Liverpool’s defensive injury crisis has hindered them in so many ways this season.
Losing Virgil van Dijk, Joe Gomez, and Joel Matip has obviously hamstrung the defending champions in defence, not that you would necessarily know it from the goals conceded column.
The break glass in case of emergency defenders — Fabinho and Jordan Henderson — have coped admirably with their new tasks and Liverpool, on the whole, have been solid at the back. The 7-2 evisceration at Villa Park, after all, came when the Reds had their whole defensive roster available for selection.
But it’s in the attack where Jurgen Klopp’s team have most keenly felt the brunt of their backline absences. Fabinho and Henderson having to play in defence means there have been less options for the midfield rotation — an issue only added to by Thiago and Naby Keita’s injury absence — and certain players, such as the indomitably fit Georginio Wijnaldum, have had to play way more often than they ideally would have.
It doesn’t take a PHD in sports science to realise that a smaller number of players having to play a bigger number of games — in the most compacted season in recent times — will lead to a drop in performances. After all, footballers, despite the pedestal we may place them on, are humans and not robots.
Klopp has also had to adjust his team to ensure that the backdoor — guarded by players learning to play in defence on the fly — doesn’t remain open. Trent Alexander Arnold and Andy Robertson, heretofore the team’s creative hubs, have had to curb their attacking instincts and play the full-back role in a more orthodox, conservative manner in order to protect the rookie central defenders and not expose them.
The duo, who registered 24 Premier League assists between them last season, have also not been afforded much to any time to rest and recuperate. With all the flux in the heart of the defence, it would be foolish for Klopp to use Kostas Tsimikas or Neco Williams — two relatively green performers, whether in terms of age or of familiarity with Liverpool’s style — more often and run the risk of a totally unfamiliar back four being preyed upon by opposition.
The visibly tired Robertson and Alexander Arnold have been unable to furnish the front three with the quality of chances that they provided over the course of the previous two seasons.
Mohamed Salah, who is the League’s top scorer, and Sadio Mane have endured injury and covid absences of their own, while Roberto Firmino’s patchy form is a continuation of last season’s inconsistencies. Diogo Jota provided both respite and quality in reserve, but the Portuguese international — you’ve guessed it — has missed almost two months with injury. Liverpool are still the second-highest scorers in the league, but their average was artificially inflated by the 7-0 win at Crystal Palace, a margin of victory that far exceeded the visitor’s expected goals figure at Selhurst Park.
One area, though, that the Anfield team are clearly weaker in than last season is attacking set-pieces. At the time of writing, Liverpool have only scored six set-pieces goal this season. Last season, with Alexander Arnold and Robertson supplying the ammunition, the champions scored from 17 dead ball situations.
Shorn of the height of Matip and Van Dijk, who — even if they don’t score — draw the attention of opposition markers and create space elsewhere in the box, the Reds are missing a bountiful source of goals and a means to break open a game.
In this almost two month run of poor form, the Reds have — with the exception of the Manchester City defeat — come up against a series of deep defending low-block teams. Without any threat from attacking set-pieces, Klopp’s team have been unable to open the game with a goal, except in the West Brom draw, and then change the game state and force their opponents to change tact and attack and thereby leave space for Liverpool attack.
Having a set-piece threat is a profitable route to goal, but it’s a weapon the Reds have badly missed for most of the season and it’s another issue that losing their defensive generals to injury has caused.