The knock-on effects of Liverpool’s missing centre backs

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Liverpool have faced an unprecedented run of long-term injuries to their centre-back ranks, ones which have had a ripple effect throughout the squad – namely on the full-backs.

With one long-term injury, you can consider it part and parcel of the game, a second in the same position extremely unlucky and a third is just downright beyond comprehension.

But that is exactly what Liverpool and Jurgen Klopp are having to face as the three senior centre-backs they started the campaign with are all in the treatment room with long-term injuries.

Fabinho was promoted from the fourth-choice emergency option into the first-choice role, while Rhys Williams and Nat Phillips stood up amicably, as has Jordan Henderson – names which have seen Klopp call upon 16 different centre-back pairings across all competitions.

And while reinforcements were rightly added to the fold in the form of Ozan Kabak and Ben Davies in the January window, the effects of a tumultuous period at the heart of the defence has already been felt.

 

Red Zone for Trent & Robbo

LONDON, ENGLAND - Sunday, January 31, 2021: Liverpool's Trent Alexander-Arnold (R) and Andy Robertson during the FA Premier League match between West Ham United FC and Liverpool FC at the London Stadium. (Pic by David Rawcliffe/Propaganda)

Namely to Trent Alexander-Arnold and Andy Robertson, the flying full-backs who have seen their wings clipped and minutes of action piled onto their already loaded shoulders.

Ahead of what was already to be a season like no other due to the pandemic forcing fixtures to be condensed, Klopp acknowledged the duo could not withstand playing game after game.

“Robbo and Trent, let’s say, they cannot play every season 50-something games—it would limit their careers, to be honest, even when they come through,” he said back in August.

Neco Williams and Kostas Tsimikas were the chosen deputies, but have combined for just 14 appearances to date and a measly 909 minutes in all competitions.

Injury and the need for time to settle for the latter has played its part, and the nature of the centre-back crisis elevated Trent and Robertson’s importance to the side as they could act as the regular pillars in an otherwise unsettled back-line.

And so, despite the awareness of moving the pair into the red zone, Robertson has made 30 appearances and played the most minutes of any Red this season while Trent is fourth in the list with 25 games to his name.

This is forgetting international exploits and the fact that the season has only just entered its second half.

LIVERPOOL, ENGLAND - Wednesday, November 25, 2020: Liverpool's Andy Robertson (L) and James Milner look dejected after the UEFA Champions League Group D match between Liverpool FC and Atalanta BC at Anfield. Atalanta won 2-0. (Pic by David Rawcliffe/Propaganda)

Klopp conceded earlier in the week that such disruption has forced his hand at full-back, saying: “Coming into defence, [we’ve had] 12 or 13 different centre-half pairings, and then obviously that makes it more difficult, for example, for Neco and Kostas as well.

“Kostas is new, Neco is still young, these kinds of things. You search for kind of stability in the team, and when you change that often [it is harder].”

But in striving for that stability, Trent and Robertson now look on their last legs and as such the creative hub which they have so famously formed is paying the price with both sharing in one goal and five assists respectively.

 

Absentee Ripples

LIVERPOOL, ENGLAND - Sunday, January 17, 2021: Liverpool's captain Jordan Henderson during the FA Premier League match between Liverpool FC and Manchester United FC at Anfield. (Pic by David Rawcliffe/Propaganda)

This loss in goal threat has worked in conjunction with the other repercussions the Reds are facing as the centre-back wounds continue to bleed, with midfielders being dragged back another.

The absence of Fabinho and Henderson as regular members of the midfield creates a handful of issues, including the solidity, energy and creativity which is lacking in their absence in addition to others then being over-played as a result in the middle of the park.

It’s a vicious circle which starts and ends with the loss of key figures at the back, as the raking balls of Van Dijk are no more, nor is his, or Matip’s, aerial threat from set-pieces – devoiding Liverpool of yet another of their attacking outlets.

Let us also not forget the recovery pace of Van Dijk, Gomez and Matip is also key to the high-line and the subsequent high-press which in turn allows the full-backs to bomb forward without as much concern they currently face when the need to turn back arises.

NEWCASTLE-UPON-TYNE, ENGLAND - Wednesday, December 30, 2020: Liverpool’s Fabio Henrique Tavares 'Fabinho' during the FA Premier League match between Newcastle United FC and Liverpool FC at Anfield. (Pic by David Rawcliffe/Propaganda)

Further injuries elsewhere have exacerbated the issue, with Alisson, Naby Keita, Milner, Diogo Jota, Thiago, Henderson, Fabinho and Mane having all experienced at least one setback this season.

Those names are ones which would all comfortably settle into an XI and they have consistently overlapped to leave the manager without at least more than four of his first-choice side every game.

And it was depicted brilliantly by Andrew Beasley on Twitter, who provided the statistics to the situation by showing that Liverpool have seen at least “six or more” players missing in 65.6 percent of their matches in 2020/21.

Truly astonishing, and it means those on the periphery have become substitutes, and those substitutes have become starters – headaches for any one at the selection table let alone conducive to results.

Therefore, a heavy reliance on a handful of players who have avoided injury has been established and the consequence is edging them ever closer to empty as they are the only ones keeping the side stable.

And as Matt Ladson pointed out on Twitter, another ripple effect is created by those on the periphery not being able to find the all-important rhythm Klopp stresses, and as such they struggle to have a meaningful impact when injected into the team.

Klopp, Origi, Oxlade, subs (Phil Noble/PA Wire/PA Images)

Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and Divock Origi are the two standouts in that category with only two goals and one assist between them in 22 combined outings, while Xherdan Shaqiri has fared better with four goals and one assist in 13 games.

It’s a cycle which has proved hard to break as the desire for fresh legs in the form of a Neco Williams, Tsimikas or Oxlade-Chamberlain creates a disjointed lineup – forcing Klopp to choose between the lesser of two evils.

That Liverpool have amassed 40 points to date in the top-flight could be construed as either disappointing or worthy of applause simply due to the nature of what they have had to face.

It is not where anyone wants to be, but the hope now will be that Kabak and Davies can offer a resemblance of stability at the back, likely on rotation, to establish a different ripple effect.

That being greater flexibility for Henderson and Fabinho to move back to the middle of the park, creating more options to rotate at full-back and midfield, while the return of Jota and Mane can add the extra pace and flair up top.

There is a long way to go in the season yet but one cannot underestimate just how tumultuous it has been for Klopp and his side to navigate thus far.

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