Much has been made of the progress this Liverpool side have made in these early months under the tutelage of Brendan Rodgers. Whilst the results have not been as good as the fans would have hoped, the team’s understanding and ability to put his system in to work is improving with every game and the performances have been extremely encouraging – particularly those of the younger players who Rodgers has drafted due to the lack of options in the first team squad. Yet there is a worrying trend that continues to impede the Reds progress: they are conceding far too many goals on a regular basis.
Of the 12 competitive fixtures Liverpool have played so far this season they’ve conceded 17 goals, and have only managed to keep clean sheets in three of those games - and they were all in the Europa League qualifiers (both legs against Gomel and the first leg against Hearts). In the league they’ve conceded 12 goals in six games, which is a worse average than many sides that have been relegated in recent seasons. The goals have started to flow at the right end, which is definitely promising, but with the goalscoring burden largely on the shoulders of Luis Suarez, the defence must start to shut teams out as the Reds cannot continue forward having to score at least two goals a game just to secure the win.
Pinpointing exactly where the defence is going wrong is easier said than done. When you analyse any goal that is conceded, from the inception of the opposition attack to the second the ball goes in the net, you are always going to scrutinise each players’ actions and argue what he could – and should – have done better. But the vast majority of the goals that Liverpool have conceded have come from an individual defensive error which has led to a clear goalscoring opportunity being capitalised on by the opposition. Mistakes like that cannot be accounted for, but they should be an anomaly when they are in fact becoming the norm. Every one of Liverpool’s defenders bar Andre Wisdom and Jack Robinson have already made a mistake which has been directly responsible for a goal.
Liverpool’s first choice centre-back pairing is amongst the finest in Europe, which is why both Martin Skrtel and Daniel Agger were seriously courted by the likes of Manchester City and Barcelona in the summer.
The unfortunate absence of Lucas, the only natural holding midfielder – and even then he adapted his game to having originally been a box-to-box player - for the majority of season has not helped matters. The Brazilian missed of all 2012 after damaging his cruciate last November, but was fit for pre-season and got himself fit, only to tear his thigh muscle five minutes in to Liverpool’s second league game of the season, at home to Man City. Joe Allen has fitted in to the midfield seamlessly, and been the Reds standout performer of the season so far, but he can’t quite protect the back four as effectively as Lucas can.
The full backs - particularly Glen Johnson who is the only one to have played regularly - have not been great, but with them contributing so much to the attacking side of play, their mistakes are more understandable than those of the centre-backs, who look vulnerable, particularly away from home. Growing pains are to be expected as the side adapt to Rodgers’ system, but they need to learn not to lose the ball in positions where the opposition has the opportunity to quickly exploit the space between the midfield and defence as that is where many of the goals have been conceded from.
They will be tested again this Sunday as Stoke City travel to Anfield in a game that may see a new record set for one side dominating possession so much in a single game. Everyone knows what to expect from Tony Pulis, who will look to exploit any weaknesses in the defence, particularly from set pieces, and their aerial bombardment may prove to be effective as they look to use their size advantage to extend Liverpool’s winless league streak at Anfield. Two polar opposite styles of play will collide and it promises to be an intriguing tactical battle as beauty attempts to outwit brawn.
The full backs have not been great, but with them contributing so much to the attacking side of play, their mistakes are more understandable than those of the centre-backs, who look vulnerable, particularly away from home.
The problem is not personnel. Liverpool’s first choice centre-back pairing is amongst the finest in Europe, which is why both Martin Skrtel and Daniel Agger were seriously courted by the likes of Manchester City and Barcelona in the summer. Skrtel was Liverpool’s player of the year last season and developed a strong partnership with Daniel Agger, who seems to have overcome the injury problems that previously plagued his Anfield career. Both players have recently signed new long-term, lucrative deals, and now must earning their keep and recapture their form from last season, as their mobility and ability on the ball make them key members of the side that must be relied on to perform well on a consistent basis.
The pair are getting pressured by Sebastian Coates, who is progressing well given he has only played a handful of times. Things have not been easy for the young defender who broke out in the 2011 Copa America tournament where, alongside Diego Lugano, he led Uruguay to victory. For a young, relatively inexperienced defender to move halfway across the world and adapt a new country, culture, language, and, perhaps most importantly, a completely different style of play without playing regularly is a lot to ask, but Coates has done extremely well and has probably been the most consistent defender this season. Given his height and obvious aerial prowess, it wouldn’t be surprising if he started the game, and it may provide Skrtel and Agger with the kick up the backside they desperately need.
Whilst Jamie Carragher is in the twilight of his career, his demise has definitely been overstated. He is rightly no longer first choice, but is still capable of deputising, and has been given the role of leading the youngsters in the cups, a role he has taken with his usual impeccable level of enthusiasm and professionalism. Rodgers often speaks of Carra in glowing terms when stating the need to show the same attitude in training as you do in games, and the Bootle born defender is a role model for the more inexperienced members of the squad.
The term ‘form is temporary; class is permanent’ is certainly applicable here, but with Liverpool’s attack starting to fire on all cylinders, they could certainly do with some help from the lads at the back, and what better way to start than shutting out one of their biggest bogey teams of recent years.
You can follow Alex on twitter @woolfc
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