The lack of full back cover at Liverpool is an uncalculated risk
Liverpool Football Club currently has quite possibly the best full-back pair in the world. Last season was record-breaking for both Trent-Alexander Arnold and Andrew Robertson. Shattering the assists records, while covering the flanks of the best defence in the league. Oh, and they also won the European Cup in one of the most memorable campaigns in recent history. It doesn’t get better than that. We are a week away from the first league game of 2019/2020 and to the surprise of most supporters, the Reds are yet to make a senior signing (two teenagers, as good as they are do not count). One can argue that we are relatively deep in most positions with the current squad. The lack of cover at the full-back positions is, at least to me, extremely worrying, especially given the major role, which TAA and Robbo play in our offensive play.
The best in the league (world)
I’m not going to present anything you don’t know already in this paragraph. The Reds have the best-attacking full-backs in the league and it is not even close. Sometimes statistics can be misleading in a positional sport such as football but when the differences are so big it erases any doubt. The table below shows the top 10 defenders in the league in terms of expected assists per Understat (1000 minutes minimum):
Lucas Digne is the only one who is close to the level of the Liverpool duo and he was let down by the finishing of his Everton teammates last season. While some of Trent’s creativity comes from set-pieces, everything Robertson has created has come from open play. He is an outlier in the top 5 leagues. The only player with similar creativity numbers in Jordi Alba (7.41 xG, 22.09 xGChain). The captain of Scotland has more than double the median xGChain for the top 10 creative defenders in the league. The totals in the table are a bit skewed because Robertson and van Aanholt played in at least 5 games more and about 500 minutes more than anyone else in the list. Endurance is a quality on its own – see Sturridge, Daniel. Looking at the per 90 numbers Robbo is still the most involved in the build-up. Trent, on the other hand, is the most creative per minute.
Struggling without Trent
As the table shows Robertson was available for the vast majority of PL games. The left-back missed two PL games (Cardiff (H), Burnley (A)) and one CL game (Porto (H)) last season. The Reds were heavy favourites in all three games and won them. Trent, on the other hand, missed nine league games and two CL games. The Reds lost both games in Europe – away in Paris and Barcelona. Four (Man City (H), Leicester (H), West Ham (A), Man United (A)) of our seven draws came in games not featuring the young Scouser. Liverpool also barely won two of the other games – away at Huddersfield and against Palace at Anfield.
One can argue, that the number one back up for Trent – Joe Gomez was also not available for a big chunk of those games. Gomez can also play at left-back. That is an absolutely valid response. However, as much as I like the young Englishman he has missed almost 100 games due to injury since arriving at Anfield four seasons ago. He is also part of the centre back rotation and will get minutes there. Nathaniel Clyne was a possible option but his Liverpool career is likely over after the recent injury.
An uncalculated risk?
Finding cover with the same offensive output and defensive stability is probably impossible. But with four days left until the closure of the transfer window the Reds are going with no back up for any of the full-back positions. Alberto Moreno left, Nathaniel Clyne is injured. When Jordan Henderson and James Milner had to fill in it lead to LFC dropping points against inferior opposition. This leaves Joe Gomez as the single senior player, who can be considered a backup. At this stage of his career, he is out of position on the flank. Some of the youngsters showed promise in pre-season but can a title-challenging team, going up against a 100 points per season opponent, afford to rely on teenagers for more than a cameo here or there?
A lot of supporters want to see an additional attacking player but at least we have bodies to put on the bench in that are. Getting some back up for at least one of the full-back positions should have been top priority for this transfer window. There have not been credible links with any player, who can fill any of the two gaping voids on the flanks of our defence. The club is sitting on over 20 million pounds from the outgoing transfers of Danny Ings and Rafael Camacho. In today’s market that money can’t really get us a high quality attacking option but it can be invested in the thinnest position in the squad – the best left-back in Scotland is available for 25 million.
Michael Edwards and co have proved they have a long term vision for the club and that they are not shy of spending tons of money when the right player is available. The Reds’ scouting department has been one of the best in the world over the last couple of season. So maybe it is indeed a question of the right player not being available. Klopp also likes a small squad. With Ox and Naby hopefully managing to play this season some of the creativity from the full-backs can be compensated from midfield. However, we are an injury away from having to rely on a kid born after the year 2000 to cover the flanks of our defence. I find the situation too risky. Hopefully, I am proven wrong in May 2020.