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    Are Liverpool's deep-seated defensive frailties an issue of system or personnel?

    Following Liverpool's defensive collapse at Tottenham, familiar questions have arose regarding Liverpool's frailties of the back, and such is the familiarity of these problems that the good work of 2 consecutive clean sheets has been instantly forgotten due to existing deep-seated distrust of Liverpool's defensive abilities.

    What is noteworthy is that Liverpool have only conceded one goal at home in the Premier League so far, with a complete 180 degrees difference in their away defensive record where Liverpool have shipped in 15 goals on their travels in the Premier League thus far.

    At first glance this would suggest a naive approach Liverpool take when playing away from home, when most teams would usually take a more cautious approach at grounds like the Etihad, Wembley, King Power Stadium, St James Park or even Vicarage Road considering Watford's resurgence this season. Although Lovren has been slated following his performance, look at Tottenham's second goal again and ask yourself if that wasn't Liverpool but it was Man Utd or Chelsea and they're playing away at Tottenham and it's the first 10 minutes of the game - would their centre back be that high up the pitch trying to win a header on the halfway line? More likely it would have been Matic/ Fellaini or Kante/ Bakayoko trying to win that header, with an entire back line behind him. Same goes for Newcastle's goal against Liverpool or Man City's first goal against Liverpool where one pass from deep in midfield split open the Liverpool defence with no one behind them. Again, if that's a big team in a big game away from home it's unlikely their defenders would be sitting that high in that point of the game, at worst it would have been their midfield standing in that position and being split open but not their defence. Although individually there are some laughable mistakes by Liverpool's defenders, look at their current back 4 and look at their back 4 from a few years ago and in terms of individual quality what Liverpool have now is a clear upgrade on the likes of Konchesky or Johnson or Enrique, yet the systemic issues persist.

    This is not unfamiliar reading for those who have been following Liverpool closely in the FSG era, as Brendan Rodgers and now Jurgen Klopp have the same accusations flung towards them. These include but are not limited to a combination of overly possession-based football, defensive frailties seeping the confidence of the attacking players, weaknesses at set pieces and naive approaches in big away games particularly. Indeed, in Liverpool's shambolic 4-1 defeat to Tottenham at the weekend, they still managed to have 64% possession rendering Tottenham to their lowest possession stat of the season, leading many sharpen their knives in criticism of a Liverpool's indirect overly possession based game. This was mirrored in the opposite fashion in almost the exact same result earlier in the season when Liverpool defeated Arsenal 4-0 at Anfield with significantly less possession than the visitors, capitalizing on Arsenal's similar weakness of an indirect overly possession based approach.

    It comes across as strange that the much maligned trio of Simon Mignolet, Dejan Lovren and Alberto Moreno, players who largely cost Brendan Rodgers his job at Liverpool and were the main contributors to Liverpool's defensive frailties at the time, remain first choice options at Liverpool almost 3 years on from Rodgers' sacking. Due to games like yesterday which bring supporters back to the old days of consistent negative displays from any of the three aforementioned trio, many believe it is natural to suggest that the problem is with personnel not the system.

    Although many fans are impatiently waiting for Van Dijk to don the red shirt and do the Melwood lean, and instantly be handed his Superman cape as saviour of Liverpool's defence, it is worth delving a little deeper in the problems that led to his acquisition being required in the first place.

    Liverpool as a whole do not play in an entirely different way under Klopp than they did under Rodgers - although at a higher rate, Rodgers was also a proponent of high pressing, defending from the front, favouring intricate passing play to create danger as opposed to crosses and direct play, full backs joining the attack, and a number 6 pivot shielding two oftentimes stranded centre backs, leaving the team exposed to quick counter attacks.

    Although the best teams in the world such as Real Madrid and Barcelona also apply a similar playing style to an extent, the flying full backs are much faster to snuff out danger higher up the pitch, and defenders such as Sergio Ramos, Pique, Varane or Umtiti are very able to stop counter attacks or one-on-one defensive situations; this is down to their individual quality to compensate for a lack of defensive structure in these teams and the inevitable defensive downsides that occur from their overly attacking approaches. As such, a player like Virgil Van Dijk would improve the individual ability of a Liverpool centre back being stranded with only his other centre back partner and both of them being expected to defend a huge area of the pitch being counter attacked.

