After pre-season excitement had been abruptly curtailed by a shock transfer request from Philippe Coutinho on the eve of Premier League kick-off, Liverpool were left predictably frustrated by defensive failings in a 3-3 draw with Watford at Vicarage Road.
Both Sadio Mané and Mo Salah were on the scoresheet as Reds fans were treated to a tantalising glimpse of the terrifying attack to be unleashed by Liverpool this season. But it was defensive frailty, particularly from set-pieces, that once more culminated in an excruciating stoppage-time capitulation and the surrender of two vital points.
Of course, it is worth stating that, however disappointing, this is only one game, and so early in the season. Jürgen Klopp’s Liverpool, too, have suffered worse results against Watford and at the hands of Marco Silva, including a 3-0 defeat at Vicarage Road in December 2015 and a 2-0 defeat to Hull at the KC Stadium in February 2017, two results which rank among the lowest moments of Jürgen Klopp’s 22-month managerial tenure. Nevertheless, the recurrence of the defensive horror-shows of seasons past has prompted justifiable anguish and a sense of despair among Liverpool supporters fearful of déjà vu and a further season of attacking majesty undone by defensive impotence.
The inevitable chorus of response from the Liverpool fans has thus been to advance that the acquisition of Southampton’s Virgil van Dijk is now more evidently urgent than ever, although the Southampton hierarchy are refusing to relinquish the in-demand defender.
This, however, is frankly too simplistic. Liverpool’s defensive woes cannot be attributed solely – or even principally – to inept centre-backs. Indeed, the signings of Mamadou Sakho, Dejan Lovren and Joël Matip in successive seasons were each intended to arrest Liverpool’s frailties at the heart of the defence, but to no avail. Indeed, Liverpool have conceded 27 goals from set-pieces during Klopp’s tenure. Despite the obvious quality of van Dijk and the understandable fervour among supporters to witness his signing, there is little evidence to suggest that even his arrival would resolve this enduring weakness.
The left-back position, too, persists as a conundrum for the manager. Last season’s makeshift left-back James Milner today lost his place, not to new signing Andy Robertson, but to Alberto Moreno, who had seemed destined for departure before a surprisingly modest pre-season. He reverted to type against Watford, however, and was defensively suspect on a number of occasions, underlining the worrying reality that Klopp is yet to identify which, if any, of the three is capable of staking a definitive claim to the position.
Equally disappointing was goalkeeper Simon Mignolet, who had been preferred to Loris Karius and Danny Ward. Having performed well in the latter half of last season -recording clean sheets at Stoke and West Brom, often tough visits fraught with intimidating physicality and speciality set-piece threats – Mignolet also looked to have reverted to his former flailing self in the face of such threats and ought to have dealt better with at least two of the three Watford goals. As with the left-back position, the delusion of goalkeeping options is, in reality, an indictment of the lack of quality of the three, with none of the three among them able to assert a claim to a regular starting role.
It would appear, then, that only two members of Liverpool’s first-choice back five are sufficiently competent to merit a regular place in the starting line-up of a side seeking to launch a title challenge, namely Nathaniel Clyne and Joël Matip. The manager, however, appears to be pursuing a replacement in only one of the remaining three positions, that of a centre-back in the form of van Dijk. The club’s owners, Fenway Sports Group, reportedly made available a “war chest” of £200m for Klopp to spend this summer, and with less than £50m spent thus far, the funds are presumably available if Klopp also sought to address through transfers the problem positions of goalkeeper and left-back.
More important than the landmark signing of marquee defenders, however, is radical work on the training ground to address systematic ineptitude in defending set-pieces. For Stefano Okaka’s 8th minute opener, Liverpool’s zonal marking system tasked striker Roberto Firmino with challenging Watford’s physically imposing centre-forward. For Miguel Britos’ 93rd minute equaliser, Mignolet remained rooted on his line rather than coming to claim the tame, near-post corner, while Gini Wijnaldum ducked under the effort which reached Britos, who had been allowed to reach the goal-line unmarked to nod in the gut-wrenching – though wholly predictable – equaliser.
Jordan Henderson was quick to emphasise the time and effort invested in defending set-pieces during the off-season, but it is impossible to discern any improvement whatsoever on the basis of this opening match. There can be one of only two reasons for this. Either Klopp and his coaching team are incapable of improving Liverpool’s defensive performance, or they have always been satisfied to attempt to outscore the opposition.
Moreover, Klopp’s overwhelmingly attacking play, although often devastating, is in part responsible for the underwhelming defence, too. His side often concedes when the advanced full-backs leave the centre-backs isolated against the counter-attack. This is not a failure of personnel, but a weakness of the tactical setup, and any two centre-backs would struggle in such circumstances.
Given these evident tactical failings, it is perhaps an oddly unpopular assertion that, for every exhilarating 4-3 victory over Arsenal and 5-4 win against Norwich, there will be a gut-wrenching 3-3 draw at Watford and 4-3 defeat to Bournemouth. This is an implicit consequence of Klopp’s favoured style and, for the most part, we fans have too long embraced it. Naïvely, we mistake excitement for achievement, mistakenly allowing nervy victories delivered by explosive attacking football to disguise the most basic of defensive deficiencies that on another day incurs such miserable capitulations. Champions, by contrast, rarely throw caution to the wind. Champions are defensively solid as a priority.
Simply put, little has changed. The signing of Mo Salah is undoubtedly exciting, though few had ever questioned Liverpool’s offensive capabilities. On the contrary, Liverpool will enjoy spells of sparkling and free-scoring football in the months to come, and with some reward. This is a system that has seen the Reds reach the finals of the League Cup and Europa League, and qualify for the Champions League. With no improvement in defence, however, those familiar flaws seem destined to cost Liverpool once more. Given the transfer activity of their league rivals, moreover, significant improvements and additions are required merely in order to replicate last season’s fourth-placed finish.