Monday 26 August 2019

Jamie Carragher: Liverpool's defensive stats against 'big six' make for grim reading - Van Dijk and co need to make that right

Liverpool's Virgil van Dijk
Liverpool's Virgil van Dijk
Jurgen Klopp will be hoping to have something to celebrate at Wembley today to avenge last season’s defeat against Tottenham. Photo: John Sibley/Reuters

Jamie Carragher

In his first game as Liverpool manager, Jurgen Klopp secured a goalless draw away at Tottenham Hotspur. Liverpool have failed to keep a clean sheet in the 12 away league fixtures against the 'big six' since.

For all the plaudits for the club's improved defence - most of them warranted given recent performances - the moments of truth beckon. We will soon know how equipped their defence is to sustain a title challenge.

As well as this afternoon's trip to Wembley to play Spurs - a venue where Klopp's team was humbled 4-1 a year ago - Liverpool head to Stamford Bridge, Naples and Paris soon. Although Liverpool are getting better, it is too early to judge how good they are at the toughest away grounds.

Last season they conceded 15 goals in five away games at top-six rivals, including nine in two games at Manchester City and Tottenham. That return is never going to maintain a title bid.

I know many will counter this and say those fixtures preceded Virgil van Dijk's arrival, as well as a very expensive goalkeeper in Alisson. Van Dijk has shone against the majority of Premier League sides since he joined last January. But it cannot be ignored that with him on board Liverpool were beaten at Manchester United and Chelsea, and, even in victory against Roma in the Champions League semi-final, conceded four in the second leg.

That is why - despite being so early into the season - the next sequence of games could have a major influence on the rest of the campaign. It would not be the end of the world for either side to lose today, but it will send a positive message to win. Spurs could be savouring victories over Manchester United and Liverpool. Should Liverpool emerge unbeaten - or still in a commanding position at the top of the league - over the next few weeks, the extensive praise for their defence will be more justified.

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At Anfield the recent record is impressive. No visitor has scored a league goal there since February. As a defender, I have always believed it is away games where you earn your money. My attitude before an Anfield game was basically, 'make sure you do not make any stupid mistakes'. A Liverpool player knows that at home his team will be playing 90 per cent of a match in the opposition half, with the visiting side waiting for counter-attacks and set-pieces.

"You can't win us the game as a defender, but you can lose us it," was how Rafa Benitez used to put it.

It is a different match on the road, particularly against those competing for a Champions League place, or when playing in Europe.

Accomplishment

There are places where I knew I had to play well. Mentally, I would be preparing myself for days before those trips, knowing what was in store. I would not be able to switch off once in 90 minutes, otherwise top class strikers would punish any error.

I rate the clean sheets secured in stadiums such as the Nou Camp, San Siro and Bernabeu among the highlights of my career. These are the nights when the pressure is incessant - teams capable of pinning you into your own half for long periods. If you keep a clean sheet, there is a greater sense of accomplishment. You have worked for it.

It is a long time since Liverpool have looked defensively sound in these types of environments. That is where they still have more to prove. This season they have looked more solid against Brighton, Crystal Palace and Leicester, getting the job done without being at their sharpest.

"Everyone knows that when we are not brilliant, we usually lose," Jurgen Klopp said about his team after the Palace win, recognising this had to change. He knows more severe tests are coming.]

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Liverpool manager Jurgen Klopp suffered a 4-1 defeat to Tottenham at Wembley last season (Adam Davy/PA)

In fairness, hard to beat as the best teams I played in were, it is tougher being a Liverpool defender now than under Benitez and Gerard Houllier. Not only did we have great defenders, but specialist defensive midfielders such as Didi Hamann and Javier Mascherano. We played possession football, but not to the same extent as now. We did not play every game on the front foot.

The modern centre-back at an elite, Champions League club needs to multi-task, capable of playing a high line with the pace and strength to regularly deal with one-on-one situations. Full-backs no longer stay deep to assist centre-backs. They are judged on the number of crosses they make, not block. There is less central midfield protection with the team pressing so high up the pitch.

So many Liverpool games in the Klopp era have been like basketball matches, flowing end to end. Think of Arsenal away last season, Liverpool ahead thanks to scintillating attacking football - but so vulnerable they still drew 3-3. It is exciting to watch, but not title-winning football.

The expectation is Van Dijk and Alisson will make the difference. Liverpool have only conceded once - and that was from a daft, avoidable error against Leicester - so the signs are promising.

Van Dijk has brought assurance, making the difficult look easy. He gets his head onto set-pieces, has a positive effect on those around him and reduces periods where the defence looks under the cosh.

Good as it has been so far - with respect - they have not come up against a team of Spurs' quality yet, nor a striker of Harry Kane's class. He tortured Liverpool in this fixture a year ago, forcing a defensive substitution when Dejan Lovren was withdrawn before half-time.

Klopp has changed the back five since, with only Joe Gomez likely to play having started a year ago, and fitness and form-permitting the defensive line-up Liverpool have now could remain intact for the next 10 years. That does not mean there is no reason to be cautious.

Klopp will have studied the records. He will know - as a rule - teams do not win the league unless they go through the season having, on average, conceded fewer than one goal per game. Ideally, you want to concede under 30 goals over 38 games. Liverpool have not managed that since 2009, when finishing second.

Last season's winners Manchester City are lauded for their attacking strength as they earned 100 points and scored 106 goals. But we should remember they conceded only 27 in the league, too, fewer than any other team. A brilliant strikeforce will win plenty of games and admirers, but you cannot win the title without a strong defence. (© Daily Telegraph, London)

Telegraph.co.uk

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