Picture the following scenario. An experienced first-choice centre-back for a Champions League club makes two disastrous individual errors inside the opening 12 minutes of a Premier League game against a rival club. His continued mistakes then give away another two potential goal-scoring opportunities before being substituted after half an hour without injury, his performance so much of a liability that the manager- renowned for his reluctance to make early changes- deems it unfeasible to keep him on the field of play. A 20-year-old, playing right-back, having missed almost two whole seasons with a cruciate ligament injury, is then shifted to centre-back in place of the substituted 28-year-old who earns £100,000 per week.
It sounds completely farcical, but this is exactly what happened on Sunday for Liverpool. There have been few more catastrophic individual performances over the years than the display of Dejan Lovren against Tottenham Hotspur, in that the type of errors he was making would not even have occurred had Jürgen Klopp himself been playing in defence- to quote the German himself. It was scarcely believable to watch simple long balls over the top lead to direct chances for the opposition over and over again.
Mauricio Pochettino’s side hardly had to carve out an opportunity of their own, such was the manner in which Liverpool’s defence- and Lovren’s horror show in particular- gifted them the chances to record the easiest 4-1 victory you could possibly imagine.
There was nothing systemic about the goals Liverpool conceded here. This was not a product of playing expansive, open football with little protection from the midfield. This was the consequence of fundamental individual errors being ruthlessly punished by a clinical side.
For Lovren, there is surely no way back now in terms of his Liverpool career. While he has generally improved since Klopp’s arrival two years ago, the mistakes are still occurring far too often and it has gone beyond the point now where this can be allowed to continue.
On his day, Lovren can be a fantastic defender- as demonstrated by the way he has dealt with Romelu Lukaku numerous times in recent seasons, for instance- but the scope for wild fluctuations in his performance level is not sustainable. He’s reminiscent of Martin Skrtel in terms of his inconsistency and capacity for disaster- only Skrtel redeemed himself to a minor extent with the volume of goals he scored at the other end. There’s a mentality problem too, in that one mistake often seems to lead to another as he loses his composure very quickly in match situations when things start to go wrong. Fans do not trust him, his teammates almost certainly don’t either and one can only hope that Klopp finally feels the same way.
Herein lies the crux of the issue. Fans can slaughter Lovren all they like, but ultimately he is the player he is. At 28, he’s unlikely to drastically improve as a footballer at this stage. The Lovren we see now is probably at the peak of his powers and we’ve seen that simply isn’t good enough for a club with Liverpool’s aspirations.
It is down to Klopp who continues to pick him on a regular basis having chosen not to bid for a single centre-back during the summer transfer window, despite the obvious need to do so by the end of last season. Quality-aside, the fitness records of both Joel Matip and Lovren necessitated strengthening that department regardless. It’s difficult to even properly judge Matip’s true ability when he has only ever played alongside such erratic individuals.
It was Klopp who chose to pin all his hopes on signing Virgil van Dijk even after the whole furore with Southampton. The manager has publicly stated that alternative options were assessed, but that none were pursued as he felt they wouldn’t have been a significant upgrade on his current crop. The likes of Davinson Sanchez and Kalidou Koulibaly supposedly considered not enough of an improvement on Lovren and Klavan.
At the time, it seemed incomprehensible but with the new season underway, optimism and excitement temporarily took over concerns about Liverpool’s transfer business- but those worries were always close beneath the surface and nine league games into the season they are very much front and centre of the conversation about a season which very quickly appears to be slipping away for Liverpool.
It’s still only October, yet any vague hopes of a title challenge are already diminished and realistic expectations have to be adjusted to another scrap for top four- which, in itself, looks to be an almighty challenge. This wasn’t the plan, but it was always the risk when the biggest weakness was neglected in the summer transfer window.
Liverpool’s business was not reflective of a club with genuine aspirations of launching a concerted title challenge. It felt more like the minimum possible requirement to achieve another top-four finish. The danger with that approach is that you risk falling short and you end up in a position which means you have to rebuild again the following campaign.
Spurs, by contrast, already had the best centre-back partnership in the league last season in Jan Vertonghen and Toby Alderweireld and invested £42 million in Davinson Sanchez, as well as £23 million on Serge Aurier at right-back to bolster a defence which was already their strong point.
Klopp’s ability to coach and develop players to help them achieve their full potential is well-established and supported by a substantial body of evidence, but there comes a point where his loyalty towards players who are clearly not of the required level becomes counter-productive and damaging, as seen not only with Lovren, but also Simon Mignolet who also finds himself in a similar situation after his own calamitous performance against Spurs.
Alberto Moreno is a slightly different case, in that he arrived at Liverpool as a very well-regarded emerging talent and for all his flaws, he has shown significant and (so far) sustained improvement this season to justify his inclusion. At 25, he is still at an age where he has scope to develop further.
With Mignolet and Lovren, there is virtually nothing to be gained from continuing to entrust them as regular starters. The mistakes will continue to prove costly, even if a few decent performances arrive in between. They’ve been at the club long enough now to see that they aren’t of the level that is required for where Liverpool want to be.
The difficulty is that there aren’t established, high-quality alternatives to replace them. However, it makes more sense now to give more opportunities to the likes of Danny Ward, Loris Karius, Joe Gomez (at centre-back) and Trent Alexander-Arnold who at least have the potential to be a part of Liverpool’s long-term plans even if they are still far from the finished products at this stage in their careers.
Until January, at least, Klopp cannot bring in any new personnel to solve his defensive problems and so the answers must come from within the current squad. Either that or he completely changes his defensive structure so that the weaknesses are given more protection (playing two defensive midfielders, for example), which would mean sacrificing his emphasis on attack to a degree- which seems fairly unlikely given what we know about his managerial style.
While it is hyperbolic and reactionary to suggest anything along the lines of Klopp facing the sack, he must take the blame for the current predicament he finds himself in having chosen to go with the defensive options which clearly are not good enough. The mark of the very best managers is how they find a way out of such difficult situations and with Liverpool’s campaign seemingly on (or at least nearing) a precipice, he now must find a solution very quickly and put ruthlessness above player loyalty for a start.
In Lovren and Mignolet, two of the prime figures in the eventual deterioration of Brendan Rodgers’ tenure are still prominent features of Klopp’s faulty defence. The faith he has shown in them has not been justified on the pitch and this must now be the turning point in recognising that in order to avoid going down the path of his predecessor.