Thursday 19 September 2019

Improved defence the key for Klopp

Liverpool manager Jurgen Klopp. Photo: Mike Egerton/PA
Liverpool manager Jurgen Klopp. Photo: Mike Egerton/PA

Jonathan Wilson

A cross from the right. Two defenders jump and can't quite connect. Dejan Lovren, startled that the ball has got as far as the back post, realises too late that Arkadiusz Milik has stolen behind him; he cannot get to the forward in time. Time slows. Milik is in form; he has the best goals-per-minute ratio in Serie A this season. Eight yards out with just the goalkeeper to beat, he must score the goal that will put Napoli through.

But Milik doesn't score. He jabs without conviction. Alisson does everything he can, springing from his line, spreading himself towards the ball, which hits his body and cannons to safety. Liverpool have survived.

In that moment, the narrative changed. Had Milik scored, the discussion now would have been of Liverpool's poor away form in the Champions League (five games away from Anfield now without a win), of their remarkable profligacy in the second half against Napoli, and of their tendency still for defensive lapses at key moments.

Liverpool have let in only six goals in 16 games in the Premier League this season but an exit on Tuesday would have raised the question of whether they are one of those strange modern sides that cannot really defend but do not let in many goals, who control the ball so well that their opponents rarely attack, but then look vulnerable when they do.

But Liverpool, perhaps, are not one of those sides, or at least not in the way that Manchester City and Barcelona can be. For one thing, Alisson did make the save. To quibble, as some have, that Milik poked the ball straight at him misses the point: the goalkeeper did everything possible to make it difficult for Milik. That it did not then require some improbable reflexes or gymnastics to keep the ball out might detract from the spectacle but it does not detract from the quality of the goalkeeping.

Alisson is a better passer than either of his immediate predecessors, Loris Karius or Simon Mignolet, and has the great advantage of radiating calm, not panic. He also saves more shots. A goalkeeper who saves shots is just as valuable as a striker who seizes chances. Coaches try to implement systems that control what moments are created, but it is then down to the ability and temperament of the players how those moments play out.

Similarly, Virgil van Dijk has had an extraordinary impact at Liverpool. This season the 27-year-old Dutchman has made more interceptions per game than any other central defender at a top-six side. On Tuesday, he had one of those games in which he just seemed always to be in the right place. But Van Dijk's impact has also been structural and the improvement in Liverpool's defending remarkable: last season Liverpool played 24 league games without Van Dijk, conceding 1.17 goals per game; in the 14 in which he played they conceded 0.71 goals per game. This season, in which Van Dijk has played every game, they are conceding 0.38 goals per game.

It is not, though, just about individuals. There has been a notable shift of approach. Liverpool have not pressed as hard of late, presumably to try to keep players fresher for the latter part of the season. This campaign Jurgen Klopp's side are regaining possession in the final third 4.1 times per game, as opposed to 4.5 last. Opta's more complex metrics paint a similar picture of Liverpool playing a more measured game.

The benefit has been that they have looked more defensively solid, and this approach is taking less of a toll. The way high-intensity sprints are recorded has changed, so a direct comparison is not possible, but both Trent Alexander-Arnold and Andrew Robinson are running around three per cent less than in 2017-'18.

If Liverpool are fresher come March, that could be significant in the title race. Not only have they subtly changed the balance to adjust the moments that occur, but sharper players should be better equipped to excel in those moments. The improved defence is part of a greater picture.


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