Here’s a quick quiz: Of the top six clubs in the Premier League, which one has conceded the most goals from counter attacks this season? How about from own goals? Which club has conceded the most goals as a result of an error by one of its own outfield players? How about from a goalkeeping error? I’m sure you’d be in good company if your answers read: Liverpool, Liverpool, Liverpool and Liverpool.
After all, if the narrative about Liverpool’s defending is anything to go by, it’s clear that Jurgen Klopp’s team have the worst rearguard of all the teams at the top of of the table. “Comical”, “shambolic”, “disastrous”, “extremely leaky” are just some of the choice adjectives that have been used to describe Liverpool’s defence in the last week. Especially since the club announced its record-breaking signing of Virgil Van Dijk just a few days ago.
This – the narrative goes – is Klopp’s big attempt to fix the worst defence ever seen in a Champions League contender. It’s why we’ve been subjected to a steady stream of comments reminding everyone that Van Dijk cannot on his own fix ALL the problems.
Here’s the thing though: if you answered Liverpool for any of the questions above, you’d be wrong, wrong, wrong and wrong. According to stats from the Premier League website and whoscored.com, Arsenal, with three goals, have conceded more counter attack goals than any other top six side (Liverpool have one).
Chelsea and Man City have both conceded two own goals (Liverpool none); Arsenal outfield players have made errors leading to goals on 5 occasions (Man United three, Spurs two, Liverpool one) and Spurs’ Hugo Lloris, with three errors leading to goals, has the worst record for goalkeepers, ahead of both Petr Cech and Simon Mignolet (2 each).
Don’t get me wrong; there’s a good reason why Liverpool wears the reputation of a defensively poor team. There’s a lot of evidence from seasons past, as well as the early part of this season, when damaging errors cost them vital points. Yet, their recent run of matches – the last 12 matches since the Tottenham loss – suggest they are far better defensively than their reputation suggests. The problem is that opinions are hard to shift and reputations hard to shake. As such, the narrative seems set in stone, regardless of evidence to the contrary.
That Liverpool have now conceded 24 goals in 21 Premier League matches this season is of course not deniable. Nor is it an enviable number, even if Arsenal with 26 have now conceded the most of all the teams in the top six. But before I get into the numbers, and why that total doesn’t tell the full story of Liverpool defending, the reasons proffered for Liverpool’s supposed defensive fallibility need their own examination.
Robbie Earle got into it on NBC after Liverpool’s 3-3 draw with Arsenal at the Emirates, blaming Liverpool’s all-out attacking style for leaving them vulnerable at the back. It’s not a new accusation. Indeed, it’s dogged Liverpool since the very best times of Brendan Rodgers’ reign. Nor was Earle the only pundit flinging it about after the Arsenal game.
Yet, nothing in that game suggested that Liverpool’s five minute capitulation – during which Arsenal scored three times to flip a two-goal deficit – was as a result of over- committing to attack. Not one of the goals came from a counter attack. If anything, Liverpool’s defenders were all well positioned to deal with the danger, only to be undone by individual errors, on the first two goals, and brilliant attacking play, on the third.
This had nothing to do with a gung-ho attacking philosophy gone awry. Indeed, since Tottenham put four past Liverpool at Wembley on October 22, the Reds have not conceded a single goal that could be attributed to reckless attacking play. Not one.
Criticism of Liverpool’s risky attacking strategy was certainly valid last season, when defeats at Burnley, Hull, Leicester and home to Swansea were littered with break-away goals straight though the heart of an exposed backline. One could even argue it was still a factor in the two Premier League defeats this season – at Man City and Spurs – but it’s harder to make a case for it since the Wembley defeat.
Liverpool were clearly too cavalier in their approach to attack in the past, too often leaving their rearguard unprotected. But current form – evidenced by the most recent run of games – suggests that they no longer are. Yet the narrative hasn’t changed.
That Wembley game also provides a reference point for the numbers. On the whole, 24 goals conceded is a damning number, and it makes it easy to think of this team as “extremely leaky”. Yet Liverpool’s defensive record since that humbling defeat tells a very different story.
For one thing, in 12 Premier League matches since then, Liverpool have let in eight goals, recorded six clean sheets and conceded more than once only in that Arsenal game. The other five goals they’ve let in over the last two months include two from controversial penalties (Brighton, Everton) and one fluky cross-lob by Chelsea’s Willian.
In that same time span, since the weekend of October 22, Chelsea have conceded just four goals, and leaders Man City have let in eight goals. The rest of the top six? Both Arsenal and Spurs have each shipped 13 goals while Manchester United have let in 12 goals. There’s not a lot to separate this lot, certainly on current form, yet, if you go by the narrative, Liverpool are “extremely leaky” but you’d never hear Spurs or United described in the same light.
On the contrary, they are still regarded as obdurate, defensively solid teams. They may have been, relative to Liverpool, last season, or even earlier this season. But current form – evidenced by the most recent run of games – suggests that may no longer hold true. Yet the narrative hasn’t changed.
The same story holds for set-pieces, another long term weakness of the Liverpool defence. The Reds have not conceded a single Premier League goal from a set piece since Harry Kane scored his second goal at Wembley on October 22 – although they did concede two from set-pieces in the 3-3 Champions League draw in Seville. In contrast, Manchester United have conceded from set pieces 4 times – in December alone. Tottenham? Three set piece goals conceded in December alone.
Of course, Liverpool’s total of 5 goals conceded from set-pieces cannot compare to Manchester City (1) or Chelsea (2), but it’s still fewer than both United (6) or Spurs (7) have conceded this season. Yet, I’d wager you’ve never heard that either of those clubs had a weakness with set-piece defending. They didn’t last season of course; nor did they at the start of the season. But current form – evidenced on the most recent run of games – suggests that they do now. Yet the narrative hasn’t changed.
Liverpool’s reputation for defensive frailty is well earned, and they are still prone to the occasional implosion – as seen at the Emirates last week – but, on current form, much of the assumptions that have been attached to this team simply do not hold true. At the very least, they have improved significantly on their early season form and, on current form, are defending better than most of their top four rivals.
Twelve games do not make a season and doubts about Liverpool’s defensive resilience will take much longer to shake. But the most recent twelve games shed a much better light on current form than do long standing reputations.
It’s time the media narrative started reflecting that.