Liverpool kicked off the season with a delightful 4-0 win on Sunday, conceding only two shots on target and rarely looking in trouble.
The back four was among the youngest seen in recent memory during a Premier League game and played together like a group of players ready to kick on this year. Virgil van Dijk anchored a defence with an average age under 23 years old, continuing to prove himself the most gifted leader the defence has seen since Sami Hyypia (sorry Carra) moved on nine years ago.
With a gifted, composed leader to build around, what does the future look like for Liverpool’s defence? Can the back four that played on Sunday be the cornerstone of a title competing team for the coming season? Let’s take a look a the team.
Potential First Team
Right-Back: Trent Alexander-Arnold
The 19-year-old fullback broke into the first team last season. Rotating with Gomez once it became clear Clyne would be out for most of the season, he grew as the season progressed. Fantastic in the both the Premier League and Champions League, he formed what is looking like a formidable partnership down the right with Salah — the assist for Mo’s flicked header against Bournemouth being a real highlight.
Against West Ham, he looked for the overlap, hit plenty of early crosses from deep and played the pass to Keita in the lead up to the opener. He was rusty, yes, but he continues to show why he’s going to be Liverpool’s starting fullback for at least the next decade. The key this season is to build on his huge lift in minutes last season, without overloading him, hopefully managing around 3,500 mins or 38 games.
Right Centre-Back: Joe Gomez
The 21-year-old centre-back broke into the team at right-back last season, splitting minutes with Trent Alexander-Arnold. As I’ve already said here in AI, it’s time for the youngster to make a name for himself in his preferred position of centre-back and to play alongside Trent, making up the right side of the defence, as opposed to competing with him.
Playing alongside Van Dijk, a world-class centre-back, who will mentor Gomez on and off the pitch, his performance on Sunday already looked to have matured from last season. Thanks to his pace and minutes at right-back last season, he moved over and covered the right-back position when West Ham got in behind TAA. From the centre of defence, he looked solid, not diving in and — something he’s been criticised for in the past — solid in the air with clearances from deep crosses and corners. He bought the ball out of defence when needed, made intelligent passes and when required put his laces through the ball and got it away from danger.
Left Centre-Back: Virgil van Dijk
He might not be the captain (yet), but Virgil van Dijk is the leader in this team. Among the top three centre-backs in the Premier League, and maybe even in the top ten in world football right now, van Dijk is the anchor of this team. Having a truly world-class player who can pass the ball, is brilliant in the air, knows when to be calm or aggressive and a offers a threat in the opposition box is a real treat to watch.
Virgil’s said himself he enjoy’s the chance to work with the younger centre-backs in pre-season, if he can bring that into the full season and mentor Joe Gomez there could be a wonderfully balanced pairing in development. VvD and Gomez offer pace, power, strength, height and tactical versatility. Van Dijk is going to have to lead this young defence, but very much looks the man to do so.
Left-Back: Andrew Robertson
Since breaking into Liverpool’s first choice eleven last season there has been a lot of hyperbole around Andrew Robertson. A pressing, running, crossing workhorse, there is something wonderfully Dirk Kuyt about him — even if he plays a completely different position. When playing alongside VvD and behind Mane, Robbo’s looked his best. Probably due to knowing he has a world-class defender ready to slide across and support him and a wide forward in front of him who’s no afraid of putting in the defensive workload required of a Klopp team.
Robertson’s defensive game is average if we’re honest. But his attacking game where he overlaps Mane and presses from the front, elevate him to one of the best left-backs in the Premier League. His performance against West Ham was typical of what Liverpool fans have come to expect, with a wonderful cross for the first goal and a solid all-round game throughout. On another day he could have a couple more assists and will no doubt continue to threaten the opposition throughout the season.
Right-Back: Nathaniel Clyne
Nathaniel Clyne has proven himself as a solid if unspectacular player. A fullback who will consistently give you 6/10 or 7/10 week-in-week-out. He’s defensively strong, willing to get forward — even if his final ball can be somewhat lacking — and is capable of filling in at left-back too. Clyne would start for most teams outside of the top six, and as long as he’s happy picking up 15 – 20 games a season for Liverpool he’s the ideal back up option for now.
There will no doubt be games where stylistically having Clyne play over Alexander-Arnold makes sense. Also, with the youngster likely to play up to 3,500 minutes in what could be a 5,000 minute season, there’s enough game time to go around. There are also plenty of fans who would have been happy to see Clyne as a first choice player before Trent broke through last season.
Centre-Backs: Ragnar Klavan, Dejan Lovren & Joel Matip
At times last season Ragnar Klavan looked the most solid of Liverpool’s defenders. A consistent, low key 7/10 most games, with the occasional blunder thrown in. Once van Dijk arrived his minutes all but disappeared, though Klopp did appear to favour him when wanting to shore up the defence with a third centre-back at times.
The Estonian captain is an old school, no-nonsense defender. Preferably a left-sided centre-back who can also play emergency minutes at left-back or in a back three, there’s a good chance we’ll see Klavan playing in the cup games and covering for VvD when needed. As he’s likely to see little more than 10 games this year, it looks likely Klavan could leave looking for regular football by the end of the month.
