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Why Liverpool need a defensive midfielder more than a centre-back

Liverpool have had an uninspiring start and there have been calls to buy a defender. Will that solve things?


Jurgen Klopp
Jurgen Klopp

It was another sombre evening for the travelling Liverpool fans as they watched their side labour to a draw at St James' Pa. While the stats clearly indicate where Liverpool have faltered in their last four games -- eight goals from 122 shots -- it must be worrying that the defensive frailties have become so apparent that they aren't even talked about as a weakness anymore.

Liverpool's defence has become a household joke and when former stalwarts like Didi Hamann disparage the team's defenders, you're clearly in a wrong place. In fact, only two teams -- West Ham United and Crystal Palace -- have a worse defence than Liverpool. If you're a betting man and wager for the club keeping a clean sheet, you're getting a proper telling off from your girlfriend or missus.

So why have Liverpool been so bad for so long? There have been calls to replace Dejan Lovren with Virgil van Dijk, something that could happen in January or next summer, but as many pundits have already pointed out before, Liverpool simply cannot provide the same protection to their defence like the rest of the top sides.

Geggenpressing without the rose-tinted glasses

Don't get me wrong, it's exciting seeing the Liverpool midfield and attack press opposition players in a bid to win back the ball. What makes it good to watch is the fact that the whole system is based on Liverpool defending on the front foot. If there's any style that epitomises attack is the best form of defence, then it's the counter-press.

However, the way Liverpool go about it leaves a lot of questions unanswered. The problem with the geggenpressing system is every player needs to be in sync, essentially like a group of synchronised swimmers. If one player is off his game, the system fails. In the modern era, the best example of the counter-press was perhaps by Pep Guardiola's Barcelona side.


Comparison of Barcelona and Liverpool's position and passing network (Courtesy: 11tegen11)
Comparison of Barcelona and Liverpool's position and passing network (Courtesy: 11tegen11)

In possession, Barcelona formed triangles which helped them find a teammate in close proximity and when they lost it, the triangles basically had one job to do, to reduce the space in between themselves in a bid to win the ball back. What helped Barcelona the most was that they had technical players all over the pitch, so the scenario of them losing the ball in the first place was extremely rare.

Liverpool's counter-press is fundamentally flawed because they don't have the players who are adept in their positioning. When you look at the above graphic, you'll see that the Barcelona midfielders are prominent at the centre of the pitch and the blots are bigger. As for Liverpool? Henderson doesn't have the same sync with the rest of the team like Busquets had at Barcelona.

So far this season, Klopp's counter-press has failed to work because of two simple reasons: One, they don't have a midfielder who can be part of as many passing triangles as possible, and Two, teams have managed to make use of Liverpool's lack of discipline at the back.

Why Lovren and Matip would look better with a defensive midfielder

Dejan Lovren and Joel Matip
Dejan Lovren and Joel Matip

There's an often-mentioned notion that defensive midfielders need to be robust and should be able to win tackles in midfield. While that's true to a certain extent, a defensive midfielder's most key facet is his positioning.

While tackling is a key part of the game, if you're a defensive midfielder and have managed more interceptions than tackles, you'll be treasured more by your manager, though the fans might disagree. Although it might vary depending on the match situation, more interceptions than tackles often mean you've been at the right place at the right time, which is why you didn't have to slide and win the ball back. In a counter-pressing system, this is imperative as hurrying the opposition into a misplaced pass is your main aim.

Sadly for Liverpool, they don't have the midfielder who can do that consistently. The likes of Chelsea and Manchester United have top midfielders who can do either one of tackling or intercepting the ball really well (Matic averages more interceptions while Kante was a born ball-winner with his tackling).

Liverpool's deepest midfielder -- Jordan Henderson -- averages just one interception per game, a number which is nearly half of what Matic has mustered and nearly a third of Kante's stats. In fact, Kante stats are very similar to that of Ilkay Gundogan's from the 2011-12 season, which explains why the current Liverpool side haven't been as successful as the Dortmund team under Klopp.

Flaws elsewhere

While Liverpool have produced some memorable moments, this season has shown us how easy it is to breach their defence. The perpetual problem in set-pieces continues to haunt the side and teams have now targeted the fullbacks who need to be expansive under Klopp and leave space behind.

Goalkeeping issues remain unsolved as well and frankly speaking, if Klopp wants to achieve something silverware at the club, he'll have to look at the stats more closely.

Signing a defensive minded midfielder and another centre-back was a no-brainer, which is why the fans tear their hair out on match days seeing conceded goals that should have been defended with ease.

There was a sense of stubbornness in the Brendan Rodgers' era and there's a sense of Deja Vu already in the Klopp era.

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