Liverpool manager Jurgen Klopp looks on during the team’s Premier League win against Tottenham Hotspur. Photo: Reuters
On The Ball
by Tony Evans
On The Ball
by Tony Evans

Liverpool’s defensive risk backfired spectacularly – time to panic-buy reinforcements before it’s too late

  • Champions grab first Premier League win in six games but injuries to Van Dijk, Gomez and now Matip will have knock-on effects
  • Klopp and owners must act fast or league title and Champions League spot under threat

A 3-1 victory over Tottenham Hotspur at White Hart Lane on Thursday is a cause for celebration but it did not come without unnerving consequences for Liverpool. Defender Joel Matip limped off at half-time and will undergo a scan to assess ligament damage to his ankle.

The gaping hole at the centre of Jurgen Klopp’s defence just got bigger. The manager is now sweating on the fitness of Fabinho, a midfielder drafted into the back line, for the Premier League match against West Ham United on Sunday. There is a strong possibility, too, that Liverpool will resume their Champions League campaign against RB Leipzig next month with a badly patched-up backline.

The risk that the reigning champions made last summer has backfired spectacularly. Going into the season with only three senior centre backs was dangerous. The club doubled down on their gamble this month by not bringing in a central defender. Now, with the transfer deadline looming on Monday, they may be forced to panic buy. “I’m not picky or whatever,” Klopp said, “but we need to find the right player.”

Time is slipping away. Virgil van Dijk was ruled out for the season in October, Joe Gomez in November. The months since have been wasted. Trying to reinforce the rearguard over the weekend turns recruitment into an even more risky business than usual.

Liverpool’s Mohamed Salah celebrates with captain Jordan Henderson after their win against Tottenham Hotspur at White Hart Lane in London. Photo: EPA

Not buying cover at centre back could well turn out to be the biggest error of the 10 years Fenway Sports Group (FSG) has owned the club, a decade with more than its fair share of mistakes.

Retrospect is easy. In the heady aftermath of winning the title for the first time in 30 years, the policy made sense. The Covid-19 pandemic hit finances hard. The plan was to offload a handful of the squad and free up some finance. The most significant departure was Dejan Lovren and there were few tears shed when the Croat left for Zenit Saint Petersburg. No one was brought in to replace the 31-year-old centre half, though.

Everton goalkeeper Jordan Pickford challenges Virgil van Dijk in a Premier League game last October leading to his long-term injury. Photo: EPA

There was money available but it was spent on Diogo Jota, Thiago Alcantara and Konstantinos Tsimikas. Perhaps if Divock Origi or Xherdan Shaqiri could have been offloaded then more cash would have been available. Even so, going into October with just three recognised centre backs was reckless from all concerned – including Klopp.

The manager complained about Liverpool’s transfer activity last week, saying “someone else is making the decisions”. That is no surprise and the comment caused fans to rail at FSG for not spending.

The criticism is a little unfair. The manager has backed the owners’ policies over the years. He once said: “Other clubs can go out and spend money and collect top players. I want to do it differently.” It is difficult for him to distance himself from those methods now. The mistake was a collective one.

No one could imagine Van Dijk and Gomez suffering long-term injuries, nor the knock-on effect their loss would have on the rest of the team. Without a secure central partnership, Trent Alexander-Arnold and Andrew Robertson, the full backs and the creative engine of the side, have been restrained about getting forward.

Liverpool manager Jurgen Klopp gets his first Premier League win in six games at the expense of Tottenham Hotspur. Photo: Reuters

The co-opting of first Fabinho and then Jordan Henderson as centre backs has deprived a Champions League and title-winning midfield of two of its three components and changed the balance of the team. Some in the fan base have criticised Henderson for what they perceive is his lack of creativity but the captain has worked tirelessly to make sure the full backs do not have to worry too much about defending. That is a job he cannot do when he is worrying about defending.

The front three have suffered because of these enforced changes. It is not a simple matter of Mohamed Salah, Roberto Firmino and Sadio Mane scoring more goals to compensate.

Liverpool’s entire system has been skewed. Thursday night’s win was the first in the Premier League in six games. Before that run, they were four points clear at the top of the table. The result at White Hart Lane lifted the team up to fourth place – four points behind a surging Manchester City – but the fear now is that the campaign is turning into a battle for Champions League qualification rather than a title defence.

Sadio Mane scores Liverpool’s third goal in their Premier League game against Tottenham Hotspur. Photo: AP

Michael Edwards, the sporting director in charge of recruitment, will have to work fast to fill the void at the back and there is no chance of finding the combination of ability and value that FSG craves. Edwards is less certain in his choice of defensive than attacking players, too.

It is not just points and short-term advancement in Europe that are at stake. If Liverpool miss out on the Champions League next season it will have significant implications for next summer’s foray into the transfer market.

Reaching the knockout round generated more than £70 million last year and involvement in European football’s showpiece competition attracts desirable recruits. Teams outside the elite shop in a different market. The prospect of this should be enough for FSG to put their hand in their pocket and end the inertia in the transfer policy. But it may be too late.

The onus is on Klopp to produce a masterclass of management in the coming weeks. The team have been stale for the past month and subpar for most of the campaign, but there is enough explosiveness in the side to retain the title.

Premier League champions Liverpool celebrate after Trent Alexander-Arnold scores the team’s second goal against Tottenham Hotspur. Photo: DPA

Liverpool have suffered from empty stadiums. Few teams draw so much energy from supporters. In the flat, unemotional atmosphere of pandemic football, Klopp’s side have lost a little of their spark.

Great teams overcome obstacles. Anfield created its own stumbling blocks by not buying a centre back. Exceptional managers and teams rise above setbacks in the style Liverpool showed at Spurs. There are many tests to come for Klopp and his men and the only certainty is they will face them head-on.