Since Liverpool became champions for the first time in 30 years, Jurgen Klopp has been keen to stress that the best way to defend their crown is to attack the next one.
After opening up their quest for title No.20 in the 4-3 thriller against newly-promoted Leeds, these words rang very true. It wasn’t at all what Klopp was alluding to when looking at the bigger picture of the new season, but the performance perhaps threw the spotlight on an area of the team that few have seriously questioned in recent times.
The Reds looked undeniably and unsurprisingly dangerous in the attacking third but equally vulnerable at the back as Leeds pushed them to the wire.
It was a throwback to the pre-Alisson and Virgil van Dijk era, when the Merseysiders entertained but needed to heavily outscore opponents given their defensive deficiencies. The reality, of course, is that Liverpool’s imperious league run that has seen them claim over 90 points in the last two seasons has relied upon a more solid base, with the goalkeeper and defence key to their success at home and abroad.
After clinching the title with a record seven games to spare back in June, there were some sloppy moments where the team’s defending understandably lapsed. Many put this down to the fact the players had relaxed after such a relentless charge to glory.
However, there were some signs against Leeds they haven’t quite ironed out the glitches in pre-season. Trent Alexander Arnold, recently crowned PFA Young Player of the Year, was frequently exposed down the right, Joe Gomez looked nervy and the usually rock-like Van Dijk too casual. The Dutch giant’s error for Patrick Bamford’s strike was highlighted by Opta as his second leading directly to a goal in his last four Premier League games. That is more than he registered in his first 154 appearances in the competition.
Of course, it’s easy to over analyse numbers and get carried away by one match where Leeds deserve huge credit too. But it’s evident Liverpool will need to have an urgent conversation about their defending and look to get back to being one of the meanest units in the business, particularly as they face Chelsea at Stamford Bridge next.
The big-spending Blues are being tipped to challenge strongly for the title this season and will provide the Reds with a real acid-test of where their standard is truly at. Klopp will no doubt bring Fabinho back into the starting XI to protect his defence for that encounter, but the whole team will need to increase their focus on how they function without the ball.
There is no doubt that retaining the title is going to be a tough assignment, with just one side achieving the feat in the last decade. No team has ever amassed over 90 points for three seasons running either, and the intensity of maintaining such a ridiculously high level could well take its toll on Klopp’s men this term.
The likes of Manchester City, Manchester United and Chelsea have all strengthened while the Merseysiders have been relatively quiet in the market. That’s not to say Liverpool need to have a knee-jerk reaction and look to defensive reinforcements, but a major signing could give the squad a real lift and sharpen their focus, with Thiago Alcantara continuing to be linked with a move to Anfield.
As Sky pundit, Gary Neville has recently suggested, the Bayern playmaker could provide the inspiration to ‘stimulate’ the squad and avoid a drop-off that Liverpool’s rivals could take advantage of. Indeed, the errors at the back are easily highlighted, but the whole team has a responsibility in terms of the fierce concentration that is required at the pinnacle of the game.
There remains a long road ahead and Liverpool are likely to be there or thereabouts, but the defence of the title will need that solid base to iron out some kinks if they are to truly attack the title with the intensity and strength that Klopp demands.