Liverpool’s defence must shape up

Jurgen Klopp praises Adam Lallana’s performance against Middlesbrough and suggests Liverpool have the best English players.

Watch footage of Liverpool receiving their last league trophy back in 1990 and the most striking thing is the business-like reaction to being crowned champions for a then-record 18th time.

It was all perfectly understandable. After all, as captain Alan Hansen lifted the title, it was the seventh time in 10 years that Liverpool had finished top of the pile, so it was business-like because it was business as usual.

Hansen remains the club’s last captain to parade as a champion around Anfield and the Scot was desperate for Steven Gerrard to erase him from the history books by leading Liverpool to the title under Brendan Rodgers in 2014, but it was not to be.

Liverpool once operated by the maxim that first is first and second is nowhere, but times have changed and next May will mark 27 years since the club last ended a season as champions. Will 2017 be different, though? Can Jurgen Klopp’s players succeed where their predecessors over the last two-and-a-half decades have failed?

After defeating Middlesbrough 3-0 at the Riverside Stadium on Wednesday, Liverpool climbed to second, but it will certainly not feel like “nowhere” to Klopp’s team.

They sit six points behind Chelsea, who made it 10 consecutive league wins against Sunderland on the same night, yet the Reds are showing the signs they are ready to take advantage of any slip by Antonio Conte’s team.

Are Liverpool ready to be champions again or are the club’s perennial failings still capable of haunting them once the going gets tough?

While they have been majestic in victory at Chelsea (2-1) and Arsenal (4-3) this season, they have also suffered unexpected defeats at Burnley (2-0) and Bournemouth (4-3) and inconsistency remains an issue for Klopp and his players.

Just consider the most basic of statistics: the Goals For/Against column.

Liverpool are the leading scorers in the Premier League with 40 goals in 16 games, three more than Arsenal and six more than Chelsea, who have hit five past Everton and four past Manchester United already this season.

But defensively, Liverpool have the worst record in the top seven having shipped 20 goals already this term. They’ve only managed four clean sheets in their 16 games to date. Even Middlesbrough, currently fourth-bottom and still smarting from their midweek defeat, have conceded fewer goals than Klopp’s team.

It was a similar story back in 2014, when Rodgers’ team came so close to ending Liverpool’s title drought before falling at the final hurdle. The Reds scored 101 league goals that season (one fewer than eventual champions Manchester City), but conceded 50 goals in 38 games — 13 more than City.

Once again, it was the worst defensive record in the top four and it ultimately cost Liverpool the title.

So as Klopp surveys the second half of the season with his team riding in Chelsea’s slipstream, he will know that further disappointment lies ahead unless he can find a solution to the defensive issues that pre-date his reign in charge.

Old habits clearly die hard and, 14 months into the job, Klopp still has the same issues in the goalkeeping department, the same cracks being papered over at left-back and the same inability to kill games from winning positions — Bournemouth being the obvious example — that proved the downfall of Rodgers’ team.

Rodgers had Luis Suarez to bail the team out with stunning individual performances, but while the injured Philippe Coutinho is not yet at the same talismanic level as the Uruguayan, there are signs that Liverpool are beginning to rely on the Brazilian’s magic to produce similar contributions.

Former Liverpool defender Steve Nicol does not agree with Jurgen Klopp’s decision to bench Loris Karius against Boro.

Adam Lallana, now the highest-scoring Englishman in the Premier League this season following his two goals at Middlesbrough, is another who is stepping up to the plate and rising to the challenge. But Liverpool are only as strong as their weakest link and that continues to be their goalkeeper.

Simon Mignolet was dropped by Klopp in September, with £4.7 million summer signing Loris Karius elevated to the first-team by a manager determined to bring stability and consistency to the goalkeeping department.

Although Mignolet’s form this season has done little to warrant suggestions that he is not up to the job, a series of unconvincing displays last term prompted Klopp to sign Karius. However, the German keeper has himself now paid the price for his erratic performances, with Mignolet being recalled against Middlesbrough.

Few title-winning teams have won the league with a sub-standard goalkeeper, but many challengers have fallen by the wayside as a result of inconsistency and errors committed by the man in goal and this is now Klopp’s biggest concern.

Can Mignolet or Karius prove themselves to be in the same class as recent title-winners such as Joe Hart, Thibaut Courtois, Petr Cech, Kasper Schmeichel or David de Gea? Or are they damned to be remembered in the same bracket as David James — a good goalkeeper, but one prone to the mistakes that fatally compromise a title challenge?

Back in the days when Hansen was winning those seven titles in 10 years, Liverpool had world-class goalkeepers in Bruce Grobbelaar and Ray Clemence playing behind a defence which more often than not was the most miserly in the league.

For all of Liverpool’s obvious attacking flair this season, they will struggle to overhaul Chelsea and end their long wait for the title unless Klopp can somehow rewind the clock to the days when the club were as convincing at the back as they are going forward.

Mark Ogden is a senior football writer for ESPN FC. Follow him @MarkOgden_

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