Make no bones about it, Nathaniel Clyne has been one of Liverpool’s best signings of this decade. He may even be one of their best since the turn of the century, when you weigh up how hit-and-miss the Reds have been in the transfer market.
Clyne has been hugely dependable ever since joining from Southampton for £12.5million in 2014, never looking daunted by the pressure of representing such a huge club, and slotting into the defence seamlessly. The fact that he so often goes through matches unnoticed is testament to his defensive excellence, and there is an unruffled nature about him that makes you feel calm inside. Basically, he is the polar opposite of Alberto Moreno, who for the purpose of being fair, possesses positive attributes that Clyne doesn’t.
For all the 25-year-old’s great consistency, supreme levels of fitness and calming influence, he has proven to be a little frustrating of late, with his performance levels just dipping below the standard we expect.
While his work in the defensive third can rarely be questioned – there may be the odd mistake here and there, but he is very strong in one-on-one situations and in his reading of the game – his end product has been lacking when Liverpool have needed quality.
With the Reds toiling a little in recent weeks, and key attacking players injured and struggling for form, they have needed inspiration from others at important times. Clyne hasn’t provided it, unfortunately. Both he and James Milner are given the ball so much at left and right-back, respectively, but Clyne, in particular, has flattered to deceive.
He doesn’t always have the natural attacking instinct of someone like Moreno, and too often he can look ponderous in a good position, or take the easy option. He rarely loses possession, but you find yourself wanting him to take more of a risk when up against an opposition player. Equally, his crossing is very inconsistent, and is the weakest aspect of his game. Against West Ham at the weekend, far too many were aimless and hopeful, with a lack of trajectory making them unappealing for Liverpool’s attackers to get on the end of. He attempted four in total, and not one proved to be successful, in terms of finding a teammate. It has been an Achilles heel for Liverpool all season, and Clyne has been one of the most culpable in the squad.
In the system Jurgen Klopp adopts, the importance of his full-backs is huge, and it is imperative that they are reliable sources of end product. Lukasz Piszczek and Marcel Schmelzer were exactly that during Klopp’s Borussia Dortmund days – Clyne needs to aspire to reach these heights.
Goalscoring is far from the most important attribute in any full-back’s armoury, but again, Clyne can do better there. He has only found the net twice in 70 appearances for the Reds, one of which was in a low-key League Cup clash with Bournemouth and the other when Liverpool were 4-0 up against Aston Villa last season.
In the disappointing 2-2 draw with West Ham, he had a glorious chance to hit the target late on and nick a win for the Reds, but he skied his effort into the Anfield Road end. Never for one second did it feel like a great chance, but that was only because of the man on the ball.
The slightly frustrating part of all this is that it feels as though Clyne may be playing within himself a little. We saw what he is capable of in an attacking sense during Euro 2016, when he was outstanding down the right flank in England’s 0-0 draw with Slovakia.
The former Saints man was fearless going forward that night, combining great pace, intelligence and consistent end product.
He may be a more defence-minded right-back than some, but he is not someone with an inability to be an offensive threat. He proved that in August 2014, when he fired a brilliant finish into the Kop net for Southampton on the opening weekend of the season.
This certainly shouldn’t be viewed as too much of a rant at Clyne’s expense. He remains a very important, reliable player in a team challenging for the Premier League title, and he is one of the best in the Premier League in his position.
There is just a feeling that some complacency may have crept in, due mainly to there being little competition for his place. The Englishman has almost grown too comfortable in the role of Liverpool’s Mr Consistent, and he needs to be jolted back into life.
Clyne’s attacking ability is far from the biggest area of concern at Liverpool right now, in fairness, but he could become such a potent weapon if he goes up a gear. He never produces a performance that is worse than a six-out-of-10, but the problem is, he’s also rarely getting higher than a seven this season.
The positives easily outweigh the negatives when it comes to Clyne, but with every game that passes, the more there is a nagging feeling that he can do more.
He has been an excellent signing, but he cannot afford to start resting on his laurels.