High Risk, High Reward? The Liverpool Defensive Line Debate
They say start as you mean to go on, and no one currently understands the importance of that more than Liverpool. The only remaining side with a 100% record in the Premier League, the Reds have followed up on their Champions League win by picking up the UEFA Super Cup, meaning a victory away to Burnley will wrap up a perfect first month of the season. While the team has rightly been subject to praise in these early days of the campaign, a noticeable tactical tweak has caught the eyes of fans and opposition teams alike.
A strong case can be made for Liverpool’s defence being the best in Europe since Virgil van Dijk and Alisson’s arrival last year. That hasn’t stopped Jurgen Klopp and his backroom staff from fixing it even if it ain’t broke, however, with a key change in the Reds’ backline’s MO.
As a whole, Liverpool’s back four has pushed 10 yards higher up the pitch, looking to keep the opposition pinned in their half by winning the ball back and recycling possession aggressively. With Joël Matip parked around the halfway line, van Dijk stays just behind to sweep up any loose balls. It’s a sign of Klopp’s trust in the duo’s ability that he expects them to carry out this high-risk plan.
How effectively this plan has been executed is up for debate, with the Liverpool goalmouth a lot busier than Klopp would like. 63 shots conceded and no clean sheets in the opening five games point to a more vulnerable defence than last season. And that could only increase with the continued absence of a vital cog.
Alisson’s injury in the opening game against Norwich unexpectedly thrust summer signing Adrián into the limelight. Four days later he was a Liverpool hero, saving the decisive penalty to hand his side the Super Cup. That said, it would be a stretch to say that the Spaniard has instilled confidence in his colleagues the way Alisson did.
His discomfort on the ball is apparent, and with the last line of defence even further away from him than usual, his distribution is regularly put to the test. Judging by the howler at Southampton and the big let-off against Arsenal, the Spaniard has work to do with his Brazilain counterpart still a few weeks away from action.
Opposition managers have been quick to sit up and take notice of Liverpool’s tactical shift as well. Frank Lampard seemed to have played his cards right in the way he set up his Chelsea side for the Super Cup, with N’Golo Kanté closing down tight spaces in between the lines with supreme ease. It was only after the introduction of Roberto Firmino at the break did the cul-de-sacs open up and Liverpool regained their ability to attack.
Unai Emery took a different route last weekend, starting with four central midfielders to patrol the middle of the park in a narrow diamond formation. That left the pacy front two of Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang and Nicolas Pépé in a direct face-off against Matip and van Dijk.
It almost worked too, with the two best chances of the half falling to the Gunners’ aforementioned strike pair. Their defence too held its shape reasonably well up until they were undone by a set-piece minutes from the break. Although convincingly beaten eventually, Emery may have handed others a blueprint to inflict damage on Liverpool in their current set-up.
That said, Klopp’s men are already well-versed in what it will take to make this system a success, having caught opposition players offside more often than any other team last season. With the introduction of VAR in the Premier League this season, and hence no dependency on officials to make the right call, that number could yet increase. Whether you like VAR or not, it’s here to stay. And Liverpool are just doing what they can to stay ahead of the curve.
All the moving parts of the Reds’ defensive machinery aren’t what you’d call well oiled. As with every tactical change, it’s a matter of when and not if the wrinkles will be ironed out. Still finding its feet with the international break on the horizon, the prospect of this Liverpool side adding another string to its bow is an enticing one indeed for those of a red persuasion.