question should be inverted. How much would the team structure begin to affect Van Dijk, and cause more errors in his own game?

One of the things that is so utterly galling about Liverpool is how much their backline struggles with some of the basic things in the game, the sort of moves that all of these players - regardless of their quality - would have dealt with with ease throughout their careers. Now, the simplest of long balls into the box seems to cause utter panic. Some of this is so fundamental that any "coaching" or training ground work shouldn't come into it.

Spurs' first goal on Sunday summed this up. A throw-in, followed by a simple clipped pass over the top wrought panic and confusion and an apparent overriding of any kind of concentration.

Errors like that point to a wider context, as if the individual players in individual moments are influenced by the structure around them, and the debate around it all.

Klopp's attacking style, and how inevitably open their games are, has been much discussed and some of it is the inherent risk of employing him, something you have to accept and put your trust in.

The evidence suggests it is worth it in the long term. In the short term, though, some of it is down to other issues that have inexplicably not been fixed. Some of it again comes back to transfers, too, and what they represent.

The Naby Keita deal for next summer was so celebrated when announced, but what hasn't really been said is that it has left them with a big issue now, especially with Lucas Leiva having gone. It means there is nobody to sit there and hold position - or at least have the physicality to get across and cover to make life easier for that defence. This is something that's even more confusing. Given that Klopp's teams attack with such abandon, and the defence can be left so exposed, it should be all the more important to have a player - a Sven Bender-type - who can sit there and just make life that bit easier for the backline. It should, really, be essential. Instead, sources say that Klopp actively encourages the players in that position to run.

That might well be something he will now address. There is also the supposed near-complete concentration on the attack in training. This has all been said before, and Klopp has heard so much of it too. Sunday at Wembley, however, may have properly concentrated his mind.

If it hasn't, what will? (© Independent News Service)

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