Football News: Liverpool FC - A Defensive Review, Part 3

 

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Liverpool FC - A Defensive Review, Part 3
Image from: hrbackstage.blogspot.co.uk

A year is a long time in football. Liverpool started last season with Nathaniel Clyne at right back and James Milner at left back. Honestly, it was shambolic. There was no threat from wide areas, both players were targeted by opposition teams, and no change in sight. Alberto Moreno was in the dog house for single handedly winning the Europa League; for Sevilla. Jon Flanagan's Liverpool career looked over as well as he struggled to break into Burnley's team. Most Liverpool fans were probably more concerned about their full back positions than they were with their centre backs!

So fast forward a year and things are finally looking up. Not perfect, but no longer the biggest weak links in the team. With the emergence of Trent Alexander-Arnold, and the resurgence of Moreno, all of a sudden, Liverpool have threats in the wide areas. With Joe Gomez able to cover right back as well, and Andrew Robertson signing, Liverpool finally have options on both sides of their defence

Before we begin looking at the individuals, it is worth pointing out that Liverpool play in a way which will always leave the wide areas exposed. They are not really full backs, but rather, wing backs. Most teams that utilise wing backs accept that this will expose their centre backs, and respond by either playing a back three (such as Antonio Conte's Chelsea) or by playing an intelligent holding midfielder who can drop into defence to cover (such as Mauricio Pochettino's Tottenham Hotspur). Jurgen Klopp has his own ideas though. Therefore, Liverpool's wing backs really cannot be judged on how much space they leave in behind them. That is just the way they've been asked to play. They can still be judged on how hard they track back, but being high up in the first place is just how it is with Klopp's system.



Gomez will not be included in this article, as he was reviewed amongst the centre backs in Part 2. As was discussed in Part 2, Gomez's role against Huddersfield may represent the start of a change in the way Klopp sets up his defence to cover for a marauding wing back, but it could just as easily have been a one off tactic. Only time will tell.

Jon Flanagan:
We begin with Liverpool's longest serving first team player, who is still at the club. It seems an age ago that a teenage Flanagan was given his debut by Kenny Dalglish. Flanagan has certainly had some ups and downs since then. During Roy Hodgson's England tenure, it was implied that Jon Flanagan and John Stones were seen as the future of the national sides defence. How their fortunes have varied.

Whilst Stones has gone on to make his international debut and become a regular at Manchester City, Jon Flanagan has seen his career devastated by injury. He did have an astonishing run at left back in the 2013/14 title challenge mounted by Brendan Rodgers' Liverpool side, but that screamer that Flanagan hit in off the underside of the bar in a 5-0 victory over Tottenham, has been all but forgotten.

Now normally when you say a player has struggled with injury, you are talking about missing maybe 3-6 months of a year. Jon Flanagan was injured for nearly 700 days though. It has literally set him back years in his development, and the young man once affectionately known as the 'Scouse Cafu' now finds himself a peripheral figure at his boyhood club.

Flanagan is a tough tackling, old fashioned full back. He doesn't really have the pace or the dribbling abilities to be a wing back. That is his first issue, bearing in mind how Klopp plays. However his lack of pace against modern wingers also sees him concede a lot of free kicks and pick up too many yellow cards. Before injury, he had enough pace to just about cope by using his superior strength, aggression and superb timing in the tackle. However since injury, his timing seems out (though that should return with game time) and his pace is completely non-existent. Injury has literally destroyed his game.

In my opinion, Flanagan only has one option left if he wants to make it in the Premier League; he needs to convert to a defensive midfielder. It is the one area of the pitch in modern football where you can get away with having no pace. Flanagan is also deceptively good on the ball. He can pass crisply on either foot, he reads the game exceptionally well, and he is relatively good in the air. It is still very unlikely he will make it at Liverpool unless he is happy to be a rarely used squad player, but he has played in defensive midfield at youth level before. It is his only (slim) chance of staying in the top flight in my opinion.

I love Jon Flanagan for his attitude alone, and he could've been a very good right back for Liverpool, but sadly this is Rob Jones all over again.

Alberto Moreno:
Firstly, where has this Moreno been? He has improved exponentially in the last year. It is an absolute credit to him that he didn't give up or sulk when a 31 year old right footed midfielder was given his place, resulting in his entire third year at the club being spent warming the bench.

