Defensive Cohesion

Liverpool kick off their Champions League campaign this evening at home to Sevilla. This fixture is a welcome one, hopefully being used to exorcise the demons of Saturday’s 5-0 drubbing at Manchester City, and conveniently enabling the Reds’ to exact revenge on Sevilla for 2016’s Europa League defeat.

Late last week Paul Joyce broke the news that Loris Karius was likely to serve as the Reds’ goalkeeper in the Champions League, with Simon Mignolet retaining the number one spot in the Premier League, and Jürgen Klopp confirmed this in yesterday’s press conference.

The news was met with mixed emotions, with Simon Mignolet having a strong start to the season and Loris Karius yet to impress for Liverpool. Karius was given a chance against Arsenal before the international break, and despite not facing a single shot on target, managed to look shaky. He was nearly disposed in his own box three times, holding onto the ball for far too long each time.

Karius was poor last season. When he was brought into the team he had a couple of quiet games with little to do, and then had a few shockers. Bournemouth away was horrific, as was West Ham at home, as several individual mistakes from the goalkeeper saw the Reds take just one point from the two back to back fixtures that saw them twice surrender a lead.

That’s not to say it was all bad. He came in for both League Cup ties against Southampton and did very well. By all accounts, he kept Liverpool in the tie, though the forward line couldn’t match his performance.

You could make the claim that Karius has been poorly managed. That isn’t an unreasonable claim to make. Mignolet was dropped for him last season, despite having not done a lot wrong. Karius replaced him, with a fair amount of pressure on his shoulders, due to Mignolet being dropped for no real reason. Karius was then dropped several games later, having performed poorly, cost his team points and surely had his confidence shattered.

Fast forward to this season and Mignolet was again dropped off the back of several good performances and Karius comes in. Klopp gave the reason that Mignolet was being “rested”, though many did not think this was the real reason. Karius was once again dropped in a high pressure situation with all eyes him, his every move to be scrutinised and micro analysed. As has been mentioned, he was poor and failed to impress.

Two weeks later, and Karius is set to start in the Reds’ first Champions League tie since 2010 (2015/16 didn’t happen, okay). Yet again, Loris Karius is yet again being dropped in a high pressure situation where if he performs, he’s on top the world, but if he doesn’t, he’ll be getting slaughtered from all directions, and very low on confidence.

There’s also what is perhaps a more sentimental argument, which perhaps doesn’t have much of a place in football these days, but this is grossly unfair on Simon Mignolet. He was instrumental in the push for a top four place last season, with several key saves during the run in. Then, he also made key saves in the two Champions League qualifiers this season, including a penalty save in the first leg. Simon Mignolet has done all the work in getting the Reds into the Champions League and the glory of representing them on Europe’s biggest stage has been stripped away.

Not only is it be unfair on Mignolet, but it could be detrimental to the team as a whole. Jürgen Klopp talks about rhythm. He loves it. He needs it. He’s talked about it before, about how players need rhythm to perform at their best. Jordan Henderson has needed rhythm, Phil Coutinho has needed rhythm, Daniel Sturridge has needed rhythm, to name just a few. The goalkeeper’s and the defence will not be afforded such a luxury this season.

With a different goalkeeper for each competition, as Paul Joyce has indicated, and the fixture list facing the Reds, there will be a different goalkeeper from game to game throughout the next block of games.

Sevilla (H) (CL) – 13 Sept – Loris Karius
Burnley (H) – 16 Sept – Simon Mignolet
Leicester (A) (CC) – 19 Sept – Danny Ward
Leicester (A) – 23 Sept – Simon Mignolet
Spartak Moscow (A) (CL) – 26 Sept – Loris Karius
Newcastle (A) – 1 Oct – Simon Mignolet

How can a defence to be expected to perform when there will be such a change each game? Each goalkeeper is vastly different stylistically, particularly Karius and Mignolet. Karius’ starting position is far higher than Mignolet’s, which is one thing in particular that could confuse the defenders in front. Not being sure which balls the goalkeeper will and won’t come for is a particular risk. The defence- which is shaky enough as it is- could be put under even more stress.

The issue of rhythm isn’t one unique to the goalkeeper, however. The problem extends to the centre halves, who so far this season have seen a fair amount of rotation. Ragnar Klavan stepped in for Dejan Lovren against Crystal Palace and then again at the weekend against Manchester City, with Lovren being “rested”, presumably with Sevilla in mind. Liverpool are three weeks into the new season and some players are already struggling to meet the demands of playing Champions League football.

Whilst it would be naive to say last season’s defensive troubles were purely down to a lack of consistency in the players in the back line, it was surely a contributing factor. One of the main issues was Joel Matip and Dejan Lovren being injury prone over the course of the season. When the two played together they did well, but the issue was getting them on the pitch together. It simply didn’t happen enough.

Liverpool are facing a similar problem this season, with Lovren being rotated out twice already, six games into the season. He will most likely come into the side this evening, but this forced rotation won’t be helping the team. You could attribute some of the goals conceded against Manchester City to this, particularly the first, where Klavan doesn’t push up with the rest of the team, allowing Agüero acres of space.

Liverpool should be looking to keep the back four and goalkeeper the same as much as possible this season, rather than fiddling with the lineup. The already shaky defence could do without having a goalkeeper who is lacking on a) minutes and b) confidence at their backs, and Simon Mignolet should have been allowed to build on his good start to the season. Not only is playing Karius a risk to the defence and therefore the team’s performance, but the constant alternating between goalkeepers could have an adverse effect on Mignolet’s form.

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