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Uh-oh, Liverpool Learned How to Defend

After a few years of high-octane, high-scoring soccer that led to goals flying in at both ends, Jürgen Klopp may have finally fixed his team’s fatal flaw

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Jürgen Klopp hasn’t won a trophy in his three seasons at Liverpool, but he has transformed an underachieving club into one of the most thrilling attacking sides in Europe. Sitting in third place, the club is almost certain to land a second successive top-four Premier League finish. They’ll qualify for next season’s Champions League, and they’re currently still alive in the quarterfinals of this season’s version. Both domestically and abroad, the bar to further success is Manchester City: Pep Guardiola’s men are the main reason Liverpool’s season looks good, but not quite great.

At Anfield, the headline act this season has, of course, been Mohamed Salah, who arrived from Roma over the summer for £37.8 million. The Egyptian’s goal-scoring exploits have far exceeded even wild expectations, allowing a smooth transition into a post–Philippe Coutinho world. Over the weekend, his 37th goal in all competitions was enough to dispose of Crystal Palace. His continued excellence has earned comparison to that Luis Suárez 2013–14 season (31 league goals) and placed him in historically esteemed company with six weeks of the season still to come.

However, under Klopp, Liverpool’s attack has never really been an issue; the team has always scored plenty. Last season, they averaged 2.1 goals per game, and this season that number has risen to 2.3. Instead, defense has always been the problem—except that might have finally begun to change. The top-line numbers don’t reveal any improvement: In both of the past two seasons, Liverpool have allowed a shade over one goal per game. But as far as Klopp’s competitors should be concerned, the devil is in the defensive details.

Klopp’s style of play, with its high energy and continual hustle, has been hugely effective in creating structural superiority in games; his Liverpool side have regularly outshot their opposition by huge margins. On the defensive end, they have allowed very few shots against—eight or fewer per game in Klopp’s three seasons. Providing limited chances for the opposition usually indicates defensive resilience and leads to very few goals against, but not with Liverpool. Prior to Christmas, Liverpool allowed more goals per shot than any team in the league. It wasn’t necessarily just bad luck either: The few shots Liverpool allowed had a high chance of being converted.

One theory behind the high goals-to-shots ratio relates to the Klopp gegenpressing strategy. With players working hard to pin back opponents and win the ball back high up the pitch, the game is played for long periods far away from the Liverpool goal. Should the press break down, though, Liverpool have been vulnerable to counterattacks, and with the team pushed high up the field, there’s plenty of space behind the defense, which leads to clearer shots on goal. That was true ... for the first half of this season. According to expected goals against, the quality of chances allowed by Liverpool’s defense in the second half of the season has dropped down to league average. As a result, this recent period under Klopp has been the leanest defensively of his whole reign. Over the past half season, Liverpool is allowing under a goal per game.

So what’s changed?

Since Klopp arrived, Liverpool’s defensive spine—goalkeeper, center back, and central midfield—has been vulnerable at all three stages. It’s hard to pinpoint specific players as definitive factors when so much of how a team defends is tied into its structure, but there are some personnel changes that broadly tie in with the suddenly sturdy defense. Keeper Simon Mignolet had long been known to be error prone, and Loris Karius has started every league game after New Years Day. The arrival of Virgil van Dijk in early January from Southampton in a world-record £75 million deal for a defender also brought new blood to the center back positions. With Dejan Lovren and Joel Matip rotating in and out of the slot alongside him, the Dutchman’s aerial prowess has brought a greater security to the back four. In front of him, Jordan Henderson has featured less frequently in the league since Christmas due to injury and rotation, and less playing time for the club captain in the defensive-midfield role has correlated with the uptick in defensive performance.

Whether or not Henderson was an issue, this upcoming summer will revamp Liverpool’s midfield. If Emre Can, who’s on the last year of his deal, leaves the club as appears likely, the arrival of Naby Keita from RB Leipzig will quickly relegate concerns about Henderson’s reliability in that key central-midfield slot. Keita’s ability to put in solid defensive work along with above-average attacking contribution makes him a unique talent and the perfect fit for this Liverpool setup. With van Dijk already in place and Karius performing well in goal, if Liverpool can add in a rotational option of similar quality to the front three of Salah, Sadio Mane, and Roberto Firmino, then their transfer business might be done.

Now, individual errors will never be eliminated, and the 2-1 win over Crystal Palace showed that. Karius gave away a cheap penalty with a reckless challenge on Wilfried Zaha, while a lackadaisical piece of play from Van Dijk allowed Christian Benteke the second of two golden chances that he failed to finish.

Erratic results against the league’s lesser lights plagued Liverpool’s 2016–17 campaign (they conceded twice or more to non-top-six rivals on 10 occasions), but since conceding twice in a 3-2 victory over Leicester in late September, Liverpool haven’t conceded more than one goal against a team outside of the top six. The tendency to throw in a bad defensive performance against worse teams has all but vanished.

This season, Klopp finally looks to have understood the need to rotate his squad during the winter months, and he has reaped the benefits of a team retaining its form deep into the season. As the second-youngest team in the league, all signs point toward Liverpool becoming a side that can challenge for English and European titles. Manchester City and Guardiola suffered from the quality-over-quantity problem in defense last season, but now, with an 18-point lead on second-place Manchester United, they have laid the blueprint for devising a system that maximizes attacking verve and defensive robustness. City have both scored the most and conceded the fewest this campaign.

Liverpool and City split their pair of Premier League matches this season, and despite City’s overall dominance, they shouldn’t be favored by much in their Champions League quarterfinal tie. In 2018, Liverpool have accrued the same number of points as City, and their goal difference is just two goals behind. It will be a surprise if City run away with the title so easily again next season, and if one team can come out of the pack and get close to them, it’s Klopp’s club. Their defense was the final problem that needed fixing, and 2018 has seen them take massive strides toward doing just that.

If they can put it all together from day one, a great season may not be too far away.