Liverpool have conceded 11 Premier League goals this season.
Eight of those came against Brentford, West Ham and Brighton. Manchester City have let in six and Chelsea just four. While we’re the competition’s top scorers with 31, we’re letting in on average one goal per game – which is actually only slightly better than last season (42 in 38) – when our most selected centre-back pairing was Nat Phillips and Rhys Williams.
If we keep on defending, or letting in goals, at the current rate, we’re not going to win the Premier League. In fact, you have to go back to the 2011/12 season when a side (Manchester United) conceded at over a goal per game and still won the title. It doesn’t happen anymore. So despite our wonderful attacking output, spearheaded by Mo Salah’s record-breaking start to a season, top spot will elude us unless we shore up at the back.
So, why are we letting in goals? The brilliant Fabinho hasn’t been wholly available, but he did start against Brentford and West Ham, where we’ve conceded over half of our goals – so his injury can’t be solely to blame.
Alisson has been largely pretty good, bar our trip to the London Stadium last time out. Trent Alexander-Arnold and Andy Robertson have been defensively sound – and any gaps they leave are at the direct request of Jurgen Klopp’s tactical instructions – not that this makes it any easier for the covering centre-backs…
Virgil van Dijk has been ever-present and occasionally brilliant. His issue so far has been the odd defensive-lapse; a positional error or a bad decision – which in fairness, can only be expected after his long absence from first-team action. Against West Ham on Sunday he actually saved us on more than one occasion from a far more embarrassing scoreline – but the mistakes against Atletico Madrid away in the Champions League, for example, are not something we became accustomed to with pre-injury van Dijk.
Still, there is absolutely no way he should be in and out of the side, and will only get back to his unrivalled best with consistent minutes. So the question is, who plays next to our no.4?
Klopp is spoilt for choice in this regard. Joel Matip, Joe Gomez and Ibrahima Konate are all high level centre-backs who’d likely start for all the other sides in the top flight bar maybe City and Chelsea. And that’s before mentioning Nat Phillips, who has to be the most reliable fifth choice option in this position in PL history. The strength in depth is astonishing.
But that depth has encouraged Klopp to rotate, and although we don’t know what would have happened if he’d stuck with Van Dijk and Matip – there’s certainly an argument that the chopping and changing at centre-back has added to our defensive uncertainty.
Matip has started eight PL matches next to Virg, with Konate getting the nod on three occasions. Gomez has yet to start, and has only come off the bench twice.
All van Dijk’s potential partners have strengths and weaknesses.
Matip is wonderful on the ball and his ability to stride forward into midfield benefits our attack more than any of the others. But we’re not really lacking in offensive options and he’s looked shaky during our worst defensive performances.
Konate is a physical specimen. He’s the only defender I’ve ever seen who makes Virg look small. As a result he’s a real asset aerially and his incredible pace is perfect for our high-line. Matip is no slouch but he doesn’t have this burst of speed to get him out of trouble. Konate’s current issues are his lack of experience (not his fault, of course) and the fact he’s yet to build a proper, trusted relationship with van Dijk. We’ve seen so far he sometimes dives in and leaves the backline exposed when he should be be standing off. He’ll learn as he gets used to the speed of the Premier League, of course – but this will be a case of learning on the job – and can Liverpool afford this when every dropped point is potentially catastrophic?
Gomez has maybe been harshly done by this term, especially as it appears he’s now below Konate in the pecking order. Perhaps Klopp is worried about fielding two players who were out for such a long time alongside each other – and if so Gomez is the unlucky one. His ability to backup Trent at right-back also plays against him, as the boss thinks he can get minutes there, too. But Gomez is a centre-back and doesn’t have the attacking traits required for the fullback role in our system. At his best, Gomez is maybe our second best centre-back. He’s rapid, composed on and off the ball and very clever – but his injuries have undoubtedly stunted his progression and probably his confidence, too. Just like van Dijk, he needs minutes to get back to his highest level, but while the Dutchman will get them, the Englishman will not – perhaps explaining why it irritated Klopp so much that Gareth Southgate won’t select him for England.
Title winning teams are usually based around a single centre-back combination. It meant Aymeric Laporte sat on the bench for City last season. Klopp needs to pick van Dijk’s partner and stick with him in the Premier League – allowing for rotation in Europe (until the knockout stages, anyway) and domestic cup competitions.
Opportunities for the players not picked may naturally arise due to injuries, and it’s probably best if for the time being, they are elite backup rather than rotation options.
Klopp has to be cutthroat in this regard, and although it might be harsh, it’s likely our best chance of becoming defensively consistent again – as we were in 2019/20 – the year we won the title at a canter.