Goalkeepers & Attacking Fluidity

It is truly bizarre to think that this is Liverpool’s best ever start to a Premier League era, yet we’re all mostly convinced that the team hasn’t yet clicked. We’ve never had as many as 36 points at this stage before, so it somehow seems a tad churlish to be writing pieces about how we can improve. Even so, whether it be our away form in Europe or the manner in which we could have dropped a few more points if luck had gone a different way for us in a few matches, there’s no question that there are areas we could be better at. Equally, of course, there are other areas where we’ve actually improved on last season, with our defensive solidity being an obvious example. Writing this the morning after the derby, I’m obviously tempted to just write ‘Divock Origi’ one hundred times and be done with it. Sadly, though, my more discerning readers often like me to go into a bit more detail and Divock Origi’s name isn’t as good for the old Search Engine Optimisation as I’d like.

I therefore had to think of something else to write about and so my mind kept drifting back to that difference between this season’s attack and last, plus the same of the defence. The personnel in the front part of the pitch is generally the same, whilst the players at the back are a little bit different. Ordinarily you’d expect consistency of personnel to lead to stability, so why is that we’re not as good going forward any more? That’s assuming that’s that true, obviously. The improvement at the back can’t be argued; it’s verifiable simply by looking at the numbers. The presence of Virgil van Dijk is pointed to by most people as the reason for that improvement, but is that being fair to everyone else in the defensive unit? Personally I think the presence of the Brazilian between the sticks has been even more influential on how much better we look, so I decided that it would make sense for that be what I’d write about. Divock Origi, though…

Alisson Is Key To Our Improvement At The Back

The signing of Virgil van Dijk has been indisputably important in terms of our improvement as a team when it comes to defending, yet I genuinely do think that the arrival of Alisson Becker is what has turned us from being a decent side to being one that is challenging for the title. Long-term readers will know that I had absolutely no love for Simon Mignolet. It’s not that I thought that the Belgian was completely rubbish, knowing full well that there were, and continue to be, many goalkeepers in the Premier League significantly worse than him. Rather it’s that he wasn’t ever good enough to help us win a title, which is what every sensible Liverpool fan surely wants. Widely considered to be one of the best goalkeepers in the world, the Brazilian has been there to sweep up if and when the defence fails in its duty of stopping opposition teams from attacking.

To give you some indication of just how much of an improvement the former Roma goalkeeper has made, it’s worth bearing in mind that Simon Mignolet was making around 1.14 saves per goal before he was dropped, whilst Lloris Karius made about 2 saves per goal when he was drafted in as his replacement. In comparison, Alisson is currently sitting at just shy of 6 saves per goal. It goes without saying, then, that opposition attacks are having to work incredibly hard to get anything from games against us. Yes, van Dijk is helping massively with that, but we achieved eight clean sheets after his arrival last season whilst conceding thirteen goals in the sixteen league games we played. We’ve conceded five goals in fourteen league matches since Alisson arrived, attaining nine clean sheets. It’s not, therefore, entirely due to Virgil van Dijk.

The really important thing is that our defence can be relied up to remain solid for the first time since the days of Jamie Carragher in his prime. The other defining feature of those Rafa Benitez teams that were so tough to break down was a solid goalkeeper in the form of Pepe Reina. It’s not just about saving potential goals, either. The key thing that the best goalkeepers offer their sides is a knowledge of how the defence needs to play, with Alisson allowing them to push further up the pitch. He acts as a sweeper ‘keeper in a manner that doesn’t come naturally to his Belgian counterpart, which is why the combination between him and van Dijk is so important. Add in the form of Joe Gomez, who has blown me away with his strength, speed, positioning and intelligence, and we suddenly look like a team that could win to nil without really breaking a sweat.

