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Should Klopp Defend the Defence?

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Jürgen Klopp went to great lengths to protect his defence, but is this team being held back by his faith in certain players?

Arsenal v Liverpool - Premier League Photo by Michael Regan/Getty Images

As fans it is very easy to criticise players and scrutinise their mistakes, but it’s a very different reality for those on the touchline. Players often need to be protected, and pointing out their errors can often leave them exposed or feel singled out. It is commonly accepted in football that blaming players is not the wisest move for a manager or coach to make unless particular circumstances demand such a robust response.

For a manager that believes in training, togetherness, and a tactical approach that all demand full and absolute commitment from his players, laying blame at the feet of his players would be unwise. However, there are other ways to leave players open to attack. This is not to disparage Dejan Lovren, but playing him regularly at the heart of the defence could be compared to playing inexperienced defenders against Real Madrid. Mistakes will be made and questions will be asked. Another inexplicable but predictable error from Dejan Lovren on Wednesday only furthered questions about Liverpool’s defending and recruitment policy in that area of the team.

Jürgen Klopp thinks of today and tomorrow; he has managed and will continue to manage that way. It has been rightly rewarded in the past and could very well be in the future. He is 50 with a long-term contract and a coaching team that appears to be getting much out of this existing group of players. Less than a handful of targeted signings could help the club challenge for a league title not won since 1990. That Liverpool are at that point is a credit to Klopp and the progress made since he took charge in October 2015.

This frustration is borne out of the knowledge that even with a system that may leave Liverpool a little too open, we’re not too far away. Klopp wanted Virgil van Dijk and Naby Keïta this summer. Keïta was secured for summer 2018, but after bending the knee, Van Dijk proved impossible to sign from Southampton. No other defender was sought to move Lovren to a more appropriate role within the first-team squad, and once again, Klopp had to answer questions about Liverpool’s defending after a familiar tale of defensive woe in midweek.

"Sometimes we make mistakes because we are offensively that strong," Klopp said in the build-up to the game against Burnley at Anfield. “If we lose the ball in the wrong moment, it is the most difficult thing to do to defend these situations. It is not that I like it but I still work on it. It is not like I can fix it like this [clicks fingers].

"We are in a very dominant mood and good playing here and there. We were really good from the beginning [against Sevilla] and yet their first offensive situation resulted in a goal. It is not that we don’t see, it is not that we don’t want to fix it, it is not that we ignore it – I said if there would have been a solution out there we would have done it."

That solution, as stated above, was Virgil van Dijk. Liverpool had the entire summer to find a reliable partner for Joël Matip. Part of the problem, though, is that Matip and Lovren have formed a decent partnership. Yet Lovren is the club’s worst senior centre back on the ball with only Ragnar Klavan and Joe Gomez as challengers for his role in the team.

Jordan Henderson’s lack of tactical intelligence and composure on the ball as the six only exacerbates the problem. Matip is often burdened with making passes that are beyond the capabilities of Lovren (the most expensive defender in the club’s history) and Henderson (the captain of Liverpool Football Club). Van Dijk would have certainly helped to provide the composure, leadership, and quality in defence that is sorely missing from this team.

"I cannot speak in this country about any players I tried to get," Klopp said in response to the club's summer transfer business. "We watched all of them [potential new centre-halves] 500 million times and, to cool the people down, what if the new player doesn’t hit the first ball and he makes exactly the same mistake [as Dejan Lovren did against Sevilla]? A mistake they all made in their life but it is like: ‘He is a £65m signing, he will improve.’ Why do you think the other one cannot improve? I don’t understand that.

"A big part of football and life is really put faith in the people you work with – trust them – because they all can improve. They are all good out there but they are not that good that you say yes, they help immediately. I had to make a decision and the decision was our boys are not worse than them."

Faith in people is admirable and can bring changes; moreover, Klopp is sharing a message that more people need to hear in an increasingly smaller world. Whether there’s more to come from a 28-year-old defender that has never impressed on a consistent basis since an absolutely awful debut campaign in 2014/15 is extremely doubtful on past and recent evidence. Klopp was asked if he spoke to Lovren after another serving of defensive mishaps, but the answer was simple before straining credulity.

"I didn’t speak to Dejan about it, I spoke to the team about it," Klopp stated. "It was obvious that he missed the ball. Things like this happen and it’s all about reacting to it.

"With all the history before I came in and since I’ve been here with how people talk about these players, you should try one time to go out there and ask other clubs what they think about these defenders and whether they would like to pick them. You would be really surprised."

As a fan, I’ve attended Jürgen Klopp’s first game at Anfield against Rubin Kazan and keynote victories over Borussia Dortmund, Hull City, and Arsenal. I was also there against Sevilla and will be there against Burnley. This is a good team under a fantastic manager, but it is being held back from great things. Despite losing to Manchester City 5-0 and drawing with Sevilla 2-2, there were periods in both games where I genuinely thought that Liverpool had the game.

Pep Guardiola’s gameplan was extremely inviting and could have been exposed in the ultimate currency on the pitch within 20 minutes. Sevilla may have nearly won the game at the death but should have been on the end of a defeat similar to the one Hoffenheim suffered last month. Even so, Liverpool cannot argue with the results when certain players in key positions in midfield and defence continue with no real challengers.

The addition of Mohamed Salah, the presence of two dynamic left backs, and the greater understanding of Klopp's system have all combined to place greater demands on players. The pace is quicker and the attacks are more rapid, but leadership, composure in midfield, and assuredness in defence are in short supply. Klopp may have to defend his players, but after nearly two years as Liverpool manager, he has shown admirable patience that may ultimately leave Liverpool short by the end of the season.