Im­proved de­fence the key for Klopp

Sunday Independent (Ireland) - Sport - - SOCCER - JONATHAN WIL­SON

ACROSS from the right. Two de­fend­ers jump and can’t quite con­nect. De­jan Lovren, star­tled that the ball has got as far as the back post, re­alises too late that Arka­diusz Mi­lik has stolen be­hind him; he can­not get to the for­ward in time. Time slows. Mi­lik is in form; he has the best goals-per-minute ra­tio in Serie A this sea­son. Eight yards out with just the goal­keeper to beat, he must score the goal that will put Napoli through.

But Mi­lik doesn’t score. He jabs with­out con­vic­tion. Alis­son does ev­ery­thing he can, spring­ing from his line, spread­ing him­self to­wards the ball, which hits his body and can­nons to safety. Liver­pool have sur­vived.

In that mo­ment, the nar­ra­tive changed. Had Mi­lik scored, the dis­cus­sion now would have been of Liver­pool’s poor away form in the Cham­pi­ons League (five games away from An­field now with­out a win), of their re­mark­able profli­gacy in the sec­ond half against Napoli, and of their ten­dency still for de­fen­sive lapses at key mo­ments.

Liver­pool have let in only six goals in 16 games in the Premier League this sea­son but an exit on Tues­day would have raised the ques­tion of whether they are one of those strange modern sides that can­not re­ally de­fend but do not let in many goals, who con­trol the ball so well that their op­po­nents rarely at­tack, but then look vul­ner­a­ble when they do.

But Liver­pool, per­haps, are not one of those sides, or at least not in the way that Manch­ester City and Barcelona can be. For one thing, Alis­son did make the save. To quib­ble, as some have, that Mi­lik poked the ball straight at him misses the point: the goal­keeper did ev­ery­thing pos­si­ble to make it dif­fi­cult for Mi­lik. That it did not then re­quire some im­prob­a­ble re­flexes or gym­nas­tics to keep the ball out might de­tract from the spec­ta­cle but it does not de­tract from the qual­ity of the goal­keep­ing.

Alis­son is a bet­ter passer than ei­ther of his im­me­di­ate pre­de­ces­sors, Loris Kar­ius or Si­mon Mig­no­let, and has the great ad­van­tage of ra­di­at­ing calm, not panic. He also saves more shots. A goal­keeper who saves shots is just as valu­able as a striker who seizes chances. Coaches try to im­ple­ment sys­tems that con­trol what mo­ments are cre­ated, but it is then down to the abil­ity and tem­per­a­ment of the play­ers how those mo­ments play out.

Sim­i­larly, Vir­gil van Dijk has had an ex­tra­or­di­nary im­pact at Liver­pool. This sea­son the 27-year-old Dutch­man has made more in­ter­cep­tions per game than any other cen­tral de­fender at a top-six side. On Tues­day, he had one of those games in which he just seemed al­ways to be in the right place. But Van Dijk’s im­pact has also been struc­tural and the im­prove­ment in Liver­pool’s de­fend­ing re­mark­able: last sea­son Liver­pool played 24 league games with­out Van Dijk, con­ced­ing 1.17 goals per game; in the 14 in which he played they con­ceded 0.71 goals per game. This sea­son, in which Van Dijk has played ev­ery game, they are con­ced­ing 0.38 goals per game.

It is not, though, just about in­di­vid­u­als. There has been a no­table shift of ap­proach. Liver­pool have not pressed as hard of late, pre­sum­ably to try to keep play­ers fresher for the lat­ter part of the sea­son. This cam­paign Jur­gen Klopp’s side are re­gain­ing pos­ses­sion in the fi­nal third 4.1 times per game, as op­posed to 4.5 last. Opta’s more com­plex met­rics paint a sim­i­lar pic­ture of Liver­pool play­ing a more mea­sured game.

The ben­e­fit has been that they have looked more de­fen­sively solid, and this ap­proach is tak­ing less of a toll. The way high-in­ten­sity sprints are recorded has changed, so a di­rect com­par­i­son is not pos­si­ble, but both Trent Alexan­der-Arnold and An­drew Robin­son are run­ning around three per cent less than in 2017-’18.

If Liver­pool are fresher come March, that could be sig­nif­i­cant in the ti­tle race. Not only have they sub­tly changed the bal­ance to ad­just the mo­ments that oc­cur, but sharper play­ers should be bet­ter equipped to excel in those mo­ments. The im­proved de­fence is part of a greater pic­ture.

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