Should Manchester City end up as Premier League winners come Sunday afternoon, then Steven Gerrard’s slip against Chelsea and Liverpool’s capitulation at the hands of Crystal Palace will serve as two big reasons why the title is not heading to Anfield.
An 11-game winning run had put Liverpool in the driving seat a matter of weeks ago, but defensive frailties have cost them dearly. Conceding three goals to a Crystal Palace side that average fewer than a goal a game and had only picked up two points from losing positions all season prior to that dramatic night at Selhurst Park is not the sign of title winners. Unsurprisingly, the Liverpool defence have borne the brunt of the criticism that has followed their south London meltdown.
Glen Johnson and Martin Skrtel have both had their reputations tarnished by the 3-3 draw, but is there a deeper reason for Liverpool’s porous defence or is it purely down to the individual errors from the back four that have been a regular occurrence this season?
Liverpool have conceded an average of 1.32 goals per game this season—by far the highest of any top-four side. Norwich and Fulham both gave them scares by scoring twice in 3-2 defeats, while Swansea, Cardiff and Stoke have all netted three against Liverpool only to be outscored by the Anfield club’s lethal strike force.
Liverpool have averaged more defensive errors per 90 minutes than both Manchester City and Chelsea combined, while they have made more errors leading directly to goals than any other top-four side, suggesting a problem with defensive personnel switching off and making mistakes at crucial times.
No side in the Premier League has made more defensive errors than Liverpool this season, who have notched 41 mistakes classed as “errors” by Opta, despite leading the division for much of the season’s business end.
Steven Gerrard’s slip against Chelsea, Martin Skrtel’s failure to get anywhere near Glenn Murray nor Dwight Gayle for Palace’s equaliser and Kolo Toure’s collection of howlers have all added to that. Simon Mignolet and Gerrard are among the biggest culprits, although Skrtel has made the most mistakes leading to goals.
While the level of defensive errors can be put down to just being errors, from individuals turning off and not doing their jobs, the porous defence is an inevitable side effect of the attacking style that has won so many plaudits this season. Manchester City may be able to have their cake and eat it, scoring more and defending better than Liverpool, but Rodgers has yet to find a way to keep the back door shut as his attackers fly forward.
Liverpool’s use of the diamond midfield, giving license to the likes of Raheem Sterling and Philippe Coutinho to drive forward, has helped Rodgers’ side overwhelm teams and run through the centre of the pitch at pace.
However as a defensive formation, it relies a lot upon Gerrard holding things together at the base—given that Sterling is at the tip and is hardly a central midfield player—and can be exposed by width.
Against Palace, Lucas played on the right-hand side of the diamond. However, the narrowness of the formation saw his action come mostly from the centre, as shown by his action areas above.
Palace exposed the gung-ho attitude of the Liverpool midfield, with Yannick Bolasie playing like a man possessed. The winger exploited Liverpool’s lack of cover in wide areas, going past Glen Johnson on five separate occasions. While Johnson should have been successful in more than just the one of his six attempts to tackle Bolasie, he was left with next to no cover from Lucas, tucked in to the right of Gerrard, and was exposed and isolated.
Not for the first time this season, Liverpool left players free to run right at their defence, and Bolasie duly obliged.
Individual errors and poor performances such as Johnson’s have been part of Liverpool’s defensive issues, but attacking so much—going for more goals against Palace despite being 3-0 up—and stretching play as much as possible inevitably leads to a leakier defence.
No player has made more clearances than Martin Skrtel in this season’s Premier League, while Liverpool are sixth for defensive actions as a side, in a table largely occupied by struggling sides who are under the cosh for most of their games.
Compare this with Chelsea, the division’s tightest defence and the impact of Liverpool’s quest for goals is clear to see. Mamadou Sakho and Skrtel have both made more tackles, clearances and interceptions per 90 minutes than John Terry and Gary Cahill and are similar in terms of aerial duels, despite being in a defence that concedes far more.
The matrix below shows that the pair make more errors but also make more tackles and lose more tackles, hinting at being overworked in a way their Chelsea counterparts aren’t.
Liverpool have a problem with defensive mistakes this season, be it Toure playing in Victor Anichebe against West Brom, Gerrard slipping to allow Demba Ba in or Skrtel’s charitable approach to own goals.
However, their attacking approach means that it is not just a question of personnel, with their dodgy defensive record partly down to the tactics that have seen them net 99 league goals this season.