Whenever he was asked about it last season, Brendan Rodgers made sure to underline how important he felt the defensive part of the game was. Liverpool were busy bulldozing their way through the spring while leaking a record-breaking number of goal at their own end, but the manager always made a point to acknowledge that defense is a thing that exists. No defensive coaches needed, of course. There are players that call themselves defenders, but it's probably best if they also do a fair amount of offensive things too.
It's a sentiment that carried over into the summer and fall, as Rodgers looked for individual solutions rather than systemic ones, opting to bring Dejan Lovren in to lead from the back while still hoping his squad could light up the Premier League in the absence of Luis Suarez. Almost impossibly, Lovren and Liverpool started giving up goals at a faster rate than last season, highlighting the flaws of Rodgers' setup without any of the saving grace up top.
Fast forward a few months and they're now on the heels of four consecutive Premier League clean sheets, without an open-play goal allowed in all competitions since the 2-2 draw with Leicester City on January 1. Martin Skrtel reflected on the achievement after scoreless draw at Everton on Saturday night, noting that the objective now is to keep things solid at the back rather than throw haymakers:
"We have changed the system to a back three and it is working for us. We are defending much better. It suits us. I hope we can carry on this way in the future. I'm happy for the team, because we have improved our defending. There was a lot of criticism. Since New Year, we have only conceded one goal from open play - that's great and I'm happy about that.
"We came here to get the three points and only got one. We were dominating the game, moved the ball well and hit the post. At the end of the game, we allowed them a counter-attack and Simon [Mignolet] made a great save. Obviously we wanted to get three points, but the main thing is that we didn't lose."
"Not losing" isn't going to get Liverpool back into the race for the top four, and they'll need to start to couple regular goalscoring with defensive solidity if they're going to do so. But tightening up at the back certainly provides a far more stable platform from which to build, and it's scary to think what would have become of this season had Rodgers not implemented changes to stop the bleeding. The alterations started in late November and have come along leaps and bounds in the new year, something explored in-depth over at oh you beauty earlier this week.
Skrtel has kept his place throughout, and appears to be proof of the oft-discussed idea that Liverpool's frailties defensively weren't necessarily about the qualities of the individual defenders, but rather the system in which they were operating. That gives hope for the likes of Lovren, who found himself badly exposed by the lack of cover earlier this season, and now must work his way back into a side that, for the first time in well over a year, can pride itself on its defense.