Moreno has endured a tough start to life at Anfield. His first couple of seasons were littered with mistakes which cost Liverpool vital points and more importantly a major European final. In his time at the club he has already been dropped for Gomez and Milner who are not even left backs, and he was almost justifiably one of the fans favourite scapegoats.



From my personal perspective, i never wanted Liverpool to sign Moreno. His time at Sevilla showed him to be rash, lacking in end product, and unreliable. For the last three seasons I've felt vindicated. However, I am pleased to say i now feel as though I'm being proven wrong.

In the current season, Moreno has been returned to the team and looks a new man. He is working back harder and faster, he is not diving in from the wrong side every time, he is tracking his man much better, and his end product has improved massively. He has a couple of superb assists already this season and if he continues at his current rate he could easily create ten goals this season. Added to Moreno's new found end product from open play, he has clearly worked on his dead balls as well. He has been whipping in some excellent corners on the odd occasion and it is only a matter of time before one of his free kicks nestles in the top corner. His link up play in the final third has been a joy to watch so far.

We should not pretend that Moreno is suddenly the finished article though, just because he has improved vastly. Defensively, he is still prone to lapses in concentration and he does sometimes get the wrong side of his man still. His tackling is a bit over zealous as well which sees him give away unnecessary free kicks. On the whole, he has shown a capacity to learn, and a desire to improve. He finally looks a threat in the final third now, and regularly catches up to some diagonal passes in behind that look like lost causes. He is fighting for his place at Liverpool and right now, and at least in my opinion, he has earned the right to play for the club. He will almost certainly be given the rest of this season to improve further. Bravo, Moreno. I am converted.

Nathaniel Clyne:
It is nice to try and stay neutral when writing about players, but Clyne is the one player at Liverpool who i just don't get.

Unlike Moreno (who has had me pulling my hair out for years), Clyne doesn't even have the occasional good game. He has been more consistent, but only because he is consistently average! I cannot fathom how he has negotiated his way to the top of the game. He cannot cross, he cannot tackle, he is terrible in the air, his first touch often goes out for a throw-in, his passing is lackadaisical and erratic, but just to rub salt into the wounds he also thinks it is clever to trip up players running away from goal and gift opposition teams ridiculous free kicks. He has no game intelligence and no technique.

Clyne is an athlete. He is very fast, deceptively strong, and prior to this season, rarely misses a game. What he is not, is a Premier League footballer. The one positive i can give him from a footballing perspective is that he has a powerful shot, for whatever that is worth to a right back. He doesn't even try hard enough though. If he did he could at least get back into a defensive position and force players to go around him, instead of straight through the gaps the system is creating. It's actually quite hard to go around him because of his pace, power, and low centre of gravity.

Sadly, Clyne looks disinterested most of the time when tracking back, and Klopp's system demands he gets forward. Clyne needs to play in a flat back four that has been meticulously drilled by a really defensive coach. He does not think for himself, and therefore cannot be expected to play well in an expansive system.

Thankfully, Clyne is surplus to requirements at Liverpool now. The only problem is, who on earth will pay what will no doubt be a ridiculous asking price, and match his obscene wages? Liverpool have a habit of over pricing their unwanted players, so expect Clyne to hang around until the last minute of next summer before Liverpool ends up paying for him to go on loan to Crystal Palace with his wages covered. What a mess. If you listen carefully, you can still hear Southampton fans laughing at Liverpool over this one!

Trent Alexander-Arnold:
Finally, something to ease my blood pressure. Arnold is a mightily talented player. So talented that it is very unlikely he will spend his career at right back. He would be wasted there and will probably end up as an attacking midfielder or a right winger. What an impact this young teenager has had though. Unbelievably, he is still only 19.

So far in his Anfield career, Arnold has already amassed a significant number of appearances, been trusted in some massive games, and scored twice in the Champions league. He is so talented, that a certain Steven Gerrard specifically named him in his book as a player to watch out for. Arnold is a Liverpool fan who grew up watching Gerrard and idolising him. So that will have done his confidence the world of good, but what's important is he has stayed grounded.

