The Liverpool Squad – Part 3: Central Defending

In the third part of our analysis, we come to the heart of defence. Kolo Toure and Martin Škrtel have departed, while Joel Matip and Ragnar Klavan have arrived. So, how does that part of the squad look now?

Dejan Lovren

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The Croatian international has had a tremendously upward trajectory at the club so far.

Part of the “Southampton project”, he came to Liverpool for somewhat hefty fee of £20million. Extremely hefty at the time, especially considering he had played just one season in England, even if he did play it well. He started off shaky, with many mistakes, and fans were cursing Brendan Rodgers for signing him, let alone for playing him ahead of Mamadou Sakho. His partnership with the waning Martin Škrtel was disastrous indeed, and he was eventually dropped when the Northern Irishman had adopted a three-at-the-back system in 2014/15, which improved the fortunes for a while.

By the fans he was constantly criticized, even written off. Thankfully, those days are far behind him now, and he has been progressing steadily since Klopp took over from Rodgers. Scoring a few incredibly important goals along the way, Dejan has become a defensive stalwart, and today, very few indeed question whether he belongs in the starting line-up. Brave, strong and intelligent, quick and agile, Lovren has justified his price-tag several times over, and now signing him for £20million seems a bargain.

Joel Matip

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Talking of bargains, it has to be said here that the tall Cameroonian signed for Liverpool this summer as a free player. Pretty unbelievable, right? Just bear in mind what the Manchester clubs paid for the likes of Eric Bailly and John Stones.

We didn’t see much of Joel’s true potential during the pre-season. He had started it well, but only against lowly opposition, when injury struck. However, we have finally seen it.

And first of all, his flaws should be mentioned. His flaw, singular, I should say. There were two situations which may have caught your eye so far, both pointing at the same problem. For some reason, Matip looks a bit weak when he needs to leave his post, break the defensive line for some reason, while defending.

One of those situations was in the game vs Leicester, when Vardy broke through to go one-on-one with Mignolet, allowing the Belgian ‘keeper to shine. Matip was pulled out of position by Ahmed Musa and left out of play, while Vardy, being too quick for Lucas on that occasion, ran into the defensive hole that was left behind him, and got to the end of a clever little pass from Mahrez.

The other situation was vs Chelsea, when Liverpool’s midfield made a rare mistake in not tracking the run of Nemanja Matić. Matip then had to rush across to cover, but he fell out of play by going for a sliding tackle too early. Matić went around him and pulled it back for Costa who scored what thankfully turned out to be a consolation goal for Antonio Conte’s side.

That said, Matip looks a fantastic player. Time and again he makes clearances, reads the game and makes interceptions, and one thing will especially please the fans and Jurgen Klopp, the set-piece defending has improved ten-fold since his introduction to the starting XI. He’s a true defensive leader, directing his team-mates and giving them loud and visible support throughout. He is confident on and off the pitch, and rightly so. He is remarkably quick for his 6’4” frame, and skilful on the ball. His vision is great and his passing intelligent and accurate, often instigating dangerous attacks. But probably the most important thing here is the understanding that seems to have developed between Lovren and him. So far, the tandem is working like a well-oiled machine. A welcome sight indeed.

Mamadou Sakho

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Once a fan favourite, the likeable Frenchman fell out of favour with Jurgen Klopp recently. Once widely considered Liverpool’s best defender, Sakho will now find it very hard to break his way back into the starting line-up. Controversies around him have been discussed to death, and will not be analysed here.

Looking a little clumsy on the ball at times, but overall a really good defender, Sakho played an important part for Klopp’s team in 2015/16.

However, his exclusion from the squad at the USA tour in the pre-season has certainly left its mark, and he was reportedly out of first-team training while his fate for the season was unclear. According to Klopp, Mamadou now only lacks match-fitness and his first job is to work hard to make himself ready to challenge for one of the spots now occupied by Lovren and Matip. After he has done that, he faces the real challenge – to prove he still deserves his old place in the team, as well as the hearts of Anfield faithful. His future at the club is still misty, but at the moment, his return will provide some welcome quality competition.

Ragnar Klavan

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After playing well for Augsburg and (most probably) catching the eye of Jurgen Klopp in that two-leg encounter with Liverpool in the Europa League last season, Klavan has joined the reds and helped fill the void in the squad left by the departures of Kolo Toure and Martin Škrtel.

