Neil Humphreys: Liverpool look too sloppy at the back
Reds' lack of clean sheets for 11th game is worst run since 1998
When it comes to keeping clean sheets, Liverpool are proving less successful than a disreputable hotelier in a seedy back alley.
The Reds are a bit dishevelled in defence. It's not a mess, but a reason for the clinical Juergen Klopp to be concerned.
Liverpool's 1-1 home draw against Napoli in the Champions League yesterday was a rare example of the club setting a record of the wrong kind.
No clean sheets in 11 games marks the worst run since the spring of 1998, when Brad Friedel was between the sticks and Rob Jones, Dominic Matteo, Phil Babb and Stig Inge Bjornebye offered erratic protection ahead of him.
To put things into perspective, Babb was last seen at the National Stadium a fortnight ago, collapsing like a deckchair as Aleksandar Duric nut-mugged the Liverpool legend before scoring for Singapore in the Battle of the Reds.
Babb and company were not considered title contenders, but they are evoking comparisons to the current league leaders for the wrong reasons.
Late winners in the English Premier League masked Liverpool's defensive shortcomings.
But Napoli, across two matches, have exposed their tender bits, prodding away like a devilish surgeon to show what happens when the Reds fail to muster a late goal.
They don't win.
Once the Italians took out Virgil van Dijk, they opened up a route to goal.
The Dutch centre-back later complained about Dries Mertens' blatant foul in the build-up. There's no doubt that the forward took his eye off the ball and focused on those belonging to van Dijk instead.
But the swift counter-attack that followed only highlighted Dejan Lovren's flaws as he waved his arms in the air, looking for an offside with all the conviction of a drowning castaway looking for a ship on the ocean.
Liverpool's defensive fortitude of last season has given way to a little inconsistency. Joe Gomez, Joel Matip and Lovren have all partnered van Dijk in an attempt to recapture the old magic.
Alisson's injury earlier in the season hasn't helped as he continues his gradual return to the summit.
He's fully fit, but not quite flying. Those balletic, game-changing saves of last season currently elude him.
They'll return. But, until then, clean sheets may prove frustratingly rare. Nine teams have so far visited Anfield this season. All nine scored.
This time last season, confidence was soaring. Alisson and van Dijk were proving themselves to be two of the club's best signings in years.
Anfield had already witnessed six clean sheets and the Reds were in the middle of a magnificent run that saw just three goals conceded in 10 EPL home games.
But Liverpool's defensive spirit has ebbed away slightly and Napoli's smart performance at Anfield highlighted three on-going concerns.
When opponents remove van Dijk, they remove the problem. The indelible image of Lovren flapping his arms like a panic-stricken chick was most fitting.
That's Liverpool central defence when van Dijk is out of the picture.
When Trent Alexander-Arnold is given the night off, the Reds lose their most gifted playmaker and Andy Robertson loses momentum on the other flank.
And when Gomez, a converted centre-back, fills in at right-back, he has a habit of looking like a converted centre-back trying to fill in at right-back.
After an hour, the irrepressible Jordan Henderson gamely took over Gomez's position and readdressed the balance in a lopsided back four.
But the captain's Duracell Bunny routine didn't catch on. Fatigue took hold. Liverpool looked tired, just as they had against Crystal Palace.
Teams with an eight-point lead at the top are entitled to the odd sub-par performance. It would be churlish to suggest otherwise.
But tomorrow's game against Brighton kicks off a debilitating run of 10 fixtures before the end of the year, thanks to Liverpool's commitments in the Champions League, the League Cup and the pointless Club World Cup.
Klopp's ceaseless irritation over the ridiculous fixture list is valid. He doesn't want - and doesn't deserve - to see the most talented squad of Liverpool players in a generation dead on their feet by Christmas.
Until now, Fabinho offered enough protection and the front three scored enough to cover the cracks in defence.
But Fabinho is down with a foot injury and Klopp must hope that exhaustion doesn't rule out anyone else.
Late goals make for great headlines, but Liverpool's defensive record makes for uneasy reading. In the coming, jittery weeks, the Reds faithful will seek assurance.
And there's no security blanket quite like a clean sheet.