Manchester United, Manchester City, Stoke, Swansea and Watford all sorted their sh*t out. What were this bunch doing?
The year is 2015. The date is October 9. The day is a Friday. And in front of a packed room of giddy journalists and excitable club staff, Liverpool unveiled their new manager.
“We will work more together, better together,” he said at his first press conference, before delivering a line that, even now, continues to haunt him with each passing game: “We will have better organisation in defence than the other teams.”
Almost two years later, and that same defence has the German feeling a little uneasy. Klopp could not hide his frustration at seeing his Liverpool side concede the same goal in every game after a simple throw-in became their undoing in the Carabao Cup third round against Leicester on Wednesday. With Danny Ward starting at the King Power Stadium, the Reds have now played more goalkeepers (3) than they have had clean sheets this season (2).
To say this is a long-standing problem is an understatement. Since Klopp’s appointment, Liverpool have conceded 91 goals in 73 Premier League games. Tottenham (57), Manchester United (58), Chelsea (74) and Manchester City (75) can all boast considerably better records, while even Arsenal (81) and Southampton (83) have stingier defences. West Brom (92) and Leicester (93) are not far behind.
The German can protest that no signing would have improved his defence this summer, and that he is coaching the players as best he can, but the results suggest otherwise. Klopp has still only signed three central defenders during his time at Anfield, refused to build bridges with Mamadou Sakho despite the Frenchman being perhaps the club’s best centre-half, and courted Virgil van Dijk at the start of the transfer window. It was surely an admission that his defence needed improvements, and yet he sourced no alternative.
“It is better to have 11 players doing the same thing wrong than everybody doing what they want,” Klopp added in his first press conference. He must be delighted with recent performances. Job done. Congratulations.
Tottenham’s lack of pace
The third-choice goalkeeper arrived, as did two hugely promising centre-halves. In came the first-choice right-back, a replacement for Kyle Walker. And after years of searching, a suitable back-up to Harry Kane was signed at the last minute.
After a slow start, Tottenham enjoyed a strong summer. Tasked with strengthening the squad as much as the starting XI, Mauricio Pochettino identified his targets and, on the whole, they were delivered. With Davinson Sanchez, Juan Foyth, Serge Aurier, Fernando Llorente and Paulo Gazzaniga, Spurs do look stronger.
And yet there remains one chink in the armour. Harry Kane and Dele Alli have formed a wonderful partnership, Christian Eriksen is all sorts of beautiful, Mousa Dembélé is the Ferrari engine, Heung-min Son is as skilful as he is versatile and the defence is among the best in the Premier League, but where is the pace?
It is a deficiency that Pochettino has tried to correct before. In Clinton N’Jie and Georges-Kévin N’Koudou, the manager sought to inject some speed and skill into his forward line in the summers of 2015 and 2016 respectively, but neither have proved good enough. Son is more fleet-footed than either Kane or Alli, but each of Tottenham’s title rivals boast at least one player with electric speed.
In four of Tottenham’s first five games of the Premier League season, Moussa Sissoko has reached their fastest speed; Eriksen did so in the other. For times when neat passes, deft skills, mere persistence or even brute force cannot unlock a defence, speed is a useful asset. Bring back Aaron Lennon.
Everton’s lack of pace
There is a danger of over-simplifying the importance of pace, of course. A player can have all the speed of Usain Bolt, but without an end product, it means precious little. It is a bee without the sting, a gun without the trigger, weird foreplay where you both dress up as your favourite football club mascot without the actual sex.
Everton do have some pace in their squad. Cuco Martina has attempted to fill the Seamus Coleman-shaped hole at right-back, while Kevin Mirallas and Ademola Lookman, like that strange bloke who lingers on your street corner with his hood up, offer speed. Both are on the fringes of the first team, while Yannick Bolasie would solve the problem, were it not for the slight issue of him having been sidelined since last Christmas. Relying on the talents of a raw, 20-year-old Dominic Calvert-Lewin is not too high on Ronald Koeman’s agenda right now.
But perhaps it is not necessarily a lack of pace that the Dutchman failed to remedy this summer. Romelu Lukaku has never been the fastest striker, but he offered the sort of focal point in attack that Everton have sorely lacked since his departure. Sandro Ramirez looks way off the pace, while Wayne Rooney’s tendency to drop deep into midfield in search of the ball is counter-productive. The signing of Olivier Giroud would not have brought speed to the side, but the Arsenal forward would have been a natural replacement for Lukaku in leading the line. Rooney was never that man, nor Sandro, and Koeman knew it months ago.
Southampton’s goalscoring concerns
Sunderland, Middlesbrough, Hull, Watford and Burnley. There ends the extensive and illustrious list of clubs outscored by Southampton in the Premier League last season. With just 41 goals, they somehow still managed to finish in eighth and p*ss off Martin Samuel.
With seven goals, Nathan Redmond was crowned the club’s top scorer in a presumably low-key ceremony in May. The only club to have a lower-scoring top-scorer was Hull (Robert Snodgrass, 5); the Tigers were relegated while the Saints marched on.
Maybe Mauricio Pellegrino allowed his days as a centre-half to manipulate him when he was appointed Claude Puel’s successor in the summer. Of Southampton’s three signings, two were defenders and the other a defensive midfielder. The result is that after five league games, no player has more than one goal.
The club finally resisted the effects of football’s natural food chain this summer, but selling Van Dijk and improving a lacklustre attack would surely have been a better idea.
Arsenal’s need for a centre-half
It feels harsh to question Arsenal’s summer recruitment in the aftermath of their much-improved performance in the 0-0 draw with Chelsea. Laurent Koscielny, Nacho Monreal and Shkodran Mustafi dealt wonderfully with the threat posed by Alvaro Morata, Willian and Pedro, and Arsenal as a whole looked generally really rather competent.
But just as they should not be judged solely on the 4-0 thrashing at the hands of Liverpool in August, it would be equally unfair to suggest the Stamford Bridge stalemate was the heralding of a new dawn. There is every chance that the Gunners will hit a brick wall after turning the corner.
Before the Chelsea draw, Jamie Carragher addressed the issues with the club’s switch to a three-man defence. “I was really surprised that they did not sign a centre-back in the summer considering they were going with three at the back,” the pundit told Sky Sports, pointing to a cupboard that contains Koscielny, Monreal and Mustafi, but has question marks over the rest of the contents.
Per Mertesacker displayed his brilliance in the FA Cup final, but relying on a man who turns 33 later this month is a fool’s errand. Rob Holding was excellent in the second half of last season, but remains a work in progress. Calum Chambers’ last game for the club came in the 4-3 defeat to Liverpool last August. Can Mathieu Debuchy play centre-half?