And he impressed immediately. Measured against the likes of Lionel Messi and former Liverpool striker Luis Suarez in the 4:0 friendly win over Barcelona, Klavan did not shy away or look like not being up to the task. He played well in the opening game of the Premier League against Arsenal too. The game at Turf Moor was a collective failure, and Klavan certainly played his part in that fiasco, but he should not be blamed any more than the rest of the team.

Soon afterwards he picked up an injury on international duty (where have we heard that one before?) and allowed Matip to take his place. Considering the way Matip has been performing, it’s hard to see Klavan regaining it any time soon. But he also represents a really good backup option, and like Sakho he provides serious competition.

Joe Gomez

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Much was said about Joe Gomez in the previous part of this analysis, when the full-back position was discussed. A 19-year old central defender by trade, he was mostly used as a left back by Rodgers at the beginning of 2015/16, and was very good too, until an ACL injury ended his season and shattered his dreams for a while. Due to the fact that the left back position still remains troublesome, filled currently by a midfielder, it’s a strong possibility that Klopp will decide to follow in his predecessor’s footsteps in this particular matter and task Gomez with playing on the left side of defence, though the youngster certainly remains a reasonably good backup option at centre-back.

According to reports, he should be back to full training by the end of October.

Lucas Leiva

People related to football in any way have very rarely approved a player being moved from one position to another (James Milner being one of the most notable exceptions). Lucas Leiva has been playing for Liverpool for nine years now, the club’s longest-serving player since Škrtel left. Previously a box-to-box player, he was moulded into a typical defensive midfielder by Rafa Benitez, and has played in that position for the most of his time at Anfield.

However, Klopp found a new role for him, and he now mostly plays at the centre of defence. And like Milner at left back, Lucas has found himself mostly equal to the task. Apart from one howling mistake, he has been very reliable and his vast experience (again, like with Milner) is clear to see in the way it helps him to adjust to the new position. He seems quite able to face any striker in the league, while his mind of a midfielder works splendidly when starting attacks from the back.

But with Lovren, Matip and Klavan ahead of him in the pecking order, and Sakho and Gomez due to return soon, Lucas will probably be back competing for a midfield spot before long.

Tiago Ilori

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The 23-year old Portuguese spent most of his Liverpool career on loan at various clubs, but now he has been back for a while. But just how seriously Klopp will consider him this season is debatable, to say the least. At best he may get his chance in a few cup games, but other than that, it’s really hard to see him as a contender for a starting spot, or even a place on the bench. If all goes well with the rest of the team, Ilori may decide to leave the club next summer, or even in January.

Conclusion

There is absolutely no reason for Klopp to change anything in the centre-back department at the moment. Dejan Lovren and Joel Matip seem like the way to go, with their current individual form as well as their brilliant partnership. If Sakho or Klavan intend to usurp them, they will have to raise their game significantly.

And that is very good news. Liverpool finally have a working partnership at the back, as well as some strong competition. Happy days.

Veselin Trajkovic

A sports enthusiast, Liverpool FC fan, writing for several blogs, likes to focus on football for what it is, rather than stats or bias. Writing for FOAR since its inception.

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10 thoughts on “The Liverpool Squad – Part 3: Central Defending”

  1. It looks like the Matip+Lovren combo is working fine so far and hopefully become a settled pairing, and not losing either to international breaks is a big plus point reducing the risk of injuries .

  2. Good read once again Veselin!

    I think we are in a good position 4 natural CB is a good number. Klavan and Sakho need to regain their fitness level, that being said I like to see the Matip/Lovren combo all season please.

    Side note: I think even if Sakho regains fitness Klopp would still turn to Lucas before him. I would not be surprised if Klopp signed some young central defenders to mould for the future and saying good bye to Sakho and Lucas even if the latter is a favourite to Klopp.

      1. I think Klopp is a man who believes in second chances, but in the end it will be up for the players to recognize those chances and grabbing it with both hands.

        One thing is for sure his attitude is not right at this moment, changing something like that requires a lot of effort, and keeping it right even more, cause when everything goes right again those nasty habits can easily slip back in. I think this is what makes a player world class or not.

  3. Good Defence wrapup. The words I’d use is “cautiously optimistic”. As far as starting CBs go, Lovren + Matip is pretty good – as in top of the table type good. After that is where it all goes down…

    Sakho – if only he gets back into fitness and favourable reckoning, I’ll change my “cautiously optimistic” to “very positive”. A 3rd world-class edging his way back to challenge the starting two would be fantastic – and ahead of the curve in terms of our rivals.

