By Cash Boyle – @cashboyle
Now that Liverpool are firmly back on UK soil, it’s time to evaluate the Reds’ exertions stateside.
The nine-day tour of the US, designed to reap both fitness and commercial benefits, concluded with slight worry as Jürgen Klopp’s men returned winless.
Defeats against Borussia Dortmund and Sevilla were followed by a pulsating draw against Sporting Lisbon, with defensive frailties prevalent in all three fixtures.
There was an expectation in some quarters that the Reds would suffer offensively, considering that the front three remain notably absent. And while that absence was felt, the Reds’ rearguard was undoubtedly more vulnerable.
All four first-team centre backs – Virgil van Dijk, Joël Matip, Joe Gomez and Dejan Lovren – featured throughout the tour, so that area was largely occupied by familiar faces. Full-backs Trent Alexander-Arnold and Andy Robertson were also in the travelling party, making their respective returns after an hour against Dortmund.
The only total absentee has been Alisson Becker, who has enhanced his reputation by omission. Appropriate homage must be paid to his abilities, which are as vast as his country of origin.
Alisson is enjoying time off after his stellar season for club and country. He followed Champions League success by winning the Copa America with Brazil. He conceded a solitary goal in the competition, which was from the penalty spot in the final. Prior to that, Alisson had gone for 846 minutes without conceding for club and country.
In his first full season at Anfield, Liverpool’s No.1 won the Golden Glove (keeping 21 clean sheets from 38 available). He played every minute of the Premier League campaign, allying himself to the Reds’ domestic consistency. He had the highest save percentage (77%) of any ‘keeper to make five or more appearances in the league.
Even the world’s best stoppers would appear inferior to Alisson on this evidence. And without going over excessively trodden ground, Simon Mignolet is – for all his admirable qualities – a downgrade in that area (despite some good moments on the tour). Andy Lonergan’s inclusion on the tour warrants bemusement, not genuine analysis.
Yet, it would be remiss to entirely attribute the Reds’ leakier rearguard to not having the Brazilian No.1. Imperious though he is, there is more underlying this apparent frailty.
The first-choice back four all featured throughout the tour, but the different combinations offer solace. Virgil van Dijk is the most associated with defensive security, and therefore the focus. It was somewhat alarming to see seven goals conceded across three games in which he featured. But context is everything.
Against Borussia Dortmund, the Reds conceded in minutes three, 53 and 58 respectively. Virgil wasn’t introduced until the 60th minute.
Against Sevilla, Virgil’s time on the pitch saw Liverpool concede to a Nolito effort. The pass that lead to that goal was actually deflected into the Spaniard’s path, though the fact that he was totally free enabled the strike. A replay shows that both Trent Alexander-Arnold and Nathaniel Phillips were out of position at the time.
This lapse could also owe partially to the entirely new partnership between van Dijk and Phillips. Though promising, the latter missed most of last season with an ankle injury and wasn’t in the first-team picture. The chemistry that defines a strong central defensive pairing hasn’t had the scope to develop.
Against Sporting Lisbon, Klopp reverted to his preferred defensive lineup from the start. Virgil and Matip played until the 77th and 89th minute respectively. Alexander-Arnold and Robertson played til’ the hour. The goals were conceded in minutes four and 53, with the aforementioned all on the pitch.
At surface level this looks sloppy. However, the first goal is a goalkeeping calamity. The shot by Bruno Fernandes should pose no real threat. Assumptions can’t be made about the defensive collective when individual errors lead to goals.
Liverpool-linked Fernandes was also at the centre of the second Sporting goal. He accelerated beyond Alexander-Arnold and squared the ball to Wendel who dispatched confidently. The space was granted by Matip galloping toward Fernandes, which left the goalscorer free in the box.
This goal showed a fatiguing Liverpool side being pulled out of position. Virgil attempted a last ditch block on the shot, which feels anathema to a player famed for never having to resort to such methods.
While seven goals were conceded, only three came with the Dutch colossus on the pitch. The return of defensive solidity should coincide with that of Alisson, as well as the back four who acquitted themselves so well last season.
The pre-season tour is designed for fitness and commercial ends, and those objectives were achieved. Context can be offered for the winless period, with the promise of lessons learned.
Despite what Henry Russell ‘Red’ Sanders says, sometimes winning isn’t the only thing.