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