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In Defence of Liverpool's Defence

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After a disappointing result it's tempting to seek an easy scapegoat. In this case, it's the defence. Yet they're only a symptom of an underlying cause; the result of a gamble that has mostly paid off.

Jamie McDonald

Liverpool, it seems, are now out of the title race. They've conceded to Manchester City. The manager knows it, and the fans know it, and so it's time to shrug and move on. To try to accept this season for the amazing one it is relative initial expectations and not to see it as the disappointment it must be for any side top of the table in May who then doesn't finish top of it when the season ends.

Only all of that was true before last night's draw. It was true following a loss to Chelsea when the club needed a point to stay in control. Failing to get that point instantly made City overwhelming title favourites. Yet for many, including ex-Red Jamie Carragher, last night's result has spurred something of a rush to blame the defence. And even if last night's draw is to be labelled Liverpool's undoing, they're symptom and not cause.

"I look at those centre-backs and that's weak mentally for me, not pushing out," said Carragher. "You do that as a centre-back. In plenty of tough away games you keep driving out and then you've got to come back and then you've got to keep pushing out. It's your goalkeeper as well. I don't think there's enough leadership or communication in the two centre-backs or the goalkeeper especially.

"Sakho is new, and Brendan Rodgers has gone with him and Skrtel as a partnership and he's got Daniel Agger on the bench. I've mentioned before I don't think he's the biggest fan of Daniel Agger and that's why he always seems to leave him out. That's 17 games Sakho and Skrtel have played together now and one clean sheet. They always concede goals whenever they play together."

It might seem difficult to mount a case in defence of the defence following a three-goal collapse in eleven minutes against Palace, but it seems thoroughly unfair to saddle them with the entirety of the blame when Liverpool's team focus was so entirely on the attack. Liverpool were desperate to score again and so left themselves vulnerable to the counterattack—as all sides desperate to score leave themselves.

Liverpool pushed to score four and five and six goals, and it meant that if the Crystal Palace players stayed composed and refused to accept they were already beaten they would get chances to run at Liverpool's defenders one on one. Dwight Gayle and, when he was introduced, Tom Ince were either going to be charging at isolated defenders or trying to get behind them. It was always a risk.

In the first half and early in the second, a compact midfield of Steven Gerrard, Joe Allen, and Lucas had played a largely conservative game. In doing so they limited Palace's space through the midfield and prevented counter opportunities while allowing Liverpool's attackers and fullbacks to create an attacking threat, often feeding them balls over the top. After the third goal, the approach changed.

After the third goal, Liverpool seemed to gamble on Palace having been mentally beaten. They gambled that Palace had accepted their loss. Team shape and midfield solidity quickly left them. The midfield became stretched; Gerrard regularly bombed forward; space was left for Palace to counter into. And, it turned out, despite being down by three goals Palace had the fortitude to fight back.

"Liverpool have had all the plaudits in the last few months and deservedly so as they have been the most outstanding team in the Premier League to watch and excited us all," added Carragher. "But that has been their Achilles' heel all season. Even when they've been winning games it's been 4-3 or 6-3 or 3-2. We always felt the defence would come back and haunt them with the goals they've conceded."

The defence let them down, as it has against many of the sides down the table Liverpool have faced in recent months. Yet as in those cases, it was again an issue of team defence, with the eventual individual errors more symptom than cause. That cause—that larger issue—is an almost mindlessly instinctual drive to attack no matter the consequences when faced by a side that sits back.

To blame individual defenders and individual errors isn't necessarily wrong, at least at the micro level. But the underlying cause isn't a Glen Johnson mistake or lack of communication between Sakho and Skrtel pulling the defence deep. It's about the entire squad. It's about gambling that a Palace side down three goals has already been beaten; has already given up.

Given Liverpool needed to score five or six goals to really put the pressure on Manchester City—the kind of pressure that would come of knowing that even were they to win out they might not win the title—it was perhaps even a sensible gamble. It didn't pay off, and it's easy and tempting to make a few individuals the scapegoats, but in the end their mistakes are symptoms, not the root cause.

It's also not a result that really changes the title picture. It makes it easier for City, but not by much. Before, City needed to drop two points. Now it's three. Before they were facing two sides safe in mid-table with nothing to play for. Now, despite the disappointment of last night's draw, not a great deal has actually changed—either way City were going to be overwhelming favourites.

So. Same as before: Hope for an unlikely result for either Aston Villa or West Ham and, when Newcastle comes to town, attack attack attack. While leaving the defence wide open to individual errors that will likely lead to opposition chances. For better or worse, it's not as though this side knows how to do things any other way.