It’s no surprise that much of the credit for Liverpool’s on-field successes this season has gone to their scintillating strike force. Mohammed Salah, Roberto Firmino and Sadio Mane have combined for an incredible 83 goals in all competitions, firing Liverpool to the Champions League semi-finals and all but securing another top-four finish as the season begins to wind down.
Yet, on the back of another clean sheet at Anfield last weekend – Liverpool’s fourth in their last six matches – which closely followed an impressive defensive stand off against Manchester City in the Champions League, it’s becoming increasingly clear that there is much more to Jurgen Klopp’s team than brilliant attacking play.
Over the last few weeks, the defensive quartet of Trent Alexander-Arnold, Dejan Lovren, Virgil van Dijk and Andrew Robertson have strung together a bunch of impressive performances, in the process turning a defense with a reputation for flakiness into one of the most obdurate in Europe. To steal a quote from their boss they’ve been “turning doubters into believers”. Phillipe Coutinho’s January departure may have broken up the original Fab Four, but a new Fab Four may well be emerging at the other end of the pitch.
As these things go, Liverpool’s defensive improvement will be put down to the arrival of van Dijk in January. He’s obviously had a positive influence but that’s an overly simplistic view – as I highlighted back in January, Liverpool had shown clear defensive improvements even before the Dutchman had kicked a ball in Liverpool red. Still, there’s no question that his leadership, passing, aerial prowess and calm authority have proved a real asset to the team.
Alongside him, the much maligned Lovren has looked more assured and much less prone to the calamitous lapses that tended to undermine his better qualities. The full backs have been even more impressive; Robertson, an 8 million pound arrival from Hull, has quickly become arguably the best left back in the Premier League, combining stellar defending with positive attacking output (4 assists in 20 games), while 19-year-old Alexander-Arnold as shown maturity – and ability – well beyond his tender years despite coming up against the likes of Leroy Sane and Wilfred Zaha in recent weeks.
The recent Manchester City Champions League quarter final games perhaps best demonstrate Liverpool’s current defensive obduracy. Make no mistake; this was a real test against one of the best attacking teams in all of Europe. Pep Guardiola’s side have now scored 130 goals in all competitions this season. Their brand of relentless, attacking football as wore down most opponents this season – 28 wins in 33 matches secured the Premier League title with five games to spare.
Yet, Liverpool reduced them to zero shots on target at Anfield, despite facing essentially one way attacking traffic for most of the second half. City again pinned Liverpool back for the first 45 minutes in the second leg at Etihad, yet fared only slightly better, registering just two more shots on target following Gabriel Jesus’ early goal.
City, have of course failed to score in other matches this season. But that’s usually because they’ve failed to convert chances, not because they’ve failed to create chances. The paucity of City chances in 180 minutes against Liverpool is testament to Liverpool’s defensive performance over the two legs. In contrast, the same City team still scored twice – and missed many more chances – despite losing to 2nd placed Man Utd three days before the 2nd leg, and then followed that with a 3-1 win – and more missed chances – against 4th placed Spurs. By reputation, those are two of the best defences in the Premier League.
Beyond those numbers, one other thing caught my eye at the Etihad: City twice tried a short corner-kick routine, David Silva playing it short to Kevin de Bruyne and then quickly taking back the return, in a bid to unsettle the Liverpool defence. It ended in offside calls both times as Liverpool’s defense moved up in unison. Indeed, the number of times Manchester City players were caught offside – Sane alone was caught out seven times! – was clear evidence of a well-coached, well-organised back line.
But it wouldn’t make sense to herald the defensive credentials of this team solely on the back of impressive performances in two high profile games. This isn’t just about two games, or two weeks, as the numbers show.
As I suggested back in February, Liverpool’s season started to turn around after the humiliating 0-4 loss to Spurs on October 22 and, just as the goals started to fly in upfront after that, the numbers show that in the six months since that game, Liverpool have had the tightest defence in the Premier League.
I know it’s hard to believe, right? Let’s start with a look at the improvement in Liverpool performance after the Spurs defeat in week nine. Pay particular attention to the goals conceded per game (CPG) column.
It’s that spectacular turnaround in form that has seen the Reds climb steadily from 13th place on October 23rd, to 3rd place at this stage of the season.
But improving from a poor start is all well and good. More pertinent is how that improvement compares to others.
It’s shouldn’t surprise anyone that champions Man City have won more games and more points in that time than any other team. And it’s probably not surprising that Liverpool, have scored more goals than any other team.
What might be surprising is that Liverpool have conceded fewer goals (19) than any team in the Premier League over the last 25 games.
Indeed, that might shock those who still insist this Liverpool team is “extremely shaky” defensively.
One cannot discuss Liverpool defending without talking about set pieces, of course. It’s perhaps the one facet of defending that has been a persistent bugbear of Liverpool defending in recent years – “Liverpool are weak on set pieces” has become the go-to mantra for many pundits.
Yet, even on set-piece defending, Liverpool are a changed team this season – at least since that wake-up call at Wembley six months ago. Like the goals conceded record, the total numbers might not fully show this, although even on that score the six goals they’ve let in from set pieces still betters the record of both Man Utd (10) and Spurs (8).
More to the point, over the last 25 Premier League games, Liverpool have conceded just ONE goal from a set piece. Another box ticked by Liverpool’s fast improving Fab Four.
In truth, regardless of the great form of Alexander-Arnold, Robertson, Lovren and van Dijk, it’s a bit disingenuous to attribute Liverpool’s defensive improvement solely to those four. Liverpool’s defending – as we saw against City – has more to do with a synchronized, total team effort involving the midfielders as well as the high-pressing, hard-working front three. Besides, the likes of Ragnar Klavan, Alberto Moreno, Joe Gomez and Joel Matip all played some part in the turnaround, and I haven’t even mentioned the growing influence of Loris Karius, who has been first choice ‘keeper since January.
Fab Four or not, Liverpool have drastically improved their defensive output since that poor start to the season. In the process, they have outperformed every team in the Premier League – in defensive terms – just as their prolific attack has outscored every team in the Premier League. It’s time they got some credit for that.
Let’s hear it for the boys (at the back)!