Liverpool’s pragmatic kryptonite strikes again as season target shifts

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Liverpool have lost the path forward while the pragmatic bunch are lying in wait, with the Brighton defeat representative of the Reds’ woes this season.

All those years without suffering a Premier League defeat at Anfield and then come two in quick succession, against opponents we’d never have picked out in an identity parade if we had been asked the question at the start of the season.

It’s like waiting for buses, and all that.

As stunning as it is to lose your three senior centre backs to season-ending injuries, on the back of selling your fourth in line during the summer, this is a situation that has nothing to do with our ability to defend.

Both Fabinho and Jordan Henderson have manned the barricades admirably when asked to do so, while Nat Phillips and Rhys Williams have performed comfortably beyond their experience could expect.

In terms of the central defensive nightmare, to end all central defensive nightmares, I don’t think we could have coped better than we have.

The biggest side-effect to having Fabinho and Henderson drop into central defence has been a narrowing of options further up the pitch, however.

LIVERPOOL, ENGLAND - Wednesday, February 3, 2021: Liverpool's captain Jordan Henderson (L) and Brighton & Hove Albion's Leandro Trossard during the FA Premier League match between Liverpool FC and Brighton & Hove Albion FC at Anfield. (Pic by David Rawcliffe/Propaganda)

I’m a great believer that there is no issue with central midfielders covering for, or even being converted to central defenders. For many central midfielders, they are equipped with all the skills and tools to be excellent centre-backs.

I’ve mentioned before that we have a history of treading such a path. Tommy Smith began his football higher up the pitch, while Emlyn Hughes and Phil Thompson’s partnership in central defence sprang from them both dropping back from midfield to cover for injuries.

Further to this, Alan Hansen was a midfielder in the early stages of his career, at Partick Thistle, and Jan Molby was adept at playing central defence when the need arose – to the point that Johan Cruyff almost took him to Barcelona to be Ronald Koeman’s understudy. Mark Lawrenson was another who could as easily slot into midfield as he could marshal a central defence.

I’ll still argue the point that Steven Gerrard could have prolonged his Liverpool career as a central defender, rather than been allowed to head off to Los Angeles.

Hence, central defence isn’t a foreign land for Fabinho and Henderson. In all likelihood, Gini Wijnaldum and James Milner could do good impressions of central defenders if ever asked to do so.

It isn’t about compartmentalising players as defenders, midfielders, and attackers. It is about having ‘footballers’ in every position, and those footballers having the ability to play in a variety of areas of the pitch with ease, comfort, and confidence, whether that is momentary when in pursuit of the ball or an opponent, or for a full 90 minutes due to the absence of a teammate.

LIVERPOOL, ENGLAND - Wednesday, February 3, 2021: Liverpool's Georginio Wijnaldum (R) and Brighton & Hove Albion's Pascal Gross during the FA Premier League match between Liverpool FC and Brighton & Hove Albion FC at Anfield. (Pic by David Rawcliffe/Propaganda)

This is the type of intelligence that stretches a squad further on grass when compared to how it appears on paper. It is a concept which gave Liverpool the theory of pass and move; it is a concept which gave Ajax and the Netherlands totaalvoetbal.

No, our current inconsistencies have little to do with defence, they instead have everything to do with what we are doing on the front foot.

In effect, not being able to use Fabinho and Henderson as options in midfield does shrink the number of alternative cards we can place on the table in the middle of the pitch, but last season neither Thiago or (as broadly as this season) Curtis Jones were part of the picture. Two players who see football in angles that others can only dream of.

Thiago and Jones are the playmakers we’ve cried out for, ever since Philippe Coutinho agitated his way to the Camp Nou, but Thiago sustained an early injury while Jones strives to acclimatise to a greater quantity of game time.

LIVERPOOL, ENGLAND - Wednesday, February 3, 2021: Liverpool's Thiago Alcantara (L) and Brighton & Hove Albion's Pascal Gross during the FA Premier League match between Liverpool FC and Brighton & Hove Albion FC at Anfield. (Pic by David Rawcliffe/Propaganda)

We are off balance in this respect, a balance that Fabinho, Henderson and Wijnaldum have previously excelled in providing, while others orbited them. With Fabinho and Henderson on secondment in central defence, this leaves us with Wijnaldum – a player who is quite possibly partaking in the endgame of his time with the club.

Just how important a fully fit Naby Keita would have been amid all this cannot be understated.

When it comes to our fabled front-three, even last season in winning the Premier League, the lack of compelling alternatives was flagged up over and again.

Diogo Jota then sprang forth as the joyous answer to that issue. Of course, he was soon injured. Within these enforced narrowing of options higher up the pitch, to the more pragmatic we have become easier to read.

Packed defences and deep-lying midfields have had us banging our head against a brick wall.
Paul Moran made a pertinent observation during the first half of the win at Tottenham that could easily have been uttered by his dad. It went along the lines of Liverpool taking 30 passes to get nowhere while Tottenham were using three to create a chance.

You can’t meander into games against pragmatic opponents. Give them the chance to dig in deep and they will gladly take it. You must sting them early and draw them out.

Liverpool do move swiftly at times, as seen with our third goal at West Ham last Sunday, but that is in very different circumstances against a team that was two goals down chasing a way back into the game.

LIVERPOOL, ENGLAND - Wednesday, February 3, 2021: Liverpool's Roberto Firmino and manager Jürgen Klopp during the FA Premier League match between Liverpool FC and Brighton & Hove Albion FC at Anfield. (Pic by David Rawcliffe/Propaganda)

Against an in-form and well organised Brighton, it was a different nut to crack.

It isn’t about one game though.

We have taken just seven points from a possible 24, in our games against Sheffield United, Brighton, Fulham, West Brom, Burnley and Newcastle United. Seven games of which we’ve won only one.

We’ve only conceded six goals across the span of those games, however, whereas we’ve laboured to a total of five scored. You don’t play a part in a damning pattern like that and get to declare it a blip. It is not a defensive issue. No matter who is missing, we are still defending sufficiently.

Scoring against space strangulating opponents is our problem.

It is as if we’ve gone to the shed for the first time since the late days of last summer to find the padlock has rusted over and the key has been mislaid.

With notions of holding on to our Premier League title now categorised as fanciful, Liverpool’s task is to ensure they have Champions League football to play next season, as without it perceived desires of new horizons for Mo Salah, and perhaps others too, will increase in traction.

LIVERPOOL, ENGLAND - Wednesday, February 3, 2021: Liverpool's Trent Alexander-Arnold during the FA Premier League match between Liverpool FC and Brighton & Hove Albion FC at Anfield. (Pic by David Rawcliffe/Propaganda)

The next three months really could be that important.

Liverpool will likely feel more comfortable in facing Manchester City, Leicester City, and possibly even Everton too.

Yet somewhat worryingly, of our last six games of the season, four of them are against Newcastle, West Brom, Burnley and Crystal Palace – all of whom have the capabilities to frustrate us and some of whom will be locked within a relegation battle during which superhuman feats can occur.

Despite all these unanswered questions, Pep Guardiola will still be pensive about what is to come on Sunday.

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