For all the plaudits that poured in for Liverpool’s remarkable season, there is one statistic that cannot be ignored. They conceded a remarkable 50 goals, more than even Crystal Palace.
Title winning teams tend to be built upon rock solid foundations, whereas Liverpool’s foundations looked shaky at the best of times. Crucially, their gung-ho tactics left their defence vulnerable. The defensive naivety in the way their team is set up to play has left them exposed at the back on countless occasions.
The most pressing problem is the lack of protection offered to the back four. This, one must remember, is a defence that has flattered to deceive all season. Brendan Rodgers remains unconvinced by Daniel Agger, and Mamadou Sakho still does not look fully attuned to the demands of the Premier League. And with every passing season Martin Skrtel’s style of defending seemingly moves ever closer to that of a rugby player, as he seems to spend most of the game attempting to remove the opposition strikers’ shirts.
It seems obvious to state, but when a defence is struggling for confidence and form, it is the job of the midfield to provide an effective shield for them and offer them protection. All too often Liverpool’s midfield have failed to do that adequately. Their pressing game has rightly been lauded, as they have sought to reduce their opponents’ time on the ball and force mistakes. But their counter-attacking game often leaves them dreadfully exposed at the back. On numerous occasions the red shirts pour forward with such gusto that the gap between defence and midfield becomes a chasm.
The employment of Steven Gerrard as the least advanced of the midfield has produced problems, despite the substantial praise he received last season. Gerrard is not a natural holding midfielder. Rather his role is more akin to the deep lying quarterback role. Perhaps the most effective exponent of the role is the past few years has been the Italian master Andrea Pirlo. A comparison between the two highlights the problems.
It has long been recognised that Pirlo is no defensive holding player. Instead, for both Italy and Juventus he has been paired with a more natural defensive midfielder in order to free him to make the most of his plentiful gifts. At Juventus he is paired with the human pit-bull that is Arturo Vidal, while with Italy he has the benefit of playing alongside Daniele de Rossi, who is constantly harrying and closing down opposition players. Such protection means that Pirlo is free to concentrate on what he does best – moving the ball around and dictating play.
Gerrard however is afforded no such luxury. He has no holding midfielder alongside him, which forces him to juggle both the ‘Makélélé role’ with the deep-lying playmaker, something that he is not comfortable doing.
Another side in Europe who have successfully utilised the counter-attacking approach is Borussia Dortmund. They too love to use their pace and power to tear through opponents. But this is closely allied with a solid defensive base, with İlkay Gündoğan and Sven Bender providing a defensive shield for the backline. This allows their attacking players to rush forward when they win possession, safe in the knowledge that either one or both of these players will remain deep, protecting the back four. It is no coincidence that with both players suffering long-term injuries this season, Dortmund’s form has sharply declined.
Against the better teams, and especially in Europe, Liverpool’s open nature will count against them. It is all very well playing attractive, attacking football, but in the modern age if this is not allied to defensive pragmatism then problems inevitably arise. Rodgers must provide better protection for his defence by not leaving them so exposed by the midfield. If Liverpool truly want to fulfil their title ambitions and challenge in Europe they must address this defensive naivety.
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