Neil Humphreys: Liverpool's title defence rests on centre-back issue
Liverpool must learn from Man City's failure to avert a defensive crisis last season
Juergen Klopp really should read the one about the centre-back who wasn't replaced.
The author was Pep Guardiola and the ending wasn't a happy one.
Manchester City's title defence was lost in one position, thanks to a rare lapse in judgment. Vincent Kompany wasn't replaced.
And unless Klopp goes shopping in January, or Rhys Williams turns potential into consistent pedigree or Joel Matip stops confusing the treatment room for a holiday home, history could well repeat itself.
Liverpool's title defence hinges on a single position.
In fairness to Klopp, he's morphing into the guy who wins the lottery and then gets struck by lightning. How unlucky can one guy be?
To lose the world's most complete centre-back is a First World problem of sorts. To lose a second feels a little vindictive on the part of the karmic gods. To lose a third seems like outright persecution.
Dominoes fall less quickly than Liverpool's cursed men in the middle.
First there was Virgil van Dijk. Then there was Matip (quite a lot). And now there is Fabinho, succumbing to a hamstring injury in an otherwise drab Champions League win against Midtjylland.
When the Brazilian hit the turf, skipper Jordan Henderson held his head in his hands and presumably checked the pitch for voodoo dolls.
Mounting a title defence without three centre-backs seems masochistic, particularly when City faltered without just one.
Guardiola's failure to adequately replace his enigmatic leader must still haunt the Spaniard. It certainly haunts City supporters.
On the pitch, the former champions lacked direction once Kompany returned to Belgium.
Aymeric Laporte's subsequent injury was unfortunate, but the lack of reliable cover for either man proved to be the difference in the end.
City had no one of Kompany's stature. Liverpool had van Dijk and won the title by 18 points. The Reds have won 75 per cent of games with van Dijk in the line-up and only 40 per cent without him.
Last season, the defensive chasm between City and Liverpool wasn't accurately reflected in the final standings, as Covid-19 and a post-title anti-climax played havoc with Liverpool's form.
Only two goals separated the clubs in the "goals against" column - 33 to 35 - but Liverpool conceded 12 of those goals in the seven games that followed their title confirmation.
Only Guardiola knows why he didn't immediately replace Kompany, but he lost leadership and confidence in defence, especially after Laporte's injury.
NOT A MISTAKE
Klopp didn't take such a gamble. His decision to sell Dejan Lovren without securing a replacement wasn't considered a mistake then and shouldn't be lambasted now.
Even in the freakiest of seasons, no one could have anticipated such an unfortunate series of events inside Liverpool's penalty box.
Klopp's underlying problem remains the loss of a unique, two-for-one footballer. Fabinho exudes a quiet authority. Matip delivers as a reliable technical defender, but only van Dijk offers both.
The Dutch master leads and organises. He heads, tackles and intercepts like an old-school centre-half, but can stroke a ball like a libero.
Liverpool have effectively lost four defenders in a single position. Van Dijk did the work of two men.
On the plus side, Williams replaced Fabinho and looked assured alongside Gomez, albeit against timid European opposition. The 19-year-old may be the latest academy graduate to follow Trent Alexander-Arnold in being fast-tracked to the first team, but the process must be quick.
Even against Midtjylland, Henderson and James Milner ventured forward on fewer occasions, preferring to give extra cover for a fragile defence.
The onus is really on Gomez to live up to his early billing. Until one of the injured centre-backs return, the 23-year-old is the ranking partner, so to speak, but he hasn't radiated the authority required to fully convince his manager.
Gomez made his England debut three years ago and still hasn't nailed down a regular place for club or country. He's used sparingly, rather than urgently.
He'll never get a better opportunity to assert his first-team credentials. Otherwise, Klopp might be forced to alter his transfer plan.
A reluctant spender in the mid-season window, the German surely cannot contemplate sticking a Band-Aid across his backline for such a frenzied, exhausting campaign.
Pre-season enquiries were reportedly made about Schalke's Ozan Kabak and RB Leipzig's Dayot Upamecano. Klopp may speed up the chase in January.
Otherwise he's stuck with a couple of kids. Gomez and Williams filled in admirably in the Champions League and the long-term future may be bright for both of them.
But the Reds probably wouldn't bet their title defence on the pair.
- Lokomotiv Moscow 1 Bayern Munich 2
- Atletico Madrid 3 Salzburg 2
- Shakhtar Donetsk 0 Inter Milan 0
- B. M’gladbach 2 Real Madrid 2
- Porto 2 Olympiakos 0
- Marseille 0 Manchester City 3
- Atalanta 2 Ajax Amsterdam 2
- Liverpool 2 Midtjylland 0