Liverpool’s defence has been their Achilles’ heel for years, so Jurgen Klopp deserves huge credit for transforming them into the most stingy team in the Premier League this season.
Although he is known as an attack-minded manager who throws caution to the wind, Klopp has proved himself to be a man of tactical acumen. He had adapted his team to be more defensively conscious, turning them into a better-rounded side capable of challenging for that elusive league title. They lead Manchester City by four points at the top of the table after 21 games.
Standing at the precipice of history, Klopp has placed his faith in the players who have got him here. Amid a spate of defensive injuries, the 51-year-old has decided to trust his talented but worryingly thin squad to complete the job they started and end the wait for a Premier League title.
Asked on Monday whether he would strengthen his defensive options in the January transfer window, Klopp’s response was unusually prickly. “The only country that asks a question like this is England,” he said. “Everything is sorted with buying players.”
Yet the differences between Liverpool‘s squad and Manchester City‘s were laid bare in the FA Cup this week. For Manchester City’s match against Rotherham, they brought in their fourth choice centre back: Nicolas Otamendi, an Argentine international with 59 caps for his country.
With the continued absence of Joe Gomez and Joel Matip, Liverpool do not have a fourth choice centre back. For most of their FA Cup tie against Wolves, Klopp’s defensive pairing consisted of Fabinho, a midfielder, and Ki-Jana Hoever, a 16-year-old who had never played a minute of senior football before.
This disparity in depth is partly down to Manchester City’s enormous wealth, but it’s also because of Klopp’s insistence on a small, tight-knit squad. He believes that bringing in a standby defender who cannot adapt to his methods would do more harm than good. He has unwavering faith in the players at his disposal to get the job done.
This mentality is in many ways a strength. If Klopp had leapt into the transfer market at the first signs of a defensive shortage, we might never have seen the emergence of Trent Alexander-Arnold and Joe Gomez, two English youngsters who have played a huge part for Liverpool this season.
But faith is one thing; blind faith, quite another, and Klopp has often been guilty of the latter. He stood by Alberto Moreno as his first choice left back for far longer than the Spaniard deserved, and it took two mistakes in last season’s Champions League final for Klopp to finally lose patience with Loris Karius.
Klopp’s latest act of faith has been bestowed on a player far more worthy of the honour, the aforementioned Trent Alexander-Arnold. By sending Nathaniel Clyne on loan to Bournemouth, Klopp is effectively trusting Alexander-Arnold to start every match for the remainder of the season.
But what a needless risk this is. Clyne was called on when Alexander-Arnold picked up a knock last month, and there’s every chance he might be needed again. Klopp has said in the past that Alexander-Arnold cannot play every week, yet now he is trusting him to do so.
We know that James Milner and Fabinho are capable of deputising at right back, but that should not be necessary for a team competing for the title. It’s one thing to not sign reinforcements, but quite another to let them leave. Clyne was excellent against Manchester United last month and his loan move could well come back to haunt Klopp.
Can’t understand the decision to loan Clyne out given how thin Liverpool are in defence. He’s got vast experience and is capable of coming into the side and doing a job when required. A good option to have.
— Leanne Prescott (@_lfcleanne) January 4, 2019
Even if Liverpool were not suffering with injuries, it never hurts to bolster the squad. Manchester City were cruising to the title when they signed Aymeric Laporte last January. Klopp obviously doesn’t want to disrupt Liverpool’s current state of harmony, but an insurance policy would go a long way to calming fans’ nerves.
The upshot is that Liverpool head to Brighton on Saturday with a patchwork defence for the second consecutive season. Georginio Wijnaldum and Emre Can were part of a makeshift back three at the Amex Stadium last year, and Fabinho is expected to slot in for Lovren on this occasion.
The fact that Liverpool won 5-1 in this fixture last season should serve as a reminder that if the Reds play to their best, they will win, regardless of who is in defence. The question is whether they can do that every week.
Best case scenario, Liverpool ride out the storm before Gomez returns to partner Van Dijk at centre back, Alexander-Arnold remains fit for the rest of the season, and Liverpool use their rock solid defence as a springboard to win their first Premier League title.
Best case scenario, Jurgen Klopp’s gamble pays off.
Worst case scenario, it doesn’t, and he is forever remembered as the manager who spurned Liverpool’s best ever chance of winning the title. No pressure.