Dejan Lovren continues to divide opinion, but with the self-titled world-class centre-back injured, he is likely to have a fight on his hands to get back into the first team. Assuming the rumours of not informing the club about his injury are bogus, expect him the be the main centre-half in rotation with van Dijk and Gomez this season. Though he’s always got a mistake in him, Lovren is at his best in games where a “see ball, head ball” mentality is required and against some of the more direct teams in the Premier League and domestic cups he’s going to start.
However, if the rumours are true, don’t be surprised to see the Croatian marginalised once Klavan and Matip are fit. Sakho, arguably the best defender in the team when Klopp joined, didn’t last long once Klopp became fed up with his antics. The manager doesn’t suffer fools or anyone not proving to be a team player. Between now and January is key for Lovren’s career in a red shirt.
Joel Matip was expected to be the starting right-sided centre-back in pre-season, but following another injury, he’s fallen down the pecking order for now at least. A passive defender who prefers to stand off the opposition and is comfortable on the ball was an astute signing on a free by Klopp. Though this is the role VvD tends to play for Liverpool, VvD can be the front footed aggressive centre-half when playing alongside Matip.
The issue for Matip has been injuries. While at Schalke he played five seasons of around 40 games, at Liverpool he only managed 30 games each season and he’s lacked consistency in both his play and availability. At this point in his Liverpool career, he looks like a player that is capable of being a third or fourth choice centre-half. His speed and passing certainly could be useful against certain teams. Matip’s career in red appears to now be down to whether he’s happy as the fourth choice centre back and essentially partnering Lovren in cup games and plugging gaps when needed.
Left-Back: Alberto Moreno
Alberto Moreno is another who divides the opinions of Liverpool fans. But anyone who doesn’t enjoy having him part of the squad is an idiot. Albie is part of the glue of the current Liverpool squad. His influence on the group shouldn’t be overlooked. Yes, he is a fool, but his good-natured humour and popularity in the dressing room are important. You need players who are capable of performing on the pitch who add to the team off the pitch and he certainly does.
Moreno’s also a decent, somewhat underrated player. Before picking up and injury and losing his place to Robbo before Christmas, Moreno was beginning to show his best form under Klopp. With a player ahead of him in the pecking order, he’s had to up his game in training and on the pitch and you can see that. Moreno might have a heart-in-mouth approach to a last-ditch tackle, but he’s another who’s benefitted from VvD’s presence in the team. Though Robertson looks to be going on to become a top Premier League left-back, Albie is more than good enough to play second fiddle as long as he’s happy to do so!
Alisson Becker, though not an outfield player, is also key to the development of Liverpool’s back four. Firstly, his shot stopping, ability to come for crosses and command of his area appear to be top class. Secondly, his ability to come off his line, to read the game and being comfortable with the ball at his feet, look comparable with the best in Europe right now.
For a back four who are looking to establish themselves, having a ‘keeper who stylistically and ability wise fits the team can only help their confidence. Knowing that you can pass the ball to him under pressure makes for a team that will trust each other. If Alisson lives up to his reputation at Roma he will be a key part of this team and its development.
Fabinho, who can also play right-back, hasn’t been bought in as a defender but his role in midfield is crucial to this team. At Dortmund Klopp always had a defensive midfielder to protect the back four, and Fabinho looks like he could go on to be levels above Sven Bender.
A defence first player, helped by being a converted fullback, who is tall, strong and again comfortable on the ball. He’ll protect the back four with his intelligent positioning and ability to quietly snuff out opposition attacks. His passing, strength and on-ball ability give the defenders an out ball when needed. And, his understanding of the fullback positions mean he knows how and when to cover the space left by Trent and Robertson bombing on. This is the first time Klopp’s Liverpool team have a true DM in-front of them, and this change to the squad can’t be underestimated.
Rafael Camacho has enjoyed a few appearances at right-back during the preseason. The 18 years old is known as an exciting winger in the under 23s, but given how he played, Camacho could join the list of wingers who convert to fullback under Klopp. I wouldn’t imagine we’ll see too many games from him, but if Camacho’s long-term progression is at fullback, he could challenge Clyne for cup game minutes as the season goes on.
Adam Lewis is an exciting young prospect in the under 18s who looks to have been moved into the under 23s this season. Having enjoyed being part of England’s under 19s this summer, Lewis could offer a few minutes as a third or fourth choice left-back and is one to keep an eye on.
Liverpool’s defence going into the 2018/19 season certainly looks shaped for success. Yes, the team would benefit from a top class right centre-back, but unless Lovren or Matip move on that’s not happening. However, this young core boasts players in Trent Alexander-Arnold and Joe Gomez who could go on to be top class, maybe even world-class players. Robertson is growing into his role each game and proving himself as one of the best left-backs in the league. The likes of Clyne, Klavan, Lovren, Matip and Moreno are solid Premier League players who would start for lesser teams.
With a world-class ‘keeper and one of the best centre-backs in the world right now, in Alisson Becker and Virgil van Dijk, Liverpool have the spine in place to be a real force this year. Let’s back the lads to shine and hope that the back four who started on Sunday can continue the upward trajectory we’ve seen from them since January.