Wednesday 19 December 2018

Klopp can have no defence for his hapless defence

Liverpool’s shambolic backline will cost Anfield giants a top four finish

Liverpool’s Dejan Lovren struggles to contain Tottenham’s Harry Kane. Photo: AFP/Getty
Liverpool’s Dejan Lovren struggles to contain Tottenham’s Harry Kane. Photo: AFP/Getty

Paul Hayward

It was Dejan Lovren who took the walk of shame, but Jurgen Klopp could have taken his whole defence off after 31 minutes and returned them to the manufacturer as faulty goods.

Only a sadist could have enjoyed Lovren's mortifying exit, half an hour into this shattering 4-1 defeat. By the end, the blame was spread right across the rear of Klopp's side. But the task of dealing with Harry Kane at Wembley went right over Lovren's head, along with the ball, and it fell to him to face the punishment.

This painfully early "hook" for a senior player, though, could not disguise the endemic weakness of Klopp's time at Anfield. Surely, this was the point where the manager starts again with his defensive structures - and some of his personnel. Regret alone will not lift Liverpool back to the Premier League's top four spots.

"Whatever you say about us in a negative way today, you are right - and we were wrong," Klopp conceded.

Was Lovren dragged from the front-line so early to save the team, and him, from further ignominy?

"Yeah," Klopp said, "but I really don't want to blame players. We had to change something. We tried to make sure that we were a little more stable."

Somebody asked, legitimately, "how is Dejan?" - because no 28-year-old with 34 Croatia caps leaves the field after 31 minutes without feeling tormented.

The brutality of Klopp's switch suggests he is now prepared to act ruthlessly to stop his side sinking into the table's lower half - and to protect his own reputation against those who say his emotional style of management suggests romance has the upper hand on realism.

Twelve points adrift of leaders Manchester City after nine games, Liverpool defended indefensibly yesterday, with all four Tottenham goals ascribable in part to errors at the back of Klopp's XI. "Today was just poor defending in all parts," he said.

He was in no mood to pick fights with anyone who might suggest this Liverpool team is flawed. The weight of evidence favoured the accusers.

The Anfield aristocracy is unanimous that another top-four finish would suffice, given the team's weaknesses and the strength of their rivals. Jamie Carragher and Graeme Souness have both made that assertion. But no team conceding goals the way Liverpool do could be confident of filling a Champions League place.

They are seven points worse off than at the same point last season.

Unusually, many Liverpool fans in an 80,827 crowd decided to start the long journey home early. This was a more painful spectacle than the 5-0 defeat at Manchester City and it was understandable that logistics took priority over loyalty.

Stand by for a grim timeline of charitable acts by Liverpool, beginning with Kieran Trippier dinking the ball over Lovren's head for Kane to stumble over, initially, before a left-foot finish put Spurs in front, after 3min 58sec. Replays showed Simon Mignolet rushing out to meet him unnecessarily.

For goal two, Hugo Lloris launches the ball overarm and Lovren runs straight underneath it, while Kane surges into Liverpool's half, and crosses for Son Heung-min to score.

For goal three ("another present", Klopp said), just before half-time, Joel Matip meets a Spurs free-kick with a soft, looping header in the middle of the penalty box, and fellow Liverpool players spectate as Dele Alli shapes to drive the ball past Mignolet.

For goal four, Mignolet punches a high ball weakly, and it eventually drops to Kane, for his second.

Liverpool have now conceded more than they have scored: 14 in the opposition's net, 16 in their own. Manchester City and United have each let in four. Five days after a 7-0 Champions League win over Maribor, Liverpool's haphazard defending raised retrospective questions, too, about Jose Mourinho's unwillingness to attack in the 0-0 draw at Anfield.

Caution was easier to understand in the days when Liverpool knew how to protect their own net. Under Klopp this season, the rear of the side has been a land of opportunity for opposition strikers. Mignolet alone has made 13 goal-conceding errors in his Anfield career.

"I don't want to say anything positive about us," Klopp said. "It was too easy. Much too easy."

The pity is that his team fought their way back into the game, chasing it with hunger and energy. Any manager who can call on Philippe Coutinho, Sadio Mane (who is injured), Roberto Firmino, Mohamed Salah and (soon) Adam Lallana is not short of weaponry.

Yet these flourishes of counter-attacking brilliance are merely damage limitation tools in the context of a defence that appears oblivious to danger. The doomed pursuit of Southampton's Virgil van Dijk was one factor, but the problem runs deeper. The back of this team is not focused on stopping threats. It lacks the fierce urge to protect its net. Nor are the central midfield players accepting enough responsibility to help, as they showed with Alli's goal.

Lovren was not so much substituted as evacuated from a humiliating scene. For Liverpool, the porousness has to end here. (© Daily Telegraph, London)

Irish Independent

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