Jurgen Klopp forced to get creative as Liverpool’s defensive problems mount
Raul Jimenez was the odd man out, the lone man to pierce the most impenetrable of defences. It was last winter, as Liverpool made their inexorable progress towards a first league title in three decades, when they simply stopped conceding.
In 11 league games, they were breached once: by Jimenez. In all 11, the commanding Virgil van Dijk had a classy sidekick in Joe Gomez. There was a case for anointing them the best centre-back partnership in the world.
Now Van Dijk is out for the season. The fear is that Gomez might be, too, after undergoing surgery on the knee injury he suffered in training with England.
Gomez is not the byword for consistency Van Dijk has been, and there is an irony that the last time they started together Liverpool lost 7-2 to Aston Villa, but he was shaping up as the constant in a reshaped rearguard. No more.
A club widely admired for their transfer-market record may pay a heavy penalty for the solitary risk they took in recruitment: not replacing the sold Dejan Lovren. Perhaps it was because, with their budget reduced by Covid-19 and wanting to acquire Diogo Jota and Thiago Alcantara, they compromised in defence.
Certainly Jurgen Klopp was willing to use Fabinho at the back more and was encouraged by the potential of his young centre-backs. But leaving themselves with just three specialists was a gamble; the section of the Liverpool support who scapegoated Lovren must wish a man who excelled in the 2018 Champions League final was still at Anfield.
So it is Joel Matip, whose form have been admirable but whose fitness means he has not started two consecutive matches for 14 months, aided and abetted by the makeshifts and the untried.
“You want to prepare for all possible problems during the season and can’t,” Klopp reflected in September, long before his defence was depleted. “Be ready for a creative solution in the right moments but hope that it will never come up.”
Now it has come up, Klopp must be creative. Fabinho was talismanic and terrific after Van Dijk’s loss, but then sustained a thigh injury himself. Klopp must hope the Brazilian, part of defences who shut out Bayern Munich (in 2019) and Ajax, is fit to face Leicester City next Saturday. With Liverpool five points clear in their Champions League group, he should consider omitting Matip from European games to save him for the Premier League.
Rhys Williams, who was on loan at non-league Kidderminster last season, has flourished in two European games. He may be needed again. Nat Phillips, who almost joined Swansea at the end of the transfer window, stood tall on a Premier League bow against West Ham. An old-school defender’s aerial ability could equip him for the more physical tests.
The 17-year-old Frenchman Billy Koumetio has abundant promise, but Klopp must determine if he is ready. The 18-year-old Dutchman Sepp van den Berg’s appearances last season suggested he may be too callow. Liverpool may yet regret letting Ki-Jana Hoever go to Wolves when Jota arrived.
And the chances are that Fabinho will not be alone. Other midfielders may be pressed into service in the rearguard. Gini Wijnaldum was once deployed in a back three against Brighton & Hove Albion.
Jordan Henderson played, for the first time in his career but auspiciously, as a centre-back against Monterey in the Club World Cup semi-final. James Milner has played every outfield position except centre-back yet, with Trent Alexander-Arnold also sidelined, he may be needed at right-back in the short term.
There may be an incongruous assortment of midfielders and rookies, all trying to be Klopp’s creative but defiantly defensive solution.