For Jurgen Klopp, watching Liverpool try to defend over the last couple of weeks must be a bit like being held captive by a sadist who has strapped you to a chair and placed a ticking time-bomb in your lap. Maybe the timer is set to go off before the final whistle, maybe not. You just have to wait and see.
At the King Power Stadium on Saturday evening, Leicester won a free-kick in the last minute of injury time and a touchline camera scuttled over to see how Klopp was taking it. The Liverpool manager broke the fourth wall, directing a hollow grin into the lens. Everyone knew what was coming next.
Except this time the fatalists were wrong. Liverpool defended the set-piece and won the match 3-2.
Afterwards, Klopp said: “We believe we are on a good way, but we are absolutely aware that we have to show it with results, so that everybody can see it.”
The last couple of weeks have seen many pundits suggest that Klopp doesn’t understand how to organise a defence. His remark about showing it with results showed that he does understand the English football audience. In England, hardly anybody cares about what actually happens out on the pitch. It’s much easier just to look at the result and base all your opinions on that.
It's clear Liverpool have been letting in too many goals. Six games into the Premier League season they have already conceded 11. Only Crystal Palace, West Ham and Leicester have conceded more and those teams are all in the bottom five.
Yet those who claim that this proves Klopp can't organise a defence have to explain how it is that such a poorly-organised team does such a good job of restricting their opponents' opportunities to shoot at goal. Liverpool have allowed their opponents fewer shots than any other team except Manchester City.
That’s because Klopp, like Pep Guardiola, is one of those system managers who believes that the best way to defend is to play the game in the other team’s half, far away from your goal. And their systems appear to work, because City and Liverpool are also the two teams who have had most shots on their opponents’ goals.
And yet these system managers seldom get any credit for good defending. When the system works it means the other team has barely had a sight of goal; it just looks like they’ve played badly. Nobody applauds the tackles and saves you don’t need to make.
English football awards Good Defending Points for the sort of things the fans cheer; the spectacular saves, the last-ditch tackles, the thumping clearing headers. The fact that your players only have to do these things because you are failing to control the game further up the pitch seldom seems to occur to anybody.
Liverpool’s problem this season has been that when they do give up a chance, it has tended to be from point-blank range. They have allowed their opponents nine shots on goal from inside the six-yard box, conceding five goals. Only Bournemouth have allowed more shots from within six yards, and no team has conceded more from close range than Liverpool’s five.
Last season, Liverpool were better at preventing this sort of point-blank chance. They were giving them away at about half this season's rate – allowing 26 shots from inside six yards over the course of the season. This compares well with the 22 allowed by Chelsea or the 25 allowed by Manchester United.
Liverpool did concede more goals from these chances: they let in 11 from 26 close-range shots, while Chelsea conceded just two and United seven. But that’s the difference a world-class goalkeeper like Thibaut Courtois or David de Gea can make.
Klopp has therefore already shown that he can organise a defence to a decent level, so unless he has mysteriously forgotten how to do it over the summer, the recent deterioration must have some other explanation. The most obvious is that Liverpool have been doing without two of their regular back four from last season, as Nathaniel Clyne is injured and James Milner has said he no longer wants to play at left-back.
There is another approach to defending, which is to drop deep and pull men back behind the ball. Klopp could do this and he would probably be praised for “tightening things up”, but it would also be the worst thing he could do. Liverpool have had managers like that before and their methods did not bring success.
Gerard Houllier and Rafael Benitez both spent six seasons at Anfield. Houllier used Dietmar Hamann just in front of a defence that often consisted of four centre-backs; his side kept six men behind the ball at all times.
Rafael Benitez had a more liberal attitude to full-backs crossing the halfway line, but he also liked to have two defensive midfielders in front of the defence. Houllier’s teams averaged 61 goals scored and 37 conceded per season, while Benitez’s averaged 62 scored and 30 conceded. Neither of them managed to win the league, because nobody ever wins the league scoring as few as 62 goals.
Klopp’s full season in charge of Liverpool saw them score 78 – their second highest total of the Premier League era – and concede 42. This is promising because the English league rewards high-scoring teams: 14 of 22 champions in the Premier League era have also been the division’s top scorers, but only nine out of 22 champions have had the meanest defence.
Liverpool have a better chance of success if they keep on taking the game to the opposition, rather than sitting back and hoping the game doesn’t happen to them.