You see, it’s actually all about the Belgians. The record will show that the three goals Liverpool have conceded in the past three games can be attributed to Marcus Rashford’s early strikes in Manchester United’s 2-1 win over the Reds and a penalty by Crystal Palace’s Luka Milivojević in his side’s 2-1 capitulation at the weekend. In reality, the architects of all three goals were in fact Belgian international teammates Romelu Lukaku and Christian Benteke.
On each occasion, one of the big target men outmuscled a Liverpool center back on a long ball, allowing the forward to knock on to a speedy teammate for a clear cut scoring chance. All three times, young Trent Alexander-Arnold was caught napping at full back by the eventual goalscorer.
The most important game of Liverpool’s season approaches as Anfield prepares to welcome the rampant Manchester City for the first leg of the Champions League quarterfinal, and suddenly Jürgen Klopp finds himself with a defensive problem.
In part, the weakness has been revealed as a result of strength elsewhere. The left side of the Liverpool back line is as solid as it’s been in years, held down by the immense Virgil Van Dijk and Andrew Robertson snuffing out all attacking life that ventures into their domain. It is perhaps this dominance on one side of the pitch that pushed United’s Jose Mourinho and Palace’s Roy Hodgson to realize the opportunity on the comparatively vulnerable right side, manned at any given time by some combination of Dejan Lovren, Joël Matip, Trent and Joe Gomez.
Furthermore, no team wants to play out from the back against Klopp’s manic gegenpressing tactics; having to worry about the the indefatigable Roberto Firmino nipping at your heels for 90 minutes is not any midfielder or defender’s cup of tea. This fear forces opponents to play it long, making it natural to attack the one glaring weakness this Liverpool side currently has. The returning Nathanial Clyne is probably still too early in his injury comeback to start the game having missed the entire season to this point; meanwhile young Trent is only 19-years-old, with the future winger’s defensive development clearly not yet on par with his offensive output at the moment. Gomez is more defensively sound than the teenager but still has trouble with dealing with aerial balls.
So how could Klopp guard against what is now an open secret in Wednesday’s matchup? The Citizens were able to bag three goals in the 4-3 Liverpool league win in January without having to face Van Dijk, so Pep Guardiola will surely recognize that the right side of the Red defense is the surest route to goal this time around. The Spaniard is too much of a footballing purist to resort to pumping it long to a target man, nor does he even have one; however the Leroy Sané equalizer in that match involving Gomez shows that City are not opposed to bypassing the press when the situation calls for it.
To counteract this, one option could be field three center halves as Klopp chose to do at the weekend following an untimely injury to Adam Lallana. However, sacrificing the midfielder for an extra defender left the Reds short in the center of the park, spurring on a resurgent Palace, such that Mohamed Salah’s late winner against the run of play only came after his side weathered an extended spell of pressure.
Furthermore, ceding the midfield to the likes of the timeless David Silva—missing last time out due to injury—and the soon-to-be PFA Player of the Year runner up, Kevin De Bruyne, would be tactical suicide and therefore cannot be considered a true option. The obvious bears mentioning also that Salah will be required to provide the attacking thrust in what threatens to be a shootout and cannot be asked to constantly track back and help the full backs. All of this means that the solution that would appear to present itself comes in the shape of arguably Liverpool’s best midfielder on form at the moment: James Milner.
The seasoned Englishman has been one of the first midfield names on the team sheet of late, holding the engine room together and providing guile and intelligence in the middle of the park when it has often been lacking. His overall experience combined with his time playing at left back last term has given him keen defensive instincts that have been on display on selected intervals this season when the gameplan has called for it. The 32-year-old has been shown to be adept at sensing when help is needed in the wide areas and intelligently closing the pressing trap to snuff out attacks as he often did in the 5-0 win over Porto in the last round of the Champions League.
The three conceded goals discussed prior each found the right-sided full back isolated on an island without help from the likes of Gini Wijnaldum or Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, while Milner was on the left side of the pitch where he has been much of the season.
Robertson on the left won’t need much help from the veteran this time around as one imagines that he is currently prepping that special section in his pocket reserved for City’s Raheem Sterling. Because of this, having Milner on the right side of midfield supporting one of the young full backs will be vital in securing that side of the defense with Silva waving his magic wand in the center of the park this time around and Sané once again provide a dangerous threat down the attacking left.
Liverpool’s greatest weapon is their counterpress; paradoxically, this strength pushes opponents to attack their most glaring weakness. The solutions, namely sorely needed upgrades at center half and defensive midfield, will not be forthcoming in the next 24 hours and adjustments must be made. The experience of Milner will be key if Liverpool want to prevent an all-out assault on their current glaring vulnerability and give themselves the best possible chance in this season-defining match.