From Balotelli to Lovren: Liverpool’s defensive woes examined

Following a wonderful 2013/14 season, Liverpool were always going to find it difficult to sustain their title-challenging form. Luis Suarez left to Spanish shores, and the team’s defense therefore had to improve to allow another top four finish. Brendan Rodgers and his backroom team responded with defensive reinforcements in the Summer transfer window.

The most prominent of the new-look Liverpool defense was to be Southampton centre-back Dejan Lovren. What has become apparent is that Lovren is a step below his £20million price-tag. A series of individual errors have led to a number of opposition goals, and fans have quickly turned on the Croatian.

But whilst Lovren has been poor, there are a number of serious defensive issues Liverpool have to contend with. Martin Skrtel and Mamadou Sakho have also both had issues in their appearances so far this year. This is particularly hard to take given all three have had long stretches of games where they have looked more than capable to play at this level. This indicates Liverpool’s issues are deeper lying than merely personnel.

Until January at the earliest, the outfield players available will not change. The rumour mill continues to churn out Victor Valdes rumours which would aid the pursuit of a high-line, but defensive reinforcements cannot be made until the new year. Improvements to the system will therefore have to be made if fortunes are to improve.

Balotelli and the press

Mario Balotelli critics were out in force upon his signing for Liverpool. There were a number of valid concerns, with one group citing his lack of work-rate as a potential danger to Liverpool’s high press. Despite a distinct lack of goals (1 goal in 8 appearances at time of writing), Balotelli’s defensive work rate has been top notch. He gives defenders little time on the ball and forces them to make a quick decision. But he is not yet as proficient as the outgoing Suarez at an effective press, and it’s impacting the whole team’s ability to regain possession.

One common misconception regarding a high press is that work rate is the be-all and end-all. Balotelli’s early Liverpool career proves this to be false. Robbie Keane and Carlos Tevez both spent long spells in England where their work rate was heralded, but neither pressed the ball competently. The key to an effective press is to limit the number of options a player has on the ball; this is achieved by closing potential passing lanes. The ultimate aim is to eliminate all options the opponent has and regain possession through a tackle or loose pass.

The important thing to remember is that Balotelli has never been asked to press opponents as intensely as he is by Rodgers. Allegri’s AC Milan pressed high, but little was asked of Balotelli himself. His defensive responsibilities were reduced even further under Clarence Seedorf and Flippo Inzaghi. Brendan Rodgers is having to create this new facet to Mario Balotelli’s game and it won’t happen overnight.

One such example of Balotelli’s willingness to press, but apparent incapability is illustrated below:

The image shown is from the 69th minute and Balotelli has been sprinting for 15 straight seconds in a bid to gain the ball back. He is ultimately unsuccessful. The issue comes at the end of the press where Balotelli chooses to close down the wrong man. This could have been due to short-term tiredness, but more likely is because he doesn’t yet understand the intricacies of a structured press. Instead of closing the passing lane to James Morrison (#7), he attempts to take Craig Dawson (#25) out of the game instead.

The rest of Liverpool’s players are perfectly positioned in order to press the ball, with all three of West Brom’s forwards unable to offer a passing option. Philippe Coutinho and Adam Lallana are more well acquainted with a pressing system and are in the correct positions to limit the options of Gamboa (#16). However, all it takes is for one weak link in the pressing chain to allow the opposition through, and Gamboa chooses to play the ball to Morrison. If Balotelli had closed the passing lane to Morrison, then Gamboa would have been forced to play possession back to Craig Dawson or risk losing possession. Instead, West Brom found it far too easy to get the ball to their deep playmaker and were able to launch a dangerous counter-attack.

It may seem a trivial difference, but for a truly effective press, each player must play his part. With Joe Allen returning and Jordan Henderson becoming ever more tactically aware, Liverpool have the chance to create an incredibly potent pressing system that would take some of the strain off the defensive line. But it must start with Balotelli.

Where are the goals being conceded from?

In seven Premier League games, Liverpool have conceded 10 goals. Four of these have come in the organisation phase, four in transition, and two from set pieces.

As is obvious, there have been a number of errors prior to these goals. They are as follows:

Direct errors; Dejan Lovren 4, Javi Manquillo 1, Alberto Moreno 1, Jordan Henderson 1, Simon Mignolet 1, Mamadou Sakho 1, Steven Gerrard 1, Martin Skrtel 1.

Partial errors; Dejan Lovren 2, Steven Gerrard 1, Mamadou Sakho 1, Simon Mignolet 1, Martin Skrtel/Dejan Lovren 1.