    Klavan – good so far, but can be prone to gaffes, being caught out of position and slow – but wins points on absolute determination and agression. Now injured, which is not good because, quite frankly, the rest of our options suck balls.

    Lucas – is not a CB anytime of the week for an aspirational team. You put him in there, you’re playing russian roulette. And the only way you can possibly get away is against the bottom draw teams – and even that is suspect. He gives up height, speed and clean tackling. In short…game of death – i.e. penos, dangerous FKs – all at crucial turning moments. In midfield, it’s a different story. He kills attacks and protects the Central Defence while still giving up the clean tackles and FKs. Placed no in Central Defence, every error of his bring the ball that much closer to goal.

    Gomez – very very long way from coming back – and even then only as a FB. Returns to training in October, sure…but I’ll be surprised if we see him in the first team before Christmas.

    Illori – “But just how seriously Klopp will consider him this season is debatable…”
    There is no debate. He has no future at the club. That writing has been on the wall for awhile now.
    A complete write-off and waste of his young career thus far (basically another Coates in progress – he’s just two years younger).

    Of course injuries to critical players can affect any top team. In our case, one to Lovren and/or Matip means RED ALERT especially if the oncoming games are important (aren’t they all?)

    Instantly “happy days” will turn into “pulling teeth days”.

    Ordinarily, I’d have said no need to have made a CB purchase…but with the Sakho situation, it changes that somewhat for the above mentioned reasons.

    1. As for the Lovren/Matip/Sakho/Klavan situation, I don’t think any team in the league is in a better fix, regarding the starting CBs and the immediate backup.
      Maybe only Spurs come close, with Verthongen and Alderweireld making an established partnership, but the rest?
      Chelsea’s first choice pair includes a 36-year old Terry.
      United still have Blind in there (I’d have Lucas over him any day of the week).
      City currently play with Stones, Otamendi or Kolarov. Guardiola’s football is based on possession which keeps them away from any real pressure, but I can’t see them defending well if they should at any point lose a midfield battle. Kompany is a great player and on the way back, but it’s probably only a matter of time before he picks up another long-term injury.
      Arsenal have Mustafi and Koscielny, both good players, but who’s next? Chambers? Holding? Mertesacker might give them something more but who knows when he’ll play again.
      Besides, the whole point is comparing the squad to the one from last season. I think the improvement in the CB department is very visible.

      1. Yes, comparing to last season, the difference is there. But I still don’t think it’s laurel resting standard. Of course you lend context when seen in comparison, but there is also what we need to have on the ready. If no one is the benchmark, it doesn’t mean we then don’t become one.

        Regarding City, it seems increasingly apparent to me that the game of the season will be Liverpool vs City (and the reverse).

        If there is anyone who can outfox Guardiola, it’s Klopp (and again, the vice versa).

        1. Of course, there is always room for improvement, you can never have a perfect squad. My intention in these articles is for all of us here together to observe the evolution of the squad, from the one Klopp inherited from Rodgers (and still reached a domestic and a European final), to the one Klopp is trying to create. There are critics, especially since the Burnley game, who claim Klopp hasn’t really changed anything since he came. We’re still losing to lesser teams, we still don’t have what they call “A genuine world-class player”, we still don’t pay 50m+ for players, and we still don’t attract players like Pogba, Reus, or Goetze, etc.
          Hence the evolution observation. Klopp is definitely turning the wheels, the team is not standing still. I think the next step in player recruitment will come when we reach the top 4 and start playing the UCL. I believe there will be absolutely no limit to who we can sign, apart perhaps from top players who are already at a top club and loyal, really happy and important there.
          Klopp did say that he didn’t want players who would only come to the club for the CL, but I think in the cases of Lewandowski, Benzema, Hummels, Higuain, etc. that wish is quite understandable. Or Suarez for that matter.

          1. To be honest, I’d be very happy for Klopp to recruit just as he has been doing. I get a real kick out of seeing how he’s able to unearth genuine talent at value prices. That’s what’s needed in this unsustainable market. It cannot continue like this despite all the commercial deals and TV revenues. Ultimately, the supporter has to bear some cost.

            The market is basically a bubble. And all bubbles will eventually burst.

  4. I don’t see Lucas & Gomez as viable CB’s, & Sakho seems to be indefinitely frozen out, barring an injury or suspension to the rest.
    Not an ideal situation at all.

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