Despite all the plaudits given to Liverpool’s attacking threat, is it their defence which could win them the Premier League title this season?

 

No Premier League team has scored as many goals as Liverpool have this season. Indeed, the Reds’ average of 2.8 goals per game paints the picture of a team firing on all cylinders in the attacking third with Mohamed Salah in particular reaching new heights. The Egyptian might well be the best player in the world at this moment in time.

But for all that the goals of Liverpool goals have provided the firepower needed to take a Premier League title challenge to defending champions Manchester City with just one point between the two rivals, their defensive record stands as their biggest difference-maker. The biggest strength of Jurgen Klopp’s side is at the back, not the front.

Liverpool have keep a league-high 10 clean sheets in 16 Premier League fixtures played this season. Only City (6.4) are conceding a lower average of shots per game than the Anfield outfit (8.5), illustrating just how solid Klopp’s team have been in their defensive structure. Liverpool might play an open, expansive game, but they are difficult to get at.

Of course, the return of Virgil van Dijk from injury has steadied the Liverpool defence. The Reds’ title defence fell apart without the Dutchman’s influence in defence. Van Dijk’s case for being the best centre back of his generation is a strong one with the former Celtic and Southampton man finishing second in the 2019 Ballon d’Or.

However, Joel Matip has been just as influential alongside van Dijk for Liverpool in defence this season. The performance produced by the Cameroonian against Aston Villa on Saturday demonstrated this with Matip key to the way the hosts broke down an opposition side willing to sit deep and invite pressure.

Matip completed 57 out of 61 attempted passes (93%). He also won all six of his aerial duels and made three clearances, two tackles and two interceptions. But his most important use was in the way he was willing to stride out from the back with the ball at his feet, gliding past opponents and opening up pockets up space where previously there was only a wall of bodies.

Last season, Liverpool looked light on options in defence. Injuries exacerbated this situation, but the Anfield club still entered the January transfer window to find more than one short-term solution with Nat Phillips also promoted to the first team. Now, though, Klopp has a variety of different defensive options.

In Matip and van Dijk, Liverpool have a perfectly balanced centre back pairing, but Klopp also has Joe Gomez and summer signing Ibrahima Konate to choose from. At left back, where Andy Robertson essentially ran himself into the ground last season, Liverpool now have Kostas Tsimikas as a depth option, with the Greek proving himself for a spell at the start of the campaign.

At right back, Trent Alexander-Arnold is somewhat irreplaceable in what he brings to the team, but James Milner has shown himself to be a reliable, if somewhat one-dimensional, deputy in the position. Defensively, Liverpool have never been better equipped under Klopp than they are right now.

Manchester United’s title challenge was over before it even started and Ralf Rangnick is now in charge following the sacking of Ole Gunnar Solskjaer. Chelse are also faltering with a number of poor performances in recent weeks. The fight at the top of the Premier League this season might be between two familiar foes.

Liverpool and Manchester City are now starting to define an era of English top flight football in the same way Arsenal and Manchester United did at the peak of their powers with very little between them. But if Liverpool are to come out on top, as they did two seasons ago, it’ll likely be because of their defence, even if their attackers are the ones that catch the eye.

 


 

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