Across the Premier League’s 28 years of existence, the average number of goals conceded by league leaders seven games in is 4.8. This time out Liverpool have shipped 15.
In a historical context, it only gets worse for the reigning champions because when trawling through the previous seasons only one table-topper at this stage has ever conceded even close to double figures. That occurred in 1992 and noting this as the competition’s inaugural year it can be theorized that the famous assertion ‘attack wins you games, defence wins you titles’ rings especially true in the modern era.
That certainly appears to be the case when the opening months of recent campaigns are assessed with a litany of miserly back-lines starting out as they meant to go on. These days teams that eventually lift the trophy in May don’t just shut up shop from the get-go: they board up the windows and have a world-class holding midfielder patrol the property for good measure from August onwards.
Last season Liverpool had conceded just 0.7 goals per game at this juncture. The year before that Manchester City had conceded 0.4. To date Liverpool have haemorrhaged 2.1, a ratio that would result in a staggering 79 goals racking up in the against column should it persist all season long. That would be four more than Norwich City yielded last term as they meekly tumbled from the top flight.
So what, you say? It’s still early doors and surely the bizarre nature of 2020/21 needs to be factored in, with crazy score-lines and the unique criteria of playing in empty stadia. Furthermore, Liverpool are top so it cannot be that much of a problem, all things considered?
These are all valid points but then the bigger picture is viewed. Jurgen Klopp’s side has not become porous overnight and indeed if the first seven games of this season are a cause for concern the same can be said of the concluding seven fixtures of last term. Liverpool conceded only 33 times all told on route to their first ever Premier League crown. 36% of those goals came in the last 18% of the season.
This suggests that for some months now opposing teams have discovered all manner of vulnerable exhaust ports in what was once a defensive Death Star, the most obvious of which is the sizable gap between Trent Alexander-Arnold and his centre-backs when the Reds lose possession in advanced areas.
It’s a channel that has been ruthlessly exploited by several sides of late – most memorably by Aston Villa in last month’s 7-2 undressing – and recognizing the glee in which these weaknesses have been capitalised on is evidence that Liverpool’s hard-earned aura of invincibility is beginning to dissipate fast.
For such an aura to diminish can be a dangerous development as Manchester City have found to their cost this past year or so. When you have it, it’s like having an extra man on the pitch. It’s a goal head-start. When it fades, however, opponents are intensely set on punishing you for having it in the first place.
It’s pertinent that all of this materialised with the brilliant Virgil Van Dijk stationed, imposing and totemic, at the back – let’s not forget that 13 of the 15 goals conceded in the league this season happened with the Dutchman present – so it’s fair to assume that his seismic long-term absence will only exacerbate the issues. Prior to Van Dijk’s injury the 13 fixtures he missed led to 1.5 goals being conceded per game. In the 130 games he played since his move from Southampton the Reds let in only 1.04.
At their very best Liverpool would have missed their defensive leader dreadfully. Recently they have been far away from their best and a long, challenging season awaits.
Revelling in a highly impressive 5-0 win away to Atalanta this week Jurgen Klopp was keen to stress that no crisis exists at the back for his side. And this is clearly true as results of late illustrate not to mention the more fundamental fact that Liverpool still possess a wealth of talent in defence while their forward line isn’t too bad either.
But it’s not about succumbing to crisis. It’s not as dramatic or as simple as that and again we must turn to their main rivals Man City for proof of this. Despite noticeable cracks appearing in a previously impenetrable base City still only conceded 35 goals last season – just two more than Liverpool – while a review of their campaign highlights some seriously stirring results. There was an 8-0 battering of Watford. A 4-0 mauling of Liverpool. A 2-1 victory at the Bernabeu.
All of these and more reminded us that City remained a formidable and powerful entity but missing their own totemic leader in Aymeric Laporte and with fissures revealing themselves in defence the Etihad outfit were also beatable; reverting back to human form.
Consequently, defeats became commonplace. Consequently, Guardiola’s men relinquished their title by a sizable margin and exited the Champions League in mediocre fashion.
Does the same fate await Liverpool now that their defence has similarly been turned into mere flesh and blood? The stats to date reveal that process is already well underway.