In the first of a three part series that will take in the whole of the squad one section at a time, we’re taking a look at Liverpool’s defence to see whether it’s strong enough moving forward.
What I’m interested in is the immediate future of Liverpool’s defence, so I’m only going to talk about players who have a serious chance of being a part of it. Connor Randall might have impressed in recent appearances, but as long as there are several players in front of him he’s unlikely to be anything more than a squad player for the foreseeable future, for example.
I’m going to keep this brief, if for no other reason than my stress levels can’t cope with thinking about Mignolet for too long. I also wrote a blog some time ago in which I claimed it would be the last thing I’d say about the Belgian and I don’t want to go back on my word.
It’s impossible to talk about the defensive unit without mentioning Mignolet, though, as I think he’s the root of most of Liverpool’s defensive problems.
I’ll try to keep this short by simply stating this: we need a new goalkeeper. Ideally one who can catch crosses, dominate his box, organise his defence, know how a wall is supposed to be set-up for free-kicks, communicate and also stop shots on target. It would also be great if we weren’t consistently told that this new ‘keeper is a ‘great shot-stopper’, as if that isn’t a prerequisite of a goalkeeper in the first place.
There’s an argument to be had that John Achterberg also needs to be looking for a new job, but that’s a discussion for another time. Sufficed to say, I’m not convinced Liverpool’s goalkeeping coach has any idea what he’s doing and the sooner he’s moved on the better.
As for Danny Ward, that’s something of an enigma. I have no earthly idea why Jurgen Klopp was in such a rush to bring him back from Aberdeen if he was never planning to give him a go in the first team. Admittedly it’s important to have a number two who can actually tie his shoe laces up and give the number one something to think about – which Adam Bogdan never did – but it still would have been nice to see him actually play.
There’s also a discussion that needs to happen about Mignolet being given a new contract. Who knows what the thinking was behind that? As long as it wasn’t ‘this is great, we’ve got the best goalkeeper in the world tied down forever’, I don’t mind. Regardless, Mignolet’s got to go.
The Full Backs
Nathaniel Clyne & Alberto Moreno
It’s worth looking at these two together because they are, to all intents and purposes, Jurgen Klopp’s first choice full-backs. What’s interesting about them is that they also compliment each other reasonably well. Clyne is solid at the back, Moreno isn’t. Clyne is an intelligent player who gives all of his actions a solid amount of thought, Moreno is a braindead clown and so on.
The former Southampton right-back is a dependable option. He doesn’t offer a huge amount in the final third, but he’s young enough and clever enough to develop under the tutelage of our German maestro. He’s solid in the opening third of the pitch, though, and that is where it matters the most. He’s quick, strong and has a sound head on his young shoulders so he should be reasonably confident that the right-back spot is his indefinitely.
Moreno, meanwhile, is an interesting one. The statisticians will tell you that he’s created more goalscoring opportunities than any other defender in the country, or something along those lines. What they don’t tell you is that he’s a braindead clown. The stats don’t draw your attention to when he puts his arms behind his back as he’s trying to block an attacker; nor do they tell you about the times he tries to make a tackle by doing a karate leap from hip height.
The Spaniard may have something to offer in the final third but he’s less than dependable in his defensive duties. It’s also worth asking how many of those goalscoring opportunity stats were him passing it five yards to Coutinho in order for the Brazilian to smash a shot into the stand from 35 yards away.
Of the two players that seem to be constants in Klopp’s first choice XI, it’s Moreno who should be the most concerned. He’s as fast as lightening but unless he realises that pace doesn’t make up for a lack of positional sense sooner rather than later then he’s not going to keep his spot nailed down for long. Is he intelligent enough to learn from Klopp? Only time will tell, but I wouldn’t be staking a large amount of money on it.
Flanagan & Smith
The understudies to the main players, Jon Flanagan and Brad Smith are perfectly acceptable squad players. In a world where Djimi Traore has a Champions League winner’s medal and Aly Cissokho almost helped Liverpool to win the league for the first time in 24 years, these two are the least of our worries.
The only question about Flanno is whether Klopp feels he’s recovered from his injury well enough to be depended on moving forward. The fact that his name was not one of those included in the Europa League squad and that he still hasn’t been given a new contract suggests that the German still isn’t convinced.
The interesting thing for both of these players is whether Flanagan might be used as a left-back, as he was under Brendan Rodgers. He’s a spirited, gutsy player who knows what it takes to perform at his best for Liverpool and it’s important to keep a local heartbeat in the team. If he can get back to his 2013-2014 level then I think most Liverpool supporters would rather see him at the back than Alberto Moreno.
