CASE FOR THE DE­FENCE

There’s noth­ing wrong with my back line, says Klopp as he tells Liver­pool to si­lence their crit­ics

The Irish Mail on Sunday - - THE TITLE - By Joe Bern­stein

JUR­GEN KLOPP has come up against Arsene Wenger three times in the Premier League and those matches have pro­duced 17 goals. It fits in neatly with the im­age that both Liver­pool and Arse­nal de­serve a 10/10 rat­ing for en­ter­tain­ment but are too de­fen­sively naive and weak to win the big­gest prizes.

It is an im­age that is be­gin­ning to grate on Mersey­side. The crit­i­cism that fol­lowed their 3-3 draw at Wat­ford in their first game of the sea­son was nearly as se­vere as Brazil faced when they shipped seven to Ger­many in their home World Cup.

The facts show Klopp’s side con­ceded 42 goals in 38 league games last sea­son, leav­ing room for im­prove­ment but not dis­as­trous. For all the hand-wring­ing at the start of this sea­son, with calls for goal­keep­ing and de­fen­sive re­cruit­ment, Liver­pool have taken four points out of a pos­si­ble six in the league and com­fort­ably ne­go­ti­ated a tricky Cham­pi­ons League play-off with Hof­fen­heim.

Klopp is as­so­ci­ated with ‘heavy me­tal’ foot­ball and high press­ing but both he and cap­tain Jor­dan Hen­der­son have mounted a vig­or­ous case for the de­fence and in­sist that part of the game is not ne­glected. ‘We aren’t just an at­tack­ing team. We like to de­fend just as well. I think we play with in­tel­li­gence,’ says Hen­der­son.

‘Of course we want to win the ball back quickly, es­pe­cially at home, but if you look at the away per­for­mance against Hof­fen­heim, it was de­cent de­fen­sively. I thought for the ma­jor­ity of the game it was good. It was the same against Palace, we de­fended well.’

Any idea that Klopp is a Ge­orge Gra­ham in re­verse, only work­ing on his front line, is dis­missed by the Ger­man, who sympathises with the view that at­tack­ing coaches like Pep Guardi­ola, Wenger and him­self are treated more sternly than Jose Mour­inho or An­to­nio Conte.

‘We can win in dif­fer­ent ways. Crys­tal Palace [1-0] was a dif­fer­ent game to Hof­fen­heim [4-2]. We won games in dif­fer­ent ways as well last sea­son.

‘There was an im­age of us be­cause we smashed a lot of teams in the first half of the sea­son. In the sec­ond half of the sea­son we didn’t smash sides, we missed Sa­dio Mane for around 15 matches and if that’s not a blow, I don’t know what is. Phil [Coutinho] took five games to get his old shape back af­ter in­jury.

‘But we still got re­sults to fin­ish fourth and we feel it was like third be­cause we have qual­i­fied for the Cham­pi­ons League group stages.’

In fact, goal­keeper Si­mon Mig­no­let fin­ished the last cam­paign with four con­sec­u­tive clean sheets. ‘We know we can hurt peo­ple, we like to play foot­ball, but you have to make sure you adapt go­ing the other way,’ he says.

Klopp seems perplexed that a one-off show­ing at Wat­ford can be pro­jected as a sign of doom and gloom for the whole sea­son, just as Manch­ester United’s clean sheets against West Ham United and Swansea City were an in­di­ca­tor that Jose Mour­inho has cracked it at Old Traf­ford.

‘In this coun­try, if you win, noth­ing else counts,’ said Klopp. ‘If you hit the post five times and lose, peo­ple don’t care, you lose. But if you don’t know how you won, you can’t use it for the next game or long term. You can have a de­fen­sive line-up, but you can not use it all the time. Peo­ple who want to crit­i­cise will crit­i­cise, that’s no prob­lem. Con­ced­ing goals is some­thing you have to crit­i­cise and, yes, Manch­ester United did not con­cede a goal against West Ham and Swansea.

‘But Swansea could have scored from one or two sit­u­a­tions, they didn’t and then United killed them. Does that mean they are per­fect or still have work to do? I think Jose thinks they still have work to do.

‘If you don’t work to­gether, you will con­cede. I don’t think the way we play is that of­fen­sive that we should give easy goals away.

‘I re­spect de­fend­ing and we work 100 per cent on it. But for sure a big part of the game is scor­ing goals also. It is only pos­si­ble, though, if you are stable and we are work­ing on that. It’s not per­fect but we feel we are in a good way.’

Klopp has tried to im­prove the de­fence. Scot­land in­ter­na­tional left-back Andy Robert­son was signed from Hull and re­ceived rave re­views on his de­but last weekend. Young­ster Trent Alexan­der-Arnold has also emerged as a real prospect, which has al­lowed James Mil­ner to move back into mid­field.

There has been con­cern, how­ever, that a botched at­tempt to sign Vir­gil van Dijk from Southamp­ton has left the team weak in the mid­dle of the de­fence de­spite the prom­ise of Joel Matip and ex­pe­ri­ence of De­jan Lovren and Rag­nar Kla­van.

In at­tack, Klopp has op­tions with Roberto Firmino, Sa­dio Mane, Do­minic Solanke and Daniel Stur­ridge all backed to have big sea­sons and Coutinho’s fu­ture due to be re­solved on Au­gust 31.

With Danny Ings re­turn­ing from in­jury, the club are ready to lis­ten to of­fers for Bel­gium in­ter­na­tional Divock Origi, who failed to make their 18-man squad for Wed­nes­day’s game against Hof­fen­heim. Klopp is also keen to off­load Ma­madou Sakho, who has fallen out with the Liver­pool man­ager.

HIT­TING BACK: Jor­dan Hen­der­son in­sists Liver­pool can de­fend de­spite con­ced­ing three at Wat­ford (inset)

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