Since the days of Gerard Houllier and Rafael Benitez, defending has not been Liverpool’s strongest art.
While possessing some very talented defenders since those days – Glen Johnson, Daniel Agger, Martin Skrtel and Jamie Carragher for instance – a combination of various factors, including age, injuries, confidence and managerial style has meant the Reds have been rarely relied upon to make a clean sheet.
Kenny Dalglish managed to steady the ship after the unfortunate Roy Hodgson era, but Brendan Rodgers had eyes instead for possession, and then outright offense with the likes of Luis Suarez and Daniel Sturridge.
It made for enthralling football, and largely successful football too, as Liverpool almost won their first Premier League title for over two decades in 2014. Yet with a defence that conceded 50 goals, the title remained out of reach.
Since, Liverpool have remained porous at the back, with mistakes never far away and uncertainty among all of the back four, particularly at set-pieces.
Corners and free-kicks have been Liverpool’s undisputed weakness, certainly since the title challenge of 2014, and, man-to-man, their defence just did not compare to those they were trying to hunt down above them.
Now, it may seem strange to say, but ever so slowly Liverpool’s defence is on the up. Despite keeping only their first clean sheet of the Premier League season in the 0-0 draw against Manchester United on Monday, a more settled and secure defence is emerging under Jürgen Klopp.
Important as a unit
Though not yet close to the class of the rearguards under Houllier and Benitez, Nathaniel Clyne, James Milner, Joel Matip and Dejan Lovren could make the difference regarding Liverpool’s ambitions for this season.
Clyne’s quality has been known for a number of years, building his reputation at Southampton before Rodgers brought him to Anfield for just over £10m, easily one of the Northern Irishman’s best deals for the club.
Always improving offensively, the 25 year old is one of the best defensive right-backs in the Premier League, if not the best. Normally a model of consistency, Clyne has been a major upgrade on Johnson, and will be a regular in the Liverpool side for years to come.
Meanwhile, James Milner may have been wondering about his future at Liverpool with the competition in midfield, but while everyone tried to figure out how the 30 year old would fit alongside Jordan Henderson, Georginio Wijnaldum, Emre Can and others, Klopp had other ideas.
While understandably hesitant, Milner’s decision to become a left-back has surprisingly paid dividends. Not only can he get forward with the same frequency as he did from midfield, but in a Klopp side, Milner rarely has to defend, operating more as an attacking wing-back than a rigid full-back. Yet the former England international can certainly do a job when asked to defend.
Combined with his energy, athleticism, crossing and passing, Milner has arguably been the best left-back in the league so far.
Steadying the ship in the middle
Then we move onto the middle of defence, and the early days of another new partnership at Anfield. There have been a few too many in recent years, and constant rotation, forced or otherwise, does not usually produce positive results for centre-backs.
However, with Lovren and Matip, Liverpool clearly have two talented defenders on their books.
Lovren’s price tag of £20m from Southampton raised eyebrows, and those eyebrows turned to anger after the Croatian’s horrific debut season at Anfield.
Nevertheless, commendably he stayed on at the club, and has slowly turned his Liverpool career round, particularly under Klopp, removing indecision from his game and resembling more of the assured, confident figure from Southampton and Lyon.
The 27 year old has outlasted Skrtel and, albeit unsurprisingly, Kolo Toure, and deserves his place in the Liverpool side.
Alongside him, Matip’s signing on a free transfer from Schalke has been lauded as supremely smart business by Klopp in the modern cash-rich world of the Premier League.
Matip now needs to prove that such praise is valid, and he has made a decent start to life at Anfield, offering strength, pace and composure on the ball, happily dribbling into opposition halves. There have been a few nervous moments, such as against Chelsea, but after only a couple of months the signs are looking good.
Matip and Lovren need to focus over the coming weeks about understanding each other’s habits, their strengths and weaknesses, complimenting one another so the defence can operate as a unit, something Liverpool sides have struggled to achieve in recent years.
However, they have not had a defensive partnership with as much potential since Agger and Skrtel were at their peak.
Furthermore, the importance of Lovren and Matip gelling together quickly and effectively is a significant feature for Klopp’s Liverpool, as their depth as centre-back, while numerous, lacks similar quality. Ragnar Klavan and Lucas Leiva are limited, while Mamadou Sakho is currently a long way from the first team for non-footballing reasons and Joe Gomez is only just back in training.
Both Lovren and Matip have shown signs that they can become great defenders at Liverpool – together, they need to prove it in a consistent, long-term partnership.