Arnold has an exceptional range of talents. His crosses are whipped in with great pace and he can go short or deep, making them hard to defend. Unlike a lot of wing backs though he doesn't need the ball played into space to run onto. He will happily take the ball to feet, and then beat players to make his own space for a cross. It's not just his crosses from open play to watch though, his set pieces are already a match for that of Phillipe Coutinho's. So good, that he scored a 30 yard free kick in the Champions League, and has already been trusted to whip in some dangerous corners as well. His striking technique is superb. It allows him to generate astonishing power for such a young and small player, but keep the ball under his spell of manipulation. It makes his passing, crossing and shooting a joy to watch. His touch isn't bad either!



Arnold can tackle very well thanks to his aggressive approach to his defensive duties, but unfortunately that is where his defensive qualities end. He does try hard and I'm yet to see him get caught ball watching. The problem is he just isn't instinctively defensive. He goes in for tackles as though he is thinking about the pass or run he can make if he wins it, rather than thinking about the dangers if he doesn't win it. There have already been a fair few goals conceded that have come from his flank. He is totally not helped out by the fact that teams double up on him, because we have no centre backs or midfielders experienced or intelligent enough to get across to support him.

Arnold is a supremely talented player, but i will be gob smacked if he ends up as a right back. He can play the wing back role, but it exposes him against better teams and wastes his offensive talents. He is definitely one to watch for the future though. His wand of a right foot will score many more Liverpool goals over the next 10 years, if he keeps his focus and carries on working hard.

Andrew Robertson:
I feel a bit sorry for Robertson. He has probably signed thinking he'd be first choice, but the upturn in form from Moreno has left him a bit out in the cold. He is not even making the bench most weeks.

Last season playing for Hull City was not a great one for Robertson. The team were relegated and although Robertson was arguably one of their handful of good players (along with Sam Clucas, Kamil Grosicki and Harry Maguire) that really doesn't say a lot, as it was probably Robertson's worst season on a personal level anyway.

One thing that Robertson is though, is a hard worker. His industrious approach makes him very likeable, and his running up and down isn't completely aimless. He can actually float in some lovely crosses on his left foot. His passing and touch aren't bad, but crossing is clearly his biggest talent. Defensively Robertson is just decent. He has played centre back internationally, and he loves getting stuck in with blocks and tackles. In terms of reading the game though, he isn't exactly alert to danger! In fact it is too easy for players to run off his shoulder at times.

I was definitely in favour of signing Robertson as he is still only 24 years old. He has plenty of time to improve surrounded by better players, but i am struggling to see where the chances will come from. He is marginally better defensively than Moreno, but Liverpool's wing backs are a primary source of attacking threat. Right now, Moreno is playing too well offensively to be dropped. Robertson may have to be patient and hope for Moreno to lose form.

It is looking like this move may have come at the wrong time for Robertson and i can see him moving on in the not too distant future unless his fortunes change rapidly. At his age, he shouldn't be happy sitting in the stands most weeks. Then again though, he may prefer being a bit part player at what is currently a Champions League club, than the star man for relegation candidates.

That is now all of Liverpool's senior wing backs covered. It is clear that this area has seen massive improvements in the last year. Robertson has added depth, Moreno's resurgence has been much welcomed, Arnold looks a talent, and Gomez is currently covering right back to a good standard. Flanagan and Clyne are probably on borrowed time though. The overview of the wing back areas does highlight a long term concern. Neither of Liverpool's two first choice right backs (Gomez and Arnold) look like playing there forever. With Clyne and Flanagan just not good enough, it will probably become a priority over the next 12 months for Liverpool to add a right back to their ranks.

Ricardo Pereira:
The right back Liverpool have shown interest in most recently is Pereira. The issue is, so have most of Europe! The Portuguese wing back is not only good defensively, but also comfortable on either side of the defence, and offers both goals and assists in the final third. He is a very good player, and would improve most teams.

It is unknown whether Liverpool could renew their interest in Pereira, but he would be a major coup and maybe even become the best wing back in the Premier League, if he settled well. With Tottenham also reportedly interested in acquiring his services though, Liverpool may have to act sooner rather than later if they still want him.

That concludes the third and final part of the review of Liverpool's defence. I hope that it was enjoyable for all who have taken the time to read each Part, and with any luck some of the issues that have been highlighted, will soon be rectified by Liverpool, and by Klopp. Thank you.

Written by Adam Jones

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