The transformation of Liverpool’s Defence
Composure. Structure. Stability. Words that certainly haven’t been associated with Liverpool Football Club in recent seasons, never mind their defence. But, fortunately for the Anfield faithful, that has all changed, and what a transformation it has been.
Jurgen Klopp arrived at the club in October 2015 and began his tenure with a goalless draw at Spurs, where Nathaniel Clyne, Martin Skrtel, Mamadou Sakho and Alberto Moreno filled out the back four positions, with Simon Mignolet completing the defensive positions. And while Liverpool fans may have welcomed an important point away from home in the capital, there isn’t a single Reds supporter on the planet who thinks the club were better off then than they are now.
Just over three years later and Klopp’s men are sitting pretty in second, with the best defensive record in the league, conceding one goal fewer than Pep Guardiola’s Manchester City. It’s now 36 points from 14 games for the Reds, with 11 victories, three draws, and zero losses.
Liverpool’s flying beginning to the campaign – their best league start for as long as many fans can remember – has largely been down to their defensive displays, as opposed to the dazzling attacking performances of last season. The names of Mignolet, Clyne, Skrtel, Sakho, and Moreno have been replaced by those of Alisson Becker, Trent Alexander-Arnold, Joe Gomez, Virgil van Dijk, and Andy Robertson, with a new and improved squad looking to challenge on all fronts this time around.
It seems as though the backline is finally in the limelight, with the forwards stealing the headlines for the majority of the previous campaign. Whereas one man in Mohamed Salah held much of the responsibility in 2017/18, its been a largely different story for the men at the back, with Robertson and Alexander-Arnold impressing either side of a formidable partnership in Gomez and van Dijk, while Alisson has undeniably provided an extra layer of confidence between the sticks.
The two centre-backs have produced several top displays, with Alisson just as effective right behind them, having kept his ninth clean sheet of the season – one more than Ederson – in the recent Merseyside derby victory. Van Dijk and Gomez meanwhile have rarely lost an aerial battle, with the latter amassing 38 headed clearances, 78 clearances, and 11 blocks so far this campaign. The instrumental centre-back has also completed 1,056 passes and has had 1,225 touches, with left-back Andy Robertson not far behind on 853 and 1,142 respectively, proving just how crucial the defence is to Klopp’s ideal style of play.
Gomez has been a worthy addition to the back four after a lengthy injury initially put his first-team chances in doubt, and the majority of fans can comfortably say that he is a welcome replacement for Dejan Lovren, much like the situation with Andy Robertson, who has completed the most important transition of all by overtaking Alberto Moreno at left-back. Since Klopp finally decided to give him a starting berth the Scotland international has been stunning. Joe Gomez has also slowly emerged as a favorite for both club and country.
At just 20 years of age, Alexander-Arnold is the youngest in Klopp’s most popular back four this season, but it’s important to remember that Gomez is just one year older than his international compatriot, despite his growing maturity and competence at the heart of the defence. However, it may just be TAA that has improved most in recent years, progressing from the youth side to become a first team regular, and recently scoring a sensational free kick in the 3-0 victory at Watford.
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Both, his Golden Boy nomination and his first England goal against the USA have given him yet another confidence boost, but he certainly has a long way to go to become a finished product, with either Ajax’s Matthijs de Ligt or Borussia Dortmund’s Christian Pulisic likely to take the crown of the prestigious Golden Boy award, and Kyle Walker still Gareth Southgate’s number one option at right-back for the national team.
As Trent Alexander-Arnold sets his sights on becoming the first defender to win the famous award, it’s important for both him and Gomez to keep their feet on the ground at such a young age, and who better to guide them than Virgil van Dijk?
A class act and a world-class defender, van Dijk has been simply immense since joining the Reds and is arguably the reason why those around him have improved so much. The Netherlands international is the perfect role model for those in and around the starting 11, with his composure and intelligence on the pitch second to none. The towering centre-back has also taken his club form into the national team, scoring two goals in four Nations League games, including a 90th-minute equaliser to sink Germany and send his side into the semi-finals of the competition, proving just how crucial he is to Ronald Koeman’s setup.
A top back four also needs a top goalkeeper, and it helps when you can rely on Alisson as your last line of defence. The Brazilian has been a solid addition to the squad and has rescued Liverpool on more than one occasion this season. The goalkeeping problem that fans feared would never be fixed has been addressed by the new number 13. He completes a back five that could genuinely become a permanent fixture at the club for many, many years to come.
It’s a new-look squad for a new generation of football at Anfield. Klopp has transformed a once-nervous and incompetent defence into one of resilience and determination, with the 1-0 derby victory over Everton epitomising such resolve to grind out yet another clean sheet. It’s been a long time coming, but it may just have been worth the wait for Liverpool to finally find some sense of stability at the back.
Feature Image via Rush The Kop
Liverpool celebration image via Evening Standard
Joe Gomez image via Squawka
Alisson image via Goal
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