Two gritty wins away to Stoke and West Brom marked two giant leaps forward for Liverpool in their bid for Champions League football. Keeping out two teams that are renowned for being prolific from set-pieces, it seemed a major corner had been turned.
However, it was old habits that died hard at Anfield on Sunday afternoon, with Liverpool falling back into their pattern of conceding very avoidable set-piece goals. Klopp’s side showed a lack of authority and organisation, allowing Christian Benteke to head home from close range and put a dent in their top-four hopes. Two steps forward and one step back for The Reds.
Having both earned a wealth of praise for a dominant display at the Hawthorns, Dejan Lovren performed a miraculous U-turn, steering himself into the thick of it. On-loan defender Mamadou Sakho may have stolen the headlines for his muted celebrations off the field against his parent club, but the Croatian displayed equally questionable decision making.
“We’re looking at the same problems that we’ve spoken about all season, you think at centre-back and at set pieces.” – Jamie Carragher
Positionally, he was all over the shop for Palace’s opening goal. Yohan Cabaye was able to easily find space and run in behind, flashing an excellent ball across the face of goal where Benteke was on hand to steer it home.
Likewise, Lovren was also found wanting for the second goal, although it has to be said many of his teammates were too. It was the perfect example of the flaws associated with zonal marking, with Emre Can leaving the Palace striker to coast into the six yard box. Roberto Firmino failed to clear his lines as both Lovren and Matip were nowhere to be seen. The move did little but confound Liverpool’s defensive ineptitude, reflecting the current lack of leadership within the squad. Conceding 16 goals from corners since Jurgen Klopp took charge, only Swansea and Watford boast a worse record than the Merseysiders.
“Dejan Lovren’s involved in both goals; both times he tried to jump in to nick the ball – Jurgen Klopp spoke last week about playing ‘adult football’ but he’s one of the most experienced players in the squad.” – Jamie Carragher
Prior to the encounter, in the 14 games Matip and Lovren had played together, Liverpool have won nine and drawn five, scoring 22 goals and conceding just 11 in the process. It’s a partnership that has shown real promise for the most part, but bullied and bashed by Sam Allardyce’s side, the duo failed to retain their unbeaten record, instead going out with an all mighty whimper.
Injury-stricken Reds need defensive reinforcements
The lack of a settled defence has proven costly for Liverpool at times this season. Matip and Lovren have both suffered respective injuries while third choice Ragnar Klavan has equally failed to be a dependable figure for Klopp.
Matip has made 22 Premier League starts, equating to 67% of the Liverpool’s games, while Lovren has managed a slightly better record of 24 starts – around 73%*. To put that into context, Jamie Carragher missed just nine games for the Reds in the top-flight over six seasons. Wrestling with selection headaches has inhibited any form of cohesion in the backline, reflecting the need to invest in the summer.
Continuous tribulations amongst the back four will make it hard for Liverpool to mount any form of title challenge or threat in European competitions in the near future. Virgil van Dijk and Michael Keane are just two names that come to mind for Klopp to upgrade upon his current options. Authoritative and consistent at the back, the duo tick a number of boxes.
In the meantime, Liverpool can ill afford to make any more mistakes in what remains of the campaign. Their attacking verve has so often papered over cracks in the defence but that wasn’t the case on Sunday. Even a wonder goal from Coutinho proved to be nothing more than a consolation as old habits came back to haunt Klopp’s side yet again. Rival clubs will be licking their lips as the hunt for Champions League football looks set to go down to the wire. Here’s to hoping Liverpool’s rocky back four can hold their nerve.