    However, many issues with the defensive system itself seem to raise more question marks than the individual quality. Liverpool are one of the very few teams at the top end of European football who do not use an out-and-out defensive minded central midfield player. Chelsea have Kante and Bakayoko, Man Utd have Matic and Carrick, Man City have Fernandinho, Tottenham have Wanyama and Dier. Liverpool's only similar style player was Lucas Leiva but he was strangely sold to Lazio this summer in a cut-price deal, leaving Liverpool's midfield barren of any out-and-out true defensive options. In addition to this, Kevin Stewart was sold to Hull City making it clear Jurgen Klopp does not admire an old-fashioned defensive midfielder who stays central rather than put his pressing first and defending second, which requires you to abandon your post on the pitch occasionally and chase the ball instead, which is a risk-reward that can leave you exposed at the back if the pressing is not successful.

    Defensive midfield is the main problem Liverpool face, as Jordan Henderson is not an out-and-out defensive minded player, and when playing as a defensive midfielder he gives Liverpool the same problems as Arsenal face when Aaron Ramsey is stifled in a deeper role that doesn't suit him. Chelsea and Leicester with and without Kante is a prime example - Leicester's defensive record has declined rapidly following the sale of Kante despite maintaining the same back four, and Chelsea's defensive record improved. Now with Kante injured, Chelsea's defence has been poor recently, and this is not a coincidence but it also doesn't mean the individual quality of Chelsea's defenders is poor because they have proven on several occasions that is not the case. Man Utd's main difference this season than last season was defensive midfield - Matic is a clear upgrade on Carrick whereas Lukaku is not an upgrade on Ibrahimovic in terms of ability or stats or personality or leadership or experience. Man Utd sorting out the defensive midfield position has taken them to another level and it is strange more teams aren't noticing that this is the main catalyst for it.

    In the case of Real Madrid for example, Casemiro has been an ever-present important player to them in recent years to the surprise of many. The catalyst to include him in the team over bigger names was the 4-0 home defeat to Barcelona where Real Madrid deployed Kroos and Modric as defensive midfielders when neither of them is out-and-out defensive minded. Since then, the importance of Casemiro's role has been clearly evident, and Real Madrid's frailties without him do not suggest poor defensive qualities because they boast world class talent, but that a player of Casemiro's ilk is needed to provide balance. Even the current season's neutral's favourites of Manchester City and PSG still consider Fernandinho and Thiago Motta to be largely indispensable players to provide security for the wealth of attacking talent they boast.

    So considering this is a trend in world football that a good defensive-minded central midfielder can be pivotal to a team's success, it is strange why Liverpool are one of the very few who do not attempt to follow this trend. Arsenal are in a similar boat where they have not had a good level outright defensive central midfield player for a long time and the effects of it are clear for all to see. They do not even apply a similar idea to Tottenham where if they're playing 4 at the back, one of Wanyama or Dier will be playing in defensive midfield to act as a 3rd temporary centre back in the case where Tottenham are on the ball and need security at the back to block possible counter attacks and avoid being outnumbered. Jordan Henderson or Aaron Ramsey are not players who can fulfill such a role because it quite simply doesn't fit their style of play and they are not players you'd consider "students of defending" who love the art of defending and constantly study the small intricacies required to excel in this position.

    In addition to this, Liverpool are also one of the few teams who instruct both full backs to push high up the field and join the attack. This combined with a defensive midfielder who isn't defensive minded, is a recipe for disaster. The old school old fashioned idea of full backs is if one pushes forward, the defensive midfielder covers the space he leaves behind, or the other full back stays put and doesn't follow up on the other side in case a cross goes past the box. Liverpool do not tick any of those boxes and it's out of their own volition not by accident, it's a systemic issue where they believe that is the correct way to play, which on occasion it is but on other occasions it's suicidal especially away from home, and Liverpool's current away form shows the results of such a style of play.

    So in short, yes Van Dijk would be an upgrade on Lovren. But Lovren at the time was an upgrade on Toure, Matip was an upgrade on Skrtel, Clyne was an upgrade on Johnson and Moreno was an upgrade on Enrique. Despite this, similar problems pop up defensively. The answer isn't in personnel only, Liverpool have systemic defensive issues that for some unknown reason they seem too stubborn to negotiate on their overly attacking approach a bit in order to be more of a defensively solid unit and not give away free goals and points so easily even when they're playing well.
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    Item Reviewed: Are Liverpool's deep-seated defensive frailties an issue of system or personnel? Rating: 5 Reviewed By: Ahmed Hosny
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