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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.