It took all of eight minutes for Liverpool’s 2017/18 Premier League campaign to reach new “crisis” levels. Stefano Okaka rose unmarked to head Watford ahead from the first corner kick of the season prompting the usual outcry about Liverpool’s defensive failings. That they would then concede a late equalizer from another corner kick only made things worse. Ex-pros took turns to rip Liverpool’s defenders – and Jurgen Klopp – to shreds in the media, and LFC fans were in full-blown meltdown on social media.
In truth, Klopp’s team didn’t cover themselves in glory. The defending on the first goal was simply atrocious; not a single Liverpool player rose to attempt a header and Okaka just ran in unimpeded. And the second – even if they were on the wrong side of a couple of lucky bounces and what looked a botched offside call – seemed to merely confirm what “everybody” already knows:
Liverpool – great attack; poor defence.
That “poor defence” has been a source of angst for Liverpool fans for a while and last season’s numbers don’t make pretty reading: Liverpool conceded 42 goals – 16 more than Tottenham – and shipped 12 goals from set pieces, the 10th highest in the Premier League. Their top six rivals ranked 15th, 17th, 18th, 19th and 20th. Its easy to conclude that this is a team that simply doesn’t know how to defend.
Yet – and here’s where things get confusing – there’s also plenty of evidence to suggest that Liverpool can defend as well as any of their top seven rivals. (Okay, maybe not Tottenham; to concede just 26 goals is simply ridiculous).
Before you shake your head in disbelief, consider Liverpool’s record against the League’s top seven clubs (and I only include Everton because of the added intensity of the derby). In those 12 matches, Klopp’s side won six times and were undefeated, scoring 20 goals and conceding ten. I know, that brings up another well-worn description of Klopp’s team:
Liverpool – great against top teams; poor against weak teams.
It’s a reputation that, on the face of it, is well earned. All of Liverpool’s six defeats last season came at the hands of clubs outside the top seven; indeed, of those clubs, only Bournemouth finished the season in the top 10, and four of them finished in the bottom six.
It’s an alarming stat, but one that doesn’t tell the full story. Liverpool’s 26 matches against the bottom 13 clubs saw them score 58 goals and concede 32 times. On average, that’s 2.23 goals scored per game, and 1.23 goals conceded. Against the top teams, by comparison, they averaged 1.66 goals scored per game and 0.83 goals conceded.
What story do these numbers tell? First, Liverpool clearly had little problems scoring goals against the bottom clubs – at least when compared to their record against the top seven. Which kind of flies in the face of the often repeated explanation for Liverpool’s success against the top teams: that attacking teams leave themselves open against Liverpool and are thus easily punished by their potent attack; while less ambitious sides frustrate them by sitting deep and denying them space to exploit.
But these numbers just do not bear that out. Liverpool were clearly more prolific against the weaker teams. True, there were a few laboured, barren performances against packed defences (Burnley, Hull, Southampton), but Liverpool failed to score in a total of just five league games last season – including three draws against Man United and Southampton – suggesting that, more often than not, they found a way to score goals.
Secondly, and more to the point, the numbers show that Liverpool’s success against the top seven was a consequence of solid defensive performances against the best attacking teams in the country. For context, an average of 0.83 goals conceded per game – over the course of a season – would yield 32 conceded goals. That’s better than Chelsea (33) achieved en route the title, and only bettered by those Tottenham freaks and Man United (29).
Apart from their 4-3 win at Arsenal in week one, Liverpool never conceded more than once in any of the other 11 top seven clashes. Despite those three Arsenal goals, they still managed to average less than one goal conceded per game in those 12 games. Indeed, they had four clean sheets, a remarkable feat for a team that recorded only 12 all season. To do that against teams featuring the best strikers in the league – Kane, Costa, Ibrahimovic, Lukaku, Sanchez, Aguero – is surely indicative of a side that knows how to defend.
Except that they only did it in 12 games, even if those 12 games were arguably the toughest of the season. And except for that other number – 1.23 goals conceded per game against the bottom teams. Just imagine: had Liverpool been as secure in these games as they were against the top teams – shouldn’t they be doing even better? – they’d have conceded just 32 goals all season.
And that’s the Liverpool conundrum. How does a team that can defend so well against skillful, attacking teams and great strikers, somehow contrive to concede so easily against less ambitious teams? How does a team that restricted Chelsea, Spurs and Man City to just four goals over 540 minutes of football, then concede seven in just three matches – 270 minutes – against Sunderland, Swansea and Hull?
If Jurgen Klopp can figure that one out, he might yet make a success of his time at Anfield.