That wasn’t very convincing, was it?
Liverpool won today but, whilst the score is the only detail which really matters at the end of a game, the way Brendan Rodgers’ side defended was very concerning. This is nothing new and it’s a topic which was broadly covered at the end of last season, but given how easily and frequently Southampton worked their way into offensively pertinent areas it’s worth revisiting.
There are surface problems in that area: Glen Johnson’s repeated failure to hold the defensive line, Simon Mignolet’s vulnerability under the high-ball, and Martin Skrtel’s periodic lapses in composure and concentration. Those are the issues which are easy to point to, but they are not necessarily the root cause of the problem.
What’s noticeable about Liverpool is their reliance on momentum. They’re one of those sides who are very efficient when they’re in control of games. How often last season did we see them make a fast start, fluster an opponent out of their structure, and capitalise with a goal or two early in a match? At Anfield especially, they play with so much pace and precision that teams defending against them find it incredibly difficult to establish a footing. The visiting sides who get dominated are usually the ones with a weak midfield, invariably because those teams lack the type of players in the middle of the pitch who can disrupt the flow of possession into defensive zones.
The clubs who conceded four or five goals to Liverpool last season didn’t principally do so because they had poor defences, rather they were overwhelmed and they collapsed under the weight of sustained pressure.
Brendan Rodgers’ side never really find themselves in such a severe situation, but they do have a tendency of going through spells in games during which they can’t change the momentum. That happened today. After half-time, before and after the equaliser, Southampton poured through the midfield in numbers and started to really test the home back-four. They were able to establish their passing in Liverpool’s half and their momentum grew and grew. It’s worth remembering that, before Daniel Sturridge eventually won the game, Steven Davis had a very good chance to put the visitors ahead – and that came from a period of relatively sustained pressure and off-the-ball movement that the home team were very lucky to live through.
That’s not a problem that you can attribute to the back-four, it’s about defensive chemistry further up the pitch. Steven Gerrard’s role has been redefined to accommodate his declining physical ability, but he needs to be protected more when Liverpool aren’t in possession. Gerrard is not going to steam into tackles anymore or track opponents with the same vigour that he once did, so he needs someone alongside him who can compensate for that. Once upon a time, Lucas Leiva was defensively imperative to Liverpool, but now he offers almost no protection whatsoever – the Brazilian was all but an irrelevance today and that contributed to Southampton’s ability to really exert themselves on the midfield.
Just as there’s no single problem with Liverpool’s defending, there’s no single solution. However, given Gerrard’s age and Lucas’ dissipating influence, surely it would be beneficial to start Emre Can as one of the holding players? Can is a raw, undeveloped talent, but he has the ball-winning and athletic attributes to help make Liverpool more combative in that area – and he’s not lacking in distributional ability, either.
The back-four is a work in progress and, you would imagine, that the next few months will involve a degree of experimentation with the new and existing full-backs. During that time, it’s imperative that Rodgers protects his defence more and doesn’t expose them to the long spells of pressure which will inevitably results in mistakes being made.