Smith, meanwhile, is neither young enough to be pliable by Klopp nor old enough to be stuck in his ways. He has an incredible amount of pace on his side yet, much like with his Spanish team-mate, doesn’t have the defensive ability to mean that he’s a definite starter for the future. These two are the types of players that Alex Ferguson would keep in his United squad to use regularly, safe in the knowledge that they’d do a job when called upon and not complain too much about not being regular starters. I expect Klopp to use them in a similar way moving forward.
The Centre Backs
Lovren & Sakho
Lumped together here because they both like to play on the left side of a defensive centre-back pairing, the Frenchman and his Croatian colleague are both interesting in their own way. Mamadou Sakho was loved by those on the Kop who were able to ignore the press sniping about his gangly running style, only for those people to fall out of love with him in recent times when his sloppy play seemed to justify ever criticism from his detractors.
Dejan Lovren, on the other hand, was reviled under Rodgers, with most Liverpool fans desperate to see him binned off completely. Then, under Klopp, he seems to have revitalised his season and is now noted by his absence and what a difference it makes to the backline.
It’s likely that only one of these players will be a first choice, left-sided defender under Klopp in the future, with Lovren slightly more likely to get the nod because of Sakho’s injury record. Both of them have missed periods of the season through injury, but Lovren seems to have been unlucky whilst Sakho seems to have chronic problems. If Klopp wants a team for the league and a team for the cups next season then these two will be great to use in rotation, but don’t be surprised to see someone else brought in to replace one of them.
Skrtel & Matip
Working on the theory that Klopp wants two players for each position, Joel Matip and Martin Skrtel are likely to battle it out for the slot on the right side of the centre-back pairing. With Matip arriving in the summer as one of Klopp’s newest recruits, the likelihood is that he’ll be the first name down on the German’s team-sheet.
Skrtel has been an excellent servant to Liverpool and his contribution shouldn’t be dismissed out of hand. The truth is, though, that he’s been allowed to get away with far too much because of the fact that Liverpool have had more pressing problems to deal with. The Slovakian can be a force on his day, seeming to be an immovable object in the face of opposition defences. The problem is that it isn’t his day anywhere near often enough.
Skrtel is caught at the scene of the defensive crime far too often for it to be consistently overlooked. His ability to switch off from his defensive duties and allow the opposition to get away with figurative murder has been seen more often than a manager of Klopp’s ability will consider to be acceptable.
In all honesty it’s unlikely that Klopp is going to want to bring in a completely new defensive line and he won’t want to move Skrtel on immediately in case Matip struggles to adapt to the demands of the Premier League. It’s likely that the Liverpool boss sees Skrtel as a relic of a bygone era, though, so expect him to be moved on as soon as the German feels Matip knows the score and someone else is ready to act as backup. Given Klopp’s use of Lovren in the left-back spot to good effect in recent times, that could be sooner rather than later.
Caulker, Gomez & Kolo Toure
It somehow seems right to talk about these three together, considering one of them will definitely be leaving at the end of the season, one of them almost certainly will and the other one won’t be overly important in the immediate future.
Steven Caulker was an interesting signing when he was brought in, thought to offer strength and a commanding presence at the back but used either as a makeshift striker or not at all. I can see why Klopp signed off on him but he’ll be gone by the end of May.
Kolo’s situation is slightly more complicated. The Ivorian is a great personality and a top bloke to have around the place, but he’s getting so old he can barely even run to celebrate a goal he’s just scored. The sort of guy you want to keep in the dressing room but don’t want to have to depend upon on the pitch. If Liverpool can’t find room in the backroom staff for Jamie Carragher or Steven Gerrard it’s unlikely they’ll find it for Kolo, but there are plenty of good arguments for why they should.
Joe Gomez, meanwhile, looked far older than his eighteen years when he played under Brendan Rodgers at the start of the year. A right-sided centre-back being asked to play as a left-back, he was solid and calm even when asked to deal with Alexis Sanchez. Whether he’ll be part of Liverpool’s defensive centre on a regular basis in the foreseeable future will depend upon how well he recovers from his injury, but he’s not likely to be a first choice centre-back for another few years.
So there you have it. A new goalkeeper working alongside two solid and dependable centre-backs, such as a Matip who has adapted successfully to life in England and the Lovren we’ve seen under Klopp rather than the one we despised under Rodgers, and Liverpool’s defensive errors should start to lessen over time.
The likes of Gary Neville might disagree, but the full-back slots are the least important on the pitch. They need to be defensively sound but they don’t need to be spectacular to help their club win medals. I’d guess that a new left-back and one more central defender might be added to the new goalkeeper on Liverpool’s roster in the summer, but neither of those are of burning importance right now.