Sir Alex Ferguson famously once warned, “Attack wins you games, defense wins you titles.” Well Jurgen Klopp has certainly learned that the hard way at Anfield. As good as Mohamed Salah and the rest of Liverpool’s attack are and have been in recent seasons, success has been built on an ever-improving, solid defense.
Defensive mistakes cost the German’s side in two major finals in his first year with the club, seeing them miss out on Champions League football in the process, while goalkeeping errors then cost Liverpool dear in the 2018 Champions League final. But the arrivals of Virgil van Dijk, Alisson and Fabinho instilled the strongest of spines into the Reds to accelerate their transformation into English, European and world champions.
A defensive injury crisis and personal tragedy saw Liverpool robbed of that spine for a significant proportion of last season as their Premier League title defense swiftly crumbled. Yet restored to Klopp’s side this year, and at the peak of their powers once more, and the Reds are back to their best.
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Just a point behind Man City in the title-race with nine games left to play and chasing an unprecedented quadruple, they have kept 17 clean sheets in the Premier League this season with Alisson currently level at the top of the Golden Glove charts with compatriot Ederson . Whoever comes out on top in that battle could well have their hands on more than the Golden Glove come May. Meanwhile, they boast the third-best defense in the league, with their 20 goals conceded only marginally