Whilst the now-infamous 3-3 away draw with Crystal Palace in the 2013-14 season was effectively the game that ended our title challenge, today’s 4-2 victory against the same opponents has only gotten more and more people suggesting this could be the year we go all the way. Early as it, we are certainly showing the quality that a title contender needs, and our lack of European football compared to fellow rivals could be the factor that tilts things in our favour come the latter stages of the season.
But despite coming away from Selhurst Park with all three points, it was hard not to draw comparisons to 2013-14. We attack with pace, guile, flare, and confidence, knowing we can score any type of goal at any moment. Philippe Coutinho, Roberto Firmino, and Sadio Mané are always on the same wavelength and equally capable of influencing games as an attacking trio, or in a moment of individual brilliance. The same was true about Luis Suarez, Daniel Sturridge, and Raheem Sterling three years ago.
What we’re also replicating though, is that we concede far too many goals. Sometimes as a unit we can look relatively comfortable and solid, but then a simple set-piece undoes us, or someone makes a howler and gifts the opposition a goal. Today Dejan Lovren – and to some extent Loris Karius – handed Palace a goal out of nothing, and a bog-standard ball into the box wasn’t defended aggressively enough as the hosts claimed their second. You’re never going to stop conceding altogether, but when it’s similar types of goals over and over again, and happening – or looking likely to happen – almost every game, you know you have work to do.
The good news is that it’s not like under Brendan Rodgers, when we seemed to go all-out attack and simply barely bother with defending in the hope that a Suarez or Sturridge would bail us out. The entire point of the diamond formation we played was to accommodate Suarez and Sturridge, and I think Rodgers decided it was better to have those two up front than to have a more solid system defensively. Now, we have our players in their best positions, in a system that should be giving us enough security at the back. And in fairness, we can actually go much of a game in perfect control and hardly giving the opposition a sniff. But even when the momentum changes for a brief moment, we look shaky and susceptible. One clean sheet in ten games just isn’t good enough.
On a more positive note, we had these defensive issues last season, and to a larger extent. Klopp has clearly identified the issues, and just needs time to iron them out. And what we are seeing now is the mental effect of having a more prolific, proficient attack. Last term, a single goal against us seemed to shatter our belief and make us look like eleven players with no bottle at all. The Europa League final against Sevilla being the finest example, but it was happening with alarming regularity in other games too. Today Palace came back twice, but our heads never dropped and we just picked ourselves up and went in search of the next goal.
There will come games, however, where we have injuries, suspensions, drops in form, or whatever else, and we don’t want to have to go in to these games having to score three, four, or even five goals to win. People forget that we began 2013-14 with three consecutive 1-0 wins; with Daniel Sturridge doing the business while Suarez saw out his suspension. There will always be games where you can only manage one goal, or none at all, and then it’s vital that you don’t concede silly goals like we have been doing, and blowing any chance of a point or three. The Manchester United game, as much as it would have been nice to get the deserved win, actually gave me some encouragement, as in another season I feel that it would have been one of those matches where we got frustrated and let in a cheap goal.
With Karius and Joel Matip still settling into the side (though the latter showing no perceptible signs of being a new arrival), we can assume that with more time, we will see improvement at the back. More than any individual though, I think it will be about Jürgen Klopp instilling into the whole team what we need defensively. Firmino’s defending from the front is a spectacle to behold, and the likes of Coutinho, Mané, Lallana, Wijnaldum, Emre Can, and Henderson all run, close down, and cut off passing lanes for fun. The traditional back four and goalkeeper need that added bit of organisation, communication, and discipline, and when that comes together I actually think we have the foundation for a very solid base. The sooner that happens, the more chance we have of surpassing the ‘so close, but yet so far’ season of 2013-14 that fell down due to our lapses at the back.
By James Nelson (@_James_Nelson_)