Some disorganized thoughts about Liverpool’s defensive woes

Half Turn
6 min readNov 8, 2021

Klopp and his Liverpool were one of the best defensive teams in the world in both 18/19 and 19/20 seasons. The least goals conceded in the Premier League in both seasons with a total of only 55 goals conceded in 76 games.

The last season was much worse defensively for Liverpool with 42 gc, 10 more than Manchester City. The expected goals against were even worse at 47.30. These problems were thought to be mostly because of the center back crisis and some argued it was Fabinho not being in the midfield. But, the focus was always on the personnel.

This season, Liverpool got all three of their cbs back with also Konate, a very highly rated cb prospect, joining them. But, the same defensive woes continue. Liverpool has let both West Ham United and newly promoted Brentford put past them three. They conceded 11 goals in 11 games despite Alisson’s league-leading performances in 1v1s according to the great @Jhdharrison1.

So, what is the real problem that saw Liverpool lose their defensive dominance? Is it the personnel, the tactics, or something else?

My answer is, as always, both complicated and simple.

Transition Defending

Defending transitions for elite teams who have most of the possession and territory is probably the most important part of the defense. Since the team as a unit progresses as they can have the ball for large periods of time, most of the opponents’ threats will be on transitions. 2 important concepts here are compactness and rest defense.

  • Compactness usually refers to how many players are in a certain area (in close distances). For example, if you are playing a 541 low block, you have 3 cbs and 2 pivot players in a very small area meaning you are really compact in central areas.
The 3–2 in the central areas in the 541 low block.
  • Rest defense refers to a team positioning their players while in possession so that they are equipped to win the duels, thus winning the ball back so that the other team cannot get out of their low block easily and gain back the territory.
An example of a rest defense of a 433 (black team) against a 442 low block (red team).

Gini Wijnaldum

How are these relevant to Liverpool? Well, Gini Wijnaldum. He, infamously, contributed way less often offensively for Liverpool than he does for the Dutch national team. This was because of Jurgen Klopp’s tactical instructions to accommodate both Robertson flying up the flank and Hendo combining with Salah, Trent on the right-hand side. Him staying more central and deeper on the left side was integral to the title-winning LFC side. And, he was let go for free in the summer without any midfielders coming in. There are 2 problems with the Wijnaldum situation.

1- Incomings (lack of)

No replacement for a player who played 3k minutes in his last season. A player that was always one of the first names on the team sheet in Klopp’s tenure. Liverpool has the numbers in the midfield but the profiles are not adequate. As an lcm, LFC have used Keita, Thiago, Henderson, and Curtis this season.

  • Henderson doesn’t have position discipline off the ball, he always reacted rather than proactively defend (a big reason why he’s always seen running). And, he is injury-prone.
  • Keita can do a job at lcm but it limits him as a player since he can do the rcm role better than anyone in the club. And, he is also injury-prone.
  • Curtis still needs improvement in defensive awareness and his physique is painfully average to be a cover.
  • Thiago suits this profile more than others but his rashness when defending hurts the team. When he tucks in and fails to win the ball, he takes himself out of the game hurting the team’s compactness. And, he is also injury-prone.
  • Also, there is no one that can play as a lone dm other than Fabinho but whatever.

2- Klopp’s tactical tweak

You lost the player with the most positional discipline and tactical adaptability in your midfield. If you are going to tweak your tactics, wouldn’t it be better to cover for the loss of the said player rather than actually making that same position’s job even harder? Klopp chose to do the latter this year, and I still don’t understand why. This year, the right-sided #8 is even more advanced. Trent can be seen in central areas way more and we see Hendo attacking space more too. This tweak has been coming for a year but it is still surprising to see Klopp insisting on it even though we lost a player that allowed the lesser versions of the same right-sided concepts.

This, in theory, is a great idea but Liverpool’s execution is quite poor. When we see the same kind of positional rotations in Pep’s Manchester City, they are more strict with the positions that the players take. Not as in a certain player holding a certain position but positions that are occupied regardless of who is occupying them. Liverpool’s version is either too ambitious/free from Klopp or the players still aren’t ready for the tweak itself. Too many times, this year, Liverpool’s right-side proved to be a problem defensively. Too much space in way too important areas which is really uncharacteristic for Klopp’s Liverpool.

Also, the personnel is not the best defensively for this kind of a setup. I talked about the lcm already but our right side is not particularly well-built (defensively) either. Inverted wbs need to be more dominant/capable in duels than normal wbs since they cover deeper and more central areas. Trent Alexander-Arnold is not that type of profile. Compare his physical profile to a Kyle Walker or a Tomiyasu and you’ll understand. Also, Jordan Henderson being a reactive defender and also him being 31 years old with many injuries in the past, doesn’t help him recover his positioning after the ball is lost sometimes.

Low block / Box defending

Once again, the same problems of spacing, only this time in even deeper areas. We can see another domino effect here. One cm being out of position results in harder decisions for everyone behind him.

Against Brentford, Henderson and Curtis’ positioning resulted in a 3v1 for Trent at the back post. Since one Hendo isn’t there to make the numbers and two the dm can’t drop into the box since he doesn’t have central cover for the ‘zone 14’ from his cms. The dm not being in the box means that the backline is too narrow, which means an underload at the back post.

Poor positioning from both Jones And Henderson(mainly).
The 3v1 in the back post.

Against Brighton, because of Jones’ positioning Lallana is alone in ‘zone 14’ and the position results in an easy finish for Trossard (who I quite like as a complete side note btw). A more natural dm might drift to the left a little bit to cover Jones but I can’t knock Hendo for this one, though he needs to scan more.

Curtis Jones is nowhere near where he should be. Lallana is all alone in zone 14 seconds after.

Putting these last three pictures here because they are kind of tragicomic.

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