Liverpool have a defence to trust in pursuit of Premier League glory
LIVERPOOL, England -- There are many reasons for Liverpool supporters to feel optimistic about their team's chances of ending a 29-year wait for a league title this season, but the goals conceded column is probably the most important of them all.
Having completed a 5-1 destruction of Arsenal at Anfield to move nine points clear at the top of the Premier League, three days after hitting four goals past Newcastle, the strength of Jurgen Klopp's team is clearly its ability to score at will against almost any opponent.
The same, though, could be said of Brendan Rodgers' side back in 2013-14, with Luis Suarez the focal point of an attacking force that scored 101 goals in 38 league games. The problem then was that Liverpool were not quite as impressive at the other end; the main reason they finished runners-up to Manchester City in the title race was because they conceded 50 times.
In the final reckoning, Rodgers' men were not defensively strong enough to win the title, and that painful reality was borne out during a nightmarish 3-3 draw at Crystal Palace in the final week of the campaign, when the home side cancelled out a three-goal deficit to earn a draw and crush any lingering Liverpool hopes of finishing top.
Things are different under Klopp. After 20 games of this season, the goals are still flying in -- 48 so far -- but goalkeeper Alisson Becker has been beaten just eight times. Compare that to the same stage of the season five years ago, when Liverpool had scored 46 and conceded 23, and there is no escaping the huge difference when it comes to the defensive solidity of the current team.
Saturday saw a slightly different challenge as Liverpool conceded the first goal of the game, but Klopp got the response he wanted from his players.
"We didn't concede a lot of goals obviously this year, so you never know exactly how the reaction will be if you concede one, especially the first in the game, but the reaction was brilliant, just outstanding," he said. "We increased the intensity again a little bit, immediately put them under pressure again."
All great title-winning sides are built on solid defences, and Liverpool have had their share during the Premier League era, but they have never been able to get the balance right in order to win it all. This season could be different.
Former Liverpool defender Alan Kennedy, who won five league titles at the club during the 1970s and 1980s, insists that the defence is the reason why this Liverpool team is on course for the title.
"The forwards generally get the credit for what they do," Kennedy said in his role as a summariser for Radio Merseyside. "But Liverpool have built from the back. Virgil van Dijk has been terrific, and [Dejan] Lovren has really come of age. It's about not giving things away. They've been so solid."
Van Dijk became the world's most expensive defender when he left Southampton for Anfield for £75 million last January and has been the key addition for Klopp. The centre-half has brought calmness, leadership and organisation, and his presence has made previously error-prone defenders, such as Lovren, more reliable.
Over the years, the Premier League has seen many great defenders provide the bedrock of title successes -- Jaap Stam and Rio Ferdinand at Manchester United, Arsenal's Sol Campbell, John Terry of Chelsea and Man City's Vincent Kompany to mention just a few -- and Van Dijk is a worthy member of that group of inspirational centre-halves.
If Liverpool do go on to win the title and become champions of England for the first time since 1990, it will be as much down to the influence of the Dutch international as the goals of Mohamed Salah or Roberto Firmino, who hit a hat trick against Arsenal.
During the calendar year of 2018, Van Dijk has racked up 18 clean sheets in the Premier League, which is more than any other defender. When you have such reliability and consistency at the back, a team that possesses such devastating attacking quality becomes almost unbeatable. More than halfway through the campaign, Liverpool are yet to lose.
They survived scares against Chelsea and Man City to maintain that record and head to the Etihad Stadium on Thursday knowing that everything is working perfectly, in pretty much every part of the pitch, ahead of a game that could see them all but end the champions' hopes of retaining the title.
There are some weaknesses that Liverpool must still correct -- Man United and Arsenal have both scored at Anfield from left-wing crosses to the far post, and Klopp admitted his players were "a bit too open, a bit too wide in the formation" on Saturday -- but they are minor issues that are unlikely to derail their title challenge.
More damaging would be the loss of Van Dijk or Alisson for a period of time to injury or suspension, but such misfortune can afflict any team. For now, Liverpool are firing on all cylinders, with no area more crucial than their defending.
If that holds up, Anfield can prepare for its first title party in almost 30 years.