“Liverpool must be the worst side in the league at defending set-pieces this season when you look at how many goals they’ve conceded,” said Jamie Carragher in October 2014. “Liverpool have won, ok, but they are still weak defensively.”
“Liverpool are probably the worst team in the Premier League at zonal marking,” said Carragher in August 2017. “I don’t know what they are doing there.”
Three years, one manager and a host of different players later, and Carragher has barely had to alter his opinion. As a former Liverpool defender who treated the concession of every goal as a personal affront, the Sky Sports pundit winces every time he covers Liverpool. The rest sit somewhere between bemusement and amusement.
In April, Jurgen Klopp conceded that Liverpool’s set-piece defending was in need of huge improvement after a 3-1 victory in the Merseyside derby, in which Matthew Pennington had equalised. “It is still a question for us to find a real answer for,” said Klopp. “Obviously it is not our best skill of all the football skills.”
The German is not a man for whom understatement comes easy, but he nailed it then. Liverpool conceded more goals from corners than any other Premier League team last season. Their inability to apply the basic principles of zonal marking correctly consistently allowed opposition players to find space in the area. Simon Mignolet’s lack of awareness in coming to claim the ball added to the issues.
Three months later, and Klopp had a plan. “Take the recipe you saw last year and involve a few nice things, like better defending, more concentration, smarter play,” he said in preseason. If those are a few of Klopp’s favourite things, Liverpool’s have some making up to do. The evidence from Vicarage Road was damning; Liverpool were shambolic again.
It started when Stefano Okaka, a striker with a physical presence that is difficult to miss, was given the room and licence to meet a corner five yards from goal and drill a header past Mignolet. Two minutes after Liverpool had equalised, Okaka’s shot was blocked before three Liverpool defenders failed to clear their lines effectively, and Abdoulaye Doucoure swept home the loose ball.
Had Liverpool been victorious, as Arsenal on Friday, supporters would have delighted in victory while understanding that rectification of the defensive issues is matter of critical importance. No team can reasonably rely on scoring three or more goals to win matches on a regular basis, and Liverpool will face far more prolific attacks than Watford this season. Hoffenheim on Tuesday, for example.
As it was, Liverpool had one final defensive brainfade left. Mignolet parried Miguel Britos’ shot behind rather than out for a throw in, and then followed up that error by allowing Richarlison’s shot to spill up onto the crossbar and onto the line. Georginio Wijnaldum shares the blame for his inability to clear the danger, and a downward header made sure of the goal. Vicarage Road welcomed the reign of the Britos empire.
The recommended shortcut to defensive improvement – at least in the current climate – comes in the signing of new players. Few would argue that Virgil van Dijk would be a better administrator of zonal marking than Roberto Firmino. Yet just as players seem to pick up injuries when they join Arsenal, any new arrivals into Liverpool’s first-team squad are afflicted with Anfield defending disease.
That defence against QPR in 2014: Glen Johnson, Martin Skrtel, Dejan Lovren, Jose Enrique. Lovren, the only remaining member, was excellent at set pieces during his time at Southampton.
That suggests that this is a question of coaching and systems as well as individual players. That suggests that Klopp needs to find an alternative to his zonal marking system without players on the posts. That suggest that there are difficult questions to answer over whether Mignolet’s lack of conviction breathes doubts into the players in front of him.
Klopp’s biggest problem is that these questions are precisely what managers should spend the summer finding answers to. It is not acceptable to be still debating them in the first week of the season, when points have been dropped.
Liverpool now head into two European games that will help shape the success of their season. Julian Nagelsmann might be instructing his wingers to get close to the byline and try and win corners. You can hardly blame him…