Klopp's gamble: Liverpool defensive crisis is undermining their entire season

Jurgen Klopp Fabinho Joel Matip Liverpool GFX
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The Reds' title bid is faltering and they are out of the FA Cup - can they afford not to sign a centre-back this month?

Well, at least the goal drought is over.

It will be of little consolation to Liverpool, of course. Under pressure in the Premier League and now out of the FA Cup, their slide continues.

It doesn’t get any easier either, for Jurgen Klopp and his side. Next on the list? Tottenham, away.

Lose that and their title hopes may well be over. That’s how quickly things have turned for the champions. They were favourites a month ago, but they’re fighting for their lives right now.

It really is tough at the top.

They were better than they have been recently when they played Manchester United on Sunday, but still succumbed, beaten 3-2 at Old Trafford by a side for whom momentum is building. As their great rivals stumble, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s men plough on.

“Don’t worry about us,” Klopp told reporters afterwards. “As a group we are really together, and we have to solve this together.”

He was right to point out that there were “a lot of positives” to take from his side’s performance. The sight of Mohamed Salah scoring twice, and the fact both goals were set up by the alertness of Roberto Firmino, will have pleased him greatly, as will the fact that, in patches at least, his team looked a lot more like their old selves.

Mohamed Salah Roberto Firmino Liverpool GFX

It wasn’t perfect, not by a long chalk, but there was pressing, there was movement and, crucially, there was threat. At 1-0 up in the first half, and later at 2-2, they looked the likelier victors.

Salah sizzled and Firmino flickered, and if you squinted and ignored the garish away colours, it looked like Klopp’s Liverpool and not the strangers we have witnessed in recent weeks.

The trouble is that while one end of the pitch improves, the other falters. Defensive issues are never far from the surface with Liverpool, and they were there again at Old Trafford.

The numbers, strangely, say it’s been OK. Sunday was the first time in 14 games that they’d conceded more than once in a game. It’s been the attack which has been under scrutiny of late.

But the numbers tell only half a tale. Because while it’s true that more has been needed from Salah, Firmino and Sadio Mane, the reality is that Liverpool’s problems do not lie at the forwards’ door.

Klopp can bank on those players to come good again. They have proven that they can. Their records, individual and collective, are beyond question, their quality is too great. They’ll be fine.

Whether we can trust Klopp’s patched-up backline to stand firm at the business end of the campaign, however, is another matter entirely.

We shouldn’t blame individuals at the back, either. Yes, Rhys Williams’ error led to United’s second goal on Sunday, and yes Fabinho was over-eager for the free kick which led to Bruno Fernandes’ winner. In a back-and-forth contest, those mistakes ultimately proved costly.

Jurgen Klopp Rhys Williams GFX Liverpool

But let’s be honest here, these are players who should not be playing centre-back for the league champions. Fabinho’s a midfielder, and a brilliant one at that, while Williams is a teenager, a talented one, who is being forced to do his learning under the brightest spotlight imaginable.

Is it any wonder the 19-year-old looks a little raw, a little unsure? Three-quarters of a season with Kidderminster in the sixth tier might teach you about blood and thunder and playing for points, but it’s a different world to the one he inhabits now.

The same goes for Nat Phillips, a few years older than Williams but no more experienced at the highest level. These are players, hard-working, honest professionals being asked to play above themselves, replacing the world's best in a team which has set almost flawless standards. Don’t kill them when they fall short.

Joel Matip should be back for the Tottenham game and that will help matters, although the Cameroon international’s fitness record is an issue in itself. Matip was rested against United, having returned from a four-week groin injury in the defeat to Burnley on Thursday.

Three games in a week is, at this stage, a bridge too far for the 29-year-old. It has been for pretty much all of his Anfield career in truth.

That’s the problem Liverpool have. Their two starting centre-backs are injured, long term, and their other senior one is brittle and likely to miss games between now and May. Beyond that, it’s the untried and the untested.

Klopp wouldn’t want to consider it, but what would happen if Fabinho were to twang a hamstring or roll an ankle between now and May? The Brazilian has, with his versatility, professionalism and quality, been holding the Reds together for weeks. His absence, even for one game, would hit hard.

That’s the tightrope Liverpool are walking. Every game is huge now, whether it is for the title race, the battle for a top-four spot or an assault on the Champions League. In the next month alone, they will face not only Tottenham, but also Manchester City, Leicester, RB Leipzig and Everton. Even the ‘easier’ fixtures – West Ham and Brighton – don’t look all that appealing.

Jurgen Klopp Liverpool GFX

Klopp has admitted, more than once, that a new signing would help matters, but it is unlikely that one will arrive before the transfer window closes next week. Financial pressures, plus the feeling that a ‘slam dunk’ solution simply isn’t available, mean Liverpool are ready to keep their powder dry for the summer.

The risk, though, is that when the summer comes, plenty of damage could already be done. It is not doom-mongering to suggest that, if things were to continue as they are, they could find themselves out of the Champions League. And imagine the financial implications of that.

You feel for Klopp, who has had the air of a man worn down by it all of late. So much has gone wrong and so quickly. It would test anyone's patience.

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He still has faith in his team, and why wouldn’t he, but he knows how important the next few weeks and months are. He needs things to change, whether that's through a new signing, a change in fortune or both. 

Sink or swim? We’ll soon find out.

All eyes on north London this Thursday. Lose to Spurs and the picture looks bleak.

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