As 2018 came to an end, Liverpool would have been very happy indeed. Champions League heartbreak aside they had enjoyed a very good year. Having matched Manchester City toe to toe across 2018 they entered 2019 top of the Premier League table and four points ahead of the champions.
Adding Virgil Van Dijk in the January transfer window and Alisson Becker in the summer had transformed the once weak Reds backline into a formidable outfit. 12 of their 21 games before the turn of the year had seen them keep clean sheets. They had conceded just ten goals in that period, the best in the league. Manchester City were their closest competitors with a tally of 17 conceded.
Their defensive change was also in part down to a change in tact from Jurgen Klopp. Rather than heavy metal football, Liverpool had adopted a more cautious approach to ensure a sustained title tilt. This side refuses to give up cheap shots, and are happy to grind out narrow victories. They had also found the crucial ability to win when they weren’t at their best. It has often been said that is what champions are made of and Liverpool not only had it but also utilised it more than once.
Yet, the turn of the year has seen Liverpool undergo a dramatic change. Their defensive solidity has been abandoned and the attack is struggling to make up the difference. It all started with that 4-3 win over Crystal Palace.
The Reds should have overcome the Eagles but instead, it was a taut affair. On another, Julian Speroni-less day, Roy Hodgson’s side would have walked away from Anfield with a comfortable win. They were more than worthy of it and Liverpool knew they were lucky to leave with all three points.
Few sides score three at Anfield and don’t get their just rewards. In fact, the only side to do so in all competitions this season are Paris Saint Germain. Those two teams are the only ones to score more than two in a game against the Reds this year.
And while the result was a disappointing one for Palace it exposed a flaw in Liverpool’s defence that they’re yet to address. The 4-3 win was the kind of result they thrived on in the past but this one has rocked them to their foundations. They’ve had a taste of the past and they did not like it. More than anything, the confidence at the back has taken a monumental hit.
That was in evidence at the London Stadium on Monday evening. After a fortunate draw against Leicester City before that, Liverpool were in for a bruising evening in the capital. If their defensive confidence had been low beforehand, it will not have come out of the 1-1 draw any higher. To be frank, West Ham should have won this game with ease. Declan Rice will still be wondering how he didn’t put his side in front before half time. Manuel Pellegrini will be wondering how they didn’t find a way to secure all three points. With 13 shots in total, they peppered Liverpool’s backline, looking to expose that lack of confidence. On another evening, with Marko Arnautovic in the team, this would have been very different.
Set pieces proved to be a particularly powerful weapon. Time and time again Liverpool were exposed by the Hammer’s set-piece plays. For most, the away side looked disorganised and lost. There was no confident Van Dijk or Alisson dominating the back to save them, just confusion and weakness. It was a similar feeling every time the home side exposed James Milner at right back.
That in itself could be an indicator of the problem. With Joe Gomes, Dejan Lovren and Trent Alexander-Arnold injured and Nathaniel Clyne at Bournemouth, Liverpool have looked short at the back.
Joel Matip and Van Dijk do not click in the middle and Milner’s days of playing full back are far behind him. Every bit of the confidence he showed a left back is absent on the opposite side. When players return and Liverpool can get a settled back line in place again, there is a chance confidence will return.
Until that point, Jurgen Klopp needs to find a way to restore confidence and stability back into his defence. If he cannot, that title bid that was looking so strong a month ago is likely to keep on crumbling.
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