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How Klopp’s Liverpool are mimicking Benitez’s side

One of the biggest myths in football right now might be the one suggesting Liverpool can’t defend.

Posted by Andy Thompson
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Whether it’s in open play or during set pieces, the narrative suggests the Reds have a soft centre.

But in reality that couldn’t be further from the truth as our friends at Football Whispers explain.

The two set-piece goals West Bromwich Albion scored in April during the 2-2 draw at the Hawthorns saw plenty feed into the lazy belief that Liverpool’s inability to defend these situations had come back to haunt them once again.

“Standard Liverpool” and “as per usual” appeared to be the phrases most commonly used in the post-match reviews from both the media and the fans.

Last season that was perhaps the case. But this year the Reds have shown new resiliency. Jake Livermore’s goal in the 78th minute was the first time Jurgen Klopp’s team had conceded from a corner since January and only the second time it had happened since November.

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Furthermore, Liverpool conceded fewer than ten set piece goals during the 2017/18 campaign for the first time in the last nine seasons. They conceded eight in total – an improvement on the 13 they had averaged over the previous two years.

The defensive improvement wasn’t just exclusive to set pieces, either. In open play, the Reds are one of the best teams in the Premier League at nullifying the opposition. Only Manchester City conceded fewer than Liverpool’s 7.4 shots per 90 minutes. Despite playing such an expressive and expansive game, Klopp found a system and a way to restrict the opposition to a limited number of attempts.

The issue was individual mistakes and it had plagued them for a number of years, pre-dating Klopp’s arrival. But that was rectified when the club spent £75million on Virgil van Dijk to shore up the backline.

Combined with Loris Karius replacing Simon Mignolet and Andrew Robertson cementing his place as the left-back in the starting XI, Liverpool immediately looked like a more stable and solid outfit.

In the 19 games Karius started the Reds conceded, on average, 0.69 goals per 90 minutes – a rate which would see them concede just 27 goals over an entire season. In van Dijk’s 14 league starts for the Merseysiders they conceded 0.70 goals per 90 which would, again, be 27 over a 38-game campaign.

Both would mean a stark difference to the 44 that Klopp’s teams have, on average, allowed in his three seasons at the club.

Little by little, Klopp and his coaching team have worked on improving the defence. His first campaign with the club saw Liverpool breached on 50 occasions, the second time they had conceded half a century of goals in the past three years.

The 2016/17 campaign saw a marked improvement with the goals conceded per game number dropping from 1.3 to 1.1. The goals against column read 42 – the club’s best defensive record since 2011/12 when Kenny Dalglish’s side allowed the opposition to score just 40 times.

The narrative this season continues to suggest Liverpool are brittle. Champions Manchester City netted eight in two matches and Tottenham Hotspur scored six during the two encounters with the Reds, while Watford and Arsenal helped themselves to three goals each in draws.

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But the Merseyside outfit finished the season having conceded 38 goals – just two more than fifth-placed Spurs and the same amount as Antonio Conte’s Chelsea side. Manchester City (18) and Manchester United (19) are the only teams to finish with more clean sheets.

A true test of a team defensively is to analyse how they cope once they’ve been breached. Liverpool conceded, on average, 1.8 goals in the 21 games they didn’t keep a clean sheet in. Just slightly above Spurs (1.63 in 22 matches), Manchester United (1.4 in 19 matches) and Manchester City (1.35 in 20 matches).

In fact, the 2017/18 campaign was their best defensive performance since Rafael Benitez was in charge – the 2009/10 season saw Liverpool ship just 35 goals.

It’s going under the radar because of his devastating the forward line is but Klopp is improving the defence on a yearly basis. Could the German tactician strike a perfect balance next season?

If he does, and the team pull their weight at both ends of the pitch, there’s a title challenge on the cards.

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