Liverpool's 2015/16 campaign has been one of transformation, and transition, with a significant managerial change bringing an upturn in fortunes for the club in many areas—none less so than player development, with 2014's big-money centre-back signing, Dejan Lovren, the key beneficiary.
Jurgen Klopp's arrival, taking the role of Liverpool manager following Brendan Rodgers' dismissal in October, restored supporters' faith and hopes of a top-four finish and success in Europe, with the former Borussia Dortmund manager's mentality a major factor behind this renewed optimism.
This has, undoubtedly, spread throughout his squad, with the likes of Emre Can, Adam Lallana and Roberto Firmino showing great improvement over the course of the season.
Throughout Liverpool's academy, too, there has been an upturn in fortunes, with Sheyi Ojo, Kevin Stewart, Ryan Kent, Connor Randall, Joe Maguire and Tiago Ilori all making their first-team debuts following Klopp's appointment.
But standing above this group as the most improved player in the Liverpool squad in 2015/16 is Lovren, with the Croatian having salvaged his career on Merseyside, carving out a long-term role under Klopp.
Liverpool can be accused of overhyping Lovren on his arrival at the club, joining from Southampton in a deal worth £20 million in 2014, with the bar set high for a centre-back with only one season of experience in the Premier League.
Lovren himself, speaking to the Liverpool Echo's James Pearce on his arrival at the club, described his move as a "dream come true," outlining his ambition to shine at a club that had just achieved a second-placed finish in the league, saying: "I can't wait to get started."
Part of a rebuilding project on Merseyside—following Luis Suarez's £75 million move to Barcelona, with Rodgers looking to use 2013/14's title-challenging campaign as a platform for a renewed charge—Lovren was ostensibly signed to replace the outgoing Daniel Agger as a left-sided centre-back.
But as Rodgers attested after Lovren's first appearance for the club, speaking to reporters including Chris Bascombe of the Telegraph after a pre-season victory over Klopp's Dortmund side, the Ulsterman saw his new defender as a long-term replacement for Jamie Carragher:
Dejan was perfect. He is exactly what I’ve been looking for since Jamie Carragher left.
He is a dominant, No. 1 centre-half, who reads the game well, offers good guidance to the back four and the rest of the team—and shows his qualities of range of passing too.
Just like he showed against us last year he's dominant in the box—both in ours and the opposition's—and I thought he was excellent.
That Anfield win served as a false dawn ahead of the 2014/15 campaign, with the fluid, attacking football of Philippe Coutinho and Daniel Sturridge cutting through the Dortmund defence at ease, while Lovren shone at both ends of the pitch, keeping a clean sheet and scoring Liverpool's second goal.
Liverpool began the season with a 2-1 win away to Southampton, but their form soon dropped off, with Lovren's shaky displays at the back driving a wedge between the centre-back and a growingly frustrated support.
Lovren became the symbol for Liverpool's demise under Rodgers, compounded by a pair of miserable 3-1 defeats against Crystal Palace, with the Croatian mercilessly overrun by Yannick Bolasie at Selhurst Park in November and Anfield in May—Steven Gerrard's final home game as a Liverpool player.
Gerrard's summer move to LA Galaxy should have signalled a changing of the guard at Liverpool, but it wasn't until October, with Rodgers' dismissal and Klopp's arrival, that the Reds'—and Lovren's—fortunes improved.
Lovren's 2014/15 campaign was marred by lapses in concentration, ill-advised surges out of position, unforced errors and a meek vocal presence alongside regular centre-back partner Martin Skrtel; between Lovren and Skrtel, Rodgers had formed a calamitous duo, joining goalkeeper Simon Mignolet to create a triumvirate of nervousness.
But the appointment of Klopp has seen a change in Liverpool's defensive structure, with the German telling reporters including the Press Association (h/t the Daily Mail) in October that finding stability at the back was his priority:
You cannot just think about offensive things—up to now we have not scored enough goals but you have to feel stability.
When you feel this you are free for creativity and that is how football works.
Nil-nil is an absolutely normal score. You will find a way if you are patient enough to wait for the next situation and not think 'This is like last week, last year'.
Klopp's words evoked a simplicity in defence that has seen Liverpool's record improve throughout 2015/16, with the Reds keeping 15 clean sheets from 38 games since his arrival; or a clean sheet in 40 per cent of their outings under Klopp, compared to three in 11 outings under Rodgers, or 27 per cent.
Central to this improvement in keeping clean sheets is Lovren, whose game has been pared back to its simplest form—the 26-year-old has contributed to 10 shutouts since Klopp's arrival on Merseyside.
Where Rodgers looked for Lovren to operate as a "No. 1 centre-half," employing his "good guidance" and "range of passing," Klopp has shifted that responsibility to his lieutenant, Mamadou Sakho; under Klopp, it is Sakho who serves as Liverpool's defensive leader, their vocal presence and their front-footed centre-back.
This has seen Lovren's form improve significantly, largely restricted to short passes, no-nonsense defensive play and ensuring Liverpool's defensive line is held firm—this has seen his confidence improve significantly, allowing him the clarity of mind to step out of defence to make crucial interceptions.
Perhaps most explicitly, this was seen in a 1-0 win at home to Leicester City in December, with Lovren and Sakho employing a safety-first approach to the Foxes' in-form forwards, Jamie Vardy and Riyad Mahrez; Lovren won the joint-most aerial duels, with six, and he and Sakho made 36 clearances between them.
Vardy, Mahrez, Shinji Okazaki, Marc Albrighton and substitutes Leonardo Ulloa, Nathan Dyer and Andrej Kramaric made a combined total of 11 touches in the Liverpool penalty area that afternoon, with Lovren producing a stellar defensive display.
Largely, this has continued throughout 2016, barring Liverpool's 3-2 defeat away to Southampton earlier in March, with Klopp withdrawing Lovren at half-time to shield him from the "emotion of the stadium."
Klopp's sensitive approach to Lovren's form has been a key factor in the ex-Lyon man's improvement throughout 2015/16, with the 48-year-old wiping the slate clean for his squad on his move to Anfield.
Renowned for his strong man-management, Klopp has instilled a calm mentality in his £20 million man, as Lovren explained in November, as reported by Andy Hunter of the Guardian:
The manager has had a big influence on the team and on everyone.
Every one of the players has changed their opinion of football. We are like he said we should be—we need to be living football and the job 24 hours a day and we will get payback for everything on the pitch.
There is no more pressure on me now. I need to go step by step and my performances will speak for me.
Despite relieving the mounting pressure on Lovren, Klopp has still looked to the centre-back as one of his key players: Lovren has started in all but one game under Klopp when fit, with the German leaving him on the substitutes' bench for Liverpool's Capital One Cup semi-final second-leg win over Stoke City.
Finding consistency, and belief, Lovren has improved significantly on his troubled output from 2014/15 and now represents a candidate for a long-term role at the heart of Klopp's defensive line—though he will need to contend with the incoming Joel Matip, who joins on a free transfer from Schalke this summer.
Where Lovren once spread fear through the Liverpool support for all the wrong reasons, he now serves as something of a calming influence at the back alongside Sakho; though it is questionable whether he has justified his £20 million price tag at this stage, Lovren has made great strides to restoring his reputation at Anfield.
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