Born in the south east of Ireland, Simon put his life-long love of football to good use when he started a successful independent blog in 2010. That opened up an alternative route to a career in journalism, and having had work published across a number of sites and publications, Simon joined the staff at Spotlight Sports Group in 2018.
Last season, Liverpool blazed a trail through Europe with a brand of attacking football that left defences choking on their dust. Liverpool smashed the record for most goals scored in a single Champions League campaign, registered 47 goals in total en-route to the competition’s Final in Kiev.
At the sharp end of their play was their piercingly lethal trident of Sadio Mane, Roberto Firmino and Mohamed Salah – a multinational wrecking crew that plundered 28 goals between them in the Champions League proper, accounting for a little under 60% of Liverpool’s total goals in the competition.
Liverpool came close to scoring their way to European glory in 2017/18, though their quest was ultimately stymied by some calamitous defending and goalkeeping.
Loris Karius’ mistakes against Real Madrid in the Champions League Final in Kiev were the game’s defining moments, but behind the glaring individual errors was a baseline nervousness running through Liverpool’s defence with an ever-present potential for calamity.
Last season’s worrying numbers
Liverpool kept just six clean sheets in thirteen Champions League fixtures in all last season, two of which were secured against Slovenia’s MK Maribor in the Group Stages. Liverpool conceded sixteen goals in total during the competition and though their sparking attacking football helped to compensate for their defensive deficiencies for the majority of the tournament, it was those same deficiencies that eventually caught up with them.
Liverpool scored an impressive eight goals in their UCL semi-finals and final appearances combined last season, though they let nine in at the other end across the same fixtures. In the long run, their “you score two, we’ll score three” mantra was their undoing. When it came to the crunch, they couldn’t score enough goals to make up for their inadequacies at the back.
This season however, Liverpool have evolved. The imbalances of last year have undergone corrective surgery and the anatomy of the team looks more complete. So, what’s changed at Anfield?
The Van Dijk Effect
Liverpool’s defensive recalibration began on January 5th of this year with the arrival of Dutch international Virgil van Dijk. Liverpool had to shatter the world-record transfer for a defender to sign van Dijk, who made the switch from Southampton for a fee in the region of £75m.
His performances have thus far justified the outlay however and the statistics back that up. Van Dijk’s arrival had an immediate and stark transformative effect on Liverpool’s defensive numbers.
Before his arrival in January, Liverpool had played 22 Premier League matches of the 2017/18 season, conceding 28 goals along the way. The breaks down to an average of 1.27 goals conceded per 90 minutes.
With van Dijk marshalling their defence, Liverpool conceded just 10 times in their final 16 league outings, allowing their opponents in to score just 0.625 goals on average per game.
Van Dijk did start both of Liverpool’s Champions League semi finals against Roma and the final itself against Real Madrid, though the Dutchman’s individual brilliance was stretched thin beside Dejan Lovren and in front of Loris Karius.
Perhaps the biggest lesson Jurgen Klopp learned from Liverpool’s Champions League failure was that van Dijk couldn’t do it on his own. He would need help in the form of new ideas and new faces.
Building a new defensive unit
Liverpool wasted no time in the summer, attacking the problems in their side with the same ferocity they had attacked teams on the continent just a few months earlier.
Again, a transfer record was smashed, this time for Roma goalkeeper Alisson Becker, who moved from Serie A to the Premier League for a then world-record fee of around £56m.
A couple of early wobbles aside, Alisson has brought the calmness and presence that Liverpool’s rearguard has craved.
Perhaps the biggest factor in Liverpool’s defensive augmentation was the redeployment of a young player who had already been at the club.
With Dejan Lovren and Joël Matip injured in the early parts of the season, Joe Gomez, who turned 21 just three days before Liverpool’s Champions League defeat to Real Madrid, was chosen to partner Virgil van Dijk on the opening weekend of the Premier League season against West Ham.
Gomez has been a regular feature since, providing the perfect foil for van Dijk at the heart of Liverpool’s back four. The youngster has started all but two of Liverpool’s Premier League games in 2018/19 and he has played in all three of their Champions League fixtures so far.
The results of Liverpool’s defensive reconstitution have been staggering. Just take a look at the numbers below.
Liverpool have conceded just 5 times in 11 Premier League fixtures in 2018/19, a 70% decrease on their corresponding figure from last season and their best defensive numbers over the last half a decade by some distance.
Remarkably, the goal that Liverpool conceded against Cardiff City on Saturday in their 4-1 triumph over the Bluebirds was the first time they shipped a goal at home this season, and the first time they conceded in 10 Premier League matches at Anfield.
The last player to score at Anfield in the league before Cardiff City’s Callum Paterson at the weekend, was West Ham’s Michail Antonio on February 24th.
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Transferring their performances to the Champions League
Jurgen Klopp will be desperate for his team to replicate their new-found defensive surety on the continental stage. Liverpool have conceded 3 times in their trio of Champions League Group C fixtures to date, though games against Paris St. Germain and Napoli were always likely to test their durability of their reorganized backline.
Liverpool did secure their first Champions League clean sheet of the season against Red Star Belgrade on October 24th and they are tipped to repeat the trick in the return fixture against the Serbians this evening.
There will be bigger tests to come, though you get the sense that Liverpool are much better equipped to deal with the Champions League’s biggest challenges from a defensive perspective this year.
With their problems at the back remedied and their attacking triumvirate starting to sharpen their tools, Liverpool look set for another lengthy Champions League campaign.
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