And here are the assist locations, as well as the name of the player who was marking (or should have been marking) the player who made the assist. A red dot signifies that instead of marking the assister, the defender was the assister themselves.

The player who comes out of this particularly poorly is big money signing Dejan Lovren. Despite being brought in to sure up the defense, he has been directly culpable for 40% of Liverpool’s conceded goals, and played a part in the conceding of 20% more. These errors have not been in one easily solvable area; from being nutmegged against Southampton to giving away a penalty to West Brom, he has suffered in various different departments. One particularly horrifying stat shows that Lovren has directly assisted more of Liverpool’s conceded goals than any opposition player this year.

The majority of his errors stem from one fundamental aspect of his play: the ill-tasting cocktail of overly aggressive defensive attitude and poor decision making skills. If Lovren is in any doubt about what to do, he steps up and takes the aggressive option. This defensive ownership is admirable, but when combined with his poor decision making, it presents real problems. At Southampton he was lauded by Gary Neville and Jamie Carragher for stepping up and never shying away. But at Southampton he was relatively untested with the midfield stronghold of Wanyama and Schneiderlin positioned in front of him.

Being inherently aggressive by nature is not always a bad thing for a defender; on occasion it can be a real asset to the team. Vincent Kompany is one of the best front-foot defenders in the world. He is part of the reason Man City are able to play without a genuine defensive midfielder, as he steps into the gap where the DM would be. But this works for Kompany because he also knows when to hold his position. Lovren’s poor decision making means he’s more David Luiz than Vincent Kompany.

Rodgers’ system and its Achilles Heel: defensive transition

Aside from personnel, there are also glaring faults in Liverpool’s system which make defensive transitions a real problem for Liverpool. The immobility of Steven Gerrard has been highlighted as one source of this, but it is possible to function with someone of his level at the base of a midfield. Whilst Rodgers has faith in Gerrard’s on-ball capabilities, it makes sense to keep the captain in the holding midfield role.

The main reason defensive transitions are an issue is due to the off-ball positioning of some of Liverpool’s players in the attacking organisation phase. The best way to create an effective transition defense is ensuring your players are always adequately positioned to win the ball back, should possession be lost. The key is to make sure this isn’t to the detriment of your attacking play.

One way Liverpool could do this is with more intelligent positioning of the ‘wrong side’ central midfielder and full-back. This means that when the ball is being circulated on the left of the pitch, the right back and right central midfielder are able to drop deeper without limiting the impact of the attack. As soon as the ball is circulated through the central midfielders, these two players could then push up into their previously high positions.

Currently, Manquillo and Henderson are often too high when the ball is on the left of the pitch. This means that when the ball is lost, the opposition are able to counter-attack against a trio of Skrtel, Lovren and Gerrard. All three have serious issues in transition, and leaving them 3v3 against an opposition counter-attack is dangerous. Manquillo dropping back to create an auxiliary back three with Gerrard sitting in front and Henderson slightly deeper than he sits currently would create far more solidity for Liverpool.

This system has been used with great success in the past, with Pep Guardiola’s Barcelona utilising it on their way to numerous titles. Eric Abidal was one of the lesser-mentioned players in that team, but his intelligent positioning was vital in securing the team’s defensive transitions. It will prove difficult for a player as inexperienced as Manquillo to fulfil this role as successfully as the Frenchman, but he must make adjustments to his off-ball play.

Brendan Rodgers and his team are at a crossroads. His attacking personnel will gain chemistry and fluidity with each match but the defensive unit will not improve unless direct changes are made. The system does nothing to protect Liverpool’s glaring weakness and the opposition are able to exploit this every week. Dejan Lovren cost the club a lot of money in the Summer, and if his performances continue in such a manner, he will continue costing them valuable points throughout the season.

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4 Comments

  1. Well, as a Lyon fan, I’m not particularly surprised by Lovren being error-prone. Another habit of him was being red-carded, I hope at least this one habit disappeared.

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  2. Most commentators pursue the blame game and single out individual culprits, who “just aren’t good enough for LFC”. A few manage to actually entertain the notion that these defensive woes might be systemic by nature. But it is rare to see someone actually flesh out just what a systemic analysis might look like. Simply outstanding piece of writing, this.

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    1. High praise indeed. Much appreciated.

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  3. Fantastic analysis which is explained very well. Lovren could be a truly great defender if someone just gives him a few pointers.

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