After the goalless draw against Southampton, Dave Tindall assesses whether Liverpool’s defence can do their part in the title race.
It’s easy to spend this column waxing lyrical about our attacking riches every week.
And, in truth, they deserve it having scored more Premier League goals than anyone this season.
There was even a recent Opta stat that we’d scored more goals (40) in our opening 14 games (all comps) than at any time since 1895-6 when goalkeepers spent half the match leaning against goalposts smoking.
So how about a few words for the LFC defence after a clean sheet in the frustrating but far-from-disastrous 0-0 draw at Southampton.
Case for the defence
There are clean sheets and there are clean sheets and this was one of the purest. The evidence? Southampton failed to register a single shot on target in a Premier League game for the first time in 12 years. Hmmm, that doesn’t quite fit with the narrative of us being dreadful at the back.
Was this a one-off? Or was it a sign that the Liverpool defence – individually praised and yet collectively derided – is not the shambles it’s repeatedly portrayed as?
Linda Pizzuti, the wife of LFC owner John W Henry, takes delight in tweeting ‘clean sheet’ when we shut the opposition out.
Last Saturday was the first time she’s been able to do that in 12 away games but the second occasion she’s made mention of it in our last five Premier League outings.
True, Chelsea are setting the bar when it comes to defending at the moment but how have the rest of the top six fared defensively in the top-flight since mid-October?
Goals conceded in last 5 Premier League games
Chelsea: 0-0-0-0-0 = 0
Liverpool: 0-1-2-1-0 = 4
Man City: 1-1-0-1-1 = 4
Arsenal: 1-1-1-0-2 = 5
Spurs: 2-1-1-0-1 = 5
Man Utd: 1-1-0-4-0 = 6
Evidence that we’re getting better? Or just a reflection that it was a fairly soft part of the fixture list given that those five games were Man Utd (h), West Brom (h), Crystal Palace (a), Watford (h) and Southampton (a)?
The Liverpool Echo made Joel Matip their Man of the Match (9 out of 10) at Southampton while fellow central defender Dejan Lovren was next best (8 out of 10). It was hard to disagree with that assessment.
And yet, ironically, one of the talking points to emerge from the match was that we should raid Southampton yet again by offering serious money for their central defender Virgil van Dijk.
The 25-year-old was certainly outstanding and Jurgen Klopp is believed to be a big fan. Some have even described the Dutchman as the final piece in our title jigsaw. That’s some claim on many levels.
Do we need him though? Lovren would probably be the one to make way and Celtic and Saints fan might tell us that van Dijk would be a serious upgrade on the Croatian.
But is it smart to end the Matip-Lovren central defensive axis just when it seems they’re forming a trustworthy partnership?
Klopp certainly seems happy enough with the defence so far and gets close to irritation at those who don’t believe him.
Here’s why he might have a point.
To get a ball-park figure on how many goals prospective title winners can afford to concede, the last four champions have let in an average of exactly 37. That’s just shy of a goal per game for a 38-match campaign. In other words, nothing incredible.
So far this season, Liverpool have let in 14 goals in 12 games. At that rate, we’d end the season having shipped 44 goals, just one more than Man Utd did when they won the title in 2012/13.
It suggests we’re not far away and, as evidenced by recent games, we appear to be tightening up.
And it’s not as if we have Brendan Rodgers or Roberto Martinez in charge – managers who seem to give the impression that defending is a bit of an afterthought.
When Klopp won the title in 34-game seasons with Borussia Dortmund, they conceded just 22 goals in 2010/11 (18 fewer than anyone else) and 25 in 2011/12.
Klopp knows how to put a defence together.
It’s still fair to think that success will be based on how many we score as the lack of a clean sheet has only stopped us winning once this season – the 1-1 draw at Spurs. Apart from the 2-0 at Burnley, in all the other games in which we’ve allowed the opposition to find the net, we’ve simply outscored them and banked the three points anyway.
Contrast that to Manchester City, whose failure to keep clean sheets has cost them six points in the last five games via 1-1 draws with Everton, Southampton and Middlesbrough.
But there will be occasions, probably later in the season, when winning to nil will be precious.
Of course, this is all about the team and the boss insists we defend from the front. It isn’t just down to Clyne, Matip, Lovren, Milner and Karius.
But Liverpool fans should take heart from the fact that our defence is doing enough to ensure that we get the full benefits from our goal-laden attack.
More in store?
There are two other obvious chances to grab clean sheets in the next week. First, a home game against Sunderland in the Premier League and then another Anfield outing against Leeds in the League Cup on Tuesday night.
LFC have already kept the opposition out twice in three League Cup games so again that bodes well.
Our backline is unlikely to get any plaudits in either game given that Sunderland are second bottom, Leeds are 7th in the Championship and the pair have scored just 12 away goals between them. But often no news is good news.
Quietly and without much fanfare, this Reds defence looks to be improving. Not to the level of world-beaters because it doesn’t have to. But at least to a standard which means it won’t be the glaring Achilles heel in our bid for trophies this season.