Alisson’s importance to this team was outlined by the massive saves he made in yesterday’s derby. He had absolutely no right to stop Andre Gomes’s point-blank header, but it was actually the stop from Theo Walcott that I think deserves the most credit. The Everton forward had practically rounded the goalkeeper when his outstretched hand got something on the ball and the danger was averted. There’s obviously no way to know for sure what might have happened if a different goalkeeper had been in net, though personally I think both Mignolet and Karius would have conceded one of the chances Alisson saved, but one thing we can say for certain is that he was the difference maker yesterday. I said on Twitter that I didn’t think van Dijk was in his best form, so it was brilliant to see the shot-stopper step up when needed and help us to take all three points.

Our Attack Is Less Vibrant But Still Working

The other big talking point so far this season comes in the form of the attack, which many people are suggesting is not as good as during our last campaign. The issue with that shout is that, in terms of numbers, we’ve scored just one goal fewer than we’d managed by this point last year. Does that mean, then, that there’s nothing to talk about? I think we all know that the answer to that is ‘no’. We’ve been scoring goals regularly, but we haven’t been as thrilling going forward and too often we seem to have found it difficult to break teams down when we appeared to do it for fun last time out. A little bit of that is revisionism, of course. Here’s a list of our first fourteen results in the 2017-2018 season:

  • Watford 3 – 3 Liverpool
  • Liverpool 1 – 0 Crystal Palace
  • Liverpool 4 – 0 Arsenal
  • Manchester City 5 – 0 Liverpool
  • Liverpool 1 – 1 Burnley
  • Leicester City 2 – 3 Liverpool
  • Newcastle United 1 – 1 Liverpool
  • Liverpool 0 – 0 Manchester United
  • Tottenham Hotspur 4 – 1 Liverpool
  • Liverpool 3 – 0 Huddersfield Town
  • West Ham United 1 – 4 Liverpool
  • Liverpool 3 – 0 Southampton
  • Liverpool 1 – 1 Chelsea
  • Stoke City 0 – 3 Liverpool

We look back as though the opening phase of the campaign was filled with goal-fest performances, but that’s simply not true. The 4-0 over Arsenal obviously stands out, as does the 4-1 win over West Ham, but there are also a number of less exciting performances like the 0-0 with Manchester United and the 1-1s with Burnley, Newcastle and Chelsea.

It’s also worth remembering that we saw the Reds rely on a spectacular goal from the likes of Philippe Coutinho more than once last year, which we haven’t needed as much this time around. Yes, Daniel Sturridge’s screamer rescued a point at Stamford Bridge, but that’s about the only one that stands out to me when I think about it. Instead we’ve been scoring goals as a team, moving opposition defences around to create better opportunities. With that in mind, then, it might be worth remembering that when we panic about our attack not hitting the heights of last season. I’d far rather the more sustainable method that’s currently in place than needing screamers to score.

mooinblack / shutterstock.com

It wasn’t really until December that our attack properly clicked last season, so it will be interesting to see if it does the same this time around. I’m not convinced that it will, however, given that Jürgen Klopp appears to have tweaked the team shape by playing Mohamed Salah more centrally and asking Roberto Firmino to drop deeper. It’s something that’s not working for me, but I do wonder if it’s another part of what’s giving us more defensive solidity. Football is so often a balancing act and Klopp is having to make a decision between giving opposition teams something to think about in terms of the Egyptian King through the middle at the same time as sacrificing the electric attacking that we saw again and again last season.

My point, I suppose, is that it’s perfectly ok to make reference to Liverpool’s attack not being at its best yet. When you do so on social media, someone inevitably replies saying that we’ve scored almost as many goals as last time out, but that doesn’t really mean much. After all, even when we weren’t scoring last season we still looked dangerous going forward in a manner that we don’t seem to be this time around. We all want to see a return of the free-flowing football that made us so thrilling to watch last season, but then we can’t complain about the number of points we’ve racked up nor our position in the table. Hopefully the manager will find a way to tweak the side once more to shift the balance into the favour of the attack without sacrificing defensive solidity. If I were a betting man then I’d probably be looking to place money on the presence of Fabinho and Naby Keita in the side being the reason that might happen sooner rather than later…

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