It’s fair to say it’s been an inconsistent start to the season for Liverpool but there’s one player who’s slowly becoming one of the most reliable performers in the side. To make it even more incredible he also plays in a defensive unit which has been heavily criticised and contains some of the Reds’ most inconsistent players. Since making his first start in the league this season at home to Crystal Palace, Joe Gomez has grown into his role at right-back which has evolved considerably and been adapted to become one of Liverpool’s most important positions in the team. Because of Nathaniel Clyne’s persistent back injury, it has been Gomez and Trent Alexander-Arnold who have been in direct competition for the right-back spot but because of the development of Gomez and the way Klopp has tweaked the position, there’s no doubt who our first choice right-back should be. After Liverpool’s shambolic defensive performance away at Tottenham, we have seen a subtle but extremely effective tweak made to the Reds’ defence which has not only improved us defensively but made Gomez the perfect man for the position.
I wrote an article after the Huddersfield game which detailed the tactical alteration Klopp had made after Liverpool conceded 4 goals at Tottenham with the defence all over the place. It highlighted how Gomez had been asked to play much deeper and narrower when we had the ball than we are used to seeing full-backs play under Klopp. We have been accustomed to seeing both full-backs play high and wide when we are in possession, making the pitch as big as possible allowing our two wingers to took inside and operate in the half spaces. This meant our CB’s were constantly left isolated with the whole length of the pitch to cover. Spurs exposed this time and time again with Pochettino playing both Kane and Son upfront who had a field day against Matip and Lovren. The pair just couldn’t deal with their pace and directness getting very little cover from their full-backs when they needed them the most. As a result, Klopp decided he needed to give his two centre-backs a lot more help which is why we’ve seen the right-back position evolve over the last couple of months.
If you’re asking a fullback to play narrower and deeper when you’re in possession then you want him to have the physical attributes to play both as a centre-back and full-back, which is why this position is perfect for Gomez. The 20-year-old is tall, quick, strong and powerful meaning he’s capable of dealing with a variety of threats. One of Gomez’s main tasks is to stop the counter-attack, something the Reds haven’t been very good at doing under Klopp. As a result, Gomez often finds himself in duels with either pacy wingers who have been asked to be an outlet for their team or a big striker who is used to hold the ball up for his team giving the other players time to support him. Because of the Englishman’s physical attributes, he can deal with either one of these threats meaning alongside his two centre-backs the Reds are managing opposition counter-attacks much better.
The game against Everton last week was the perfect example of how Liverpool are stopping opposition counter-attacks much better than they ever have done under Klopp. Every time Everton won the ball they were looking to hit both Niasse and Calvert-Lewin with long balls into the channels. Had the Reds left both Lovren and Klavan isolated as we’ve seen before this tactic may have been very effective but because Gomez was playing in this evolved right-back position Liverpool were able to deal with their very direct approach as you can see from the picture below. The Reds’ right-back is both quicker and stronger than the Everton forwards meaning he dealt with both of them brilliantly on the day. Managing these situations not only improves Liverpool defensively but it also makes us more of a threat in an attacking sense. We can stop the counter-attacks much more quickly meaning our attacks can be sustained and opposition defenders don’t have the opportunity to rest when their team counters thus making them much more likely to make mistakes or lose concentration. The best teams in the world are able to sustain pressure for long periods of time, penning the opposition in which more often than not leads to the attacking team finally making the breakthrough.
Joe Gomez’s improvement defensively is backed up by the statistics which demonstrate just how good he has been this season. Nathaniel Clyne has been Liverpool’s most reliable defender for the last couple of years but Gomez is outshining him in most categories this season when we compare him to Clyne last season. Because of his added height, it is no surprise Gomez wins more aerial duels per 90 at 52.94% compared to Clyne’s measely 24.07%. But Gomez also beats Clyne when we look at total duels won per 90, 59.78% to 51.05%, tackles won per 90, 2.18 compared with 1.79 and clearances per 90, 3.17 to Clyne’s 1.68. Although it could also be argued Gomez’s dominance in these categories could be related to the tactical tweak Klopp has made to right-back what these statistics do show is that Gomez is the perfect man for this position and he is slowly becoming one of Liverpool’s most reliable defenders. Despite only being 20 the early signs are extremely exciting for the young defender as he looks as though he has all the attributes to be a great defender for Liverpool either at right-back or at centre-back and is now backing this up with his performances on the pitch. Even when Clyne returns to full fitness there is now no guarantee that he will get straight back into the side, which is testament to how well Gomez has adapted to his new role.
Despite many fans calling for Gomez to be played at centre-back, this right-back position is the perfect place for him to develop and refine his defensive skills as he has the added protection of two centre-halves playing next to him. This is not to say in the long term Gomez can’t make the transition to centre-back, there’s now every suggestion that he can but we can’t rush his progression especially as he’s becoming one of our most reliable and consistent defenders. Gomez has already played a lot of game time this season when we compare it to his last three or four seasons, therefore, Klopp must manage his workload very carefully over the busy Christmas period. Having said this, there is no doubting how important of a player he is becoming to this Liverpool side and the stability he is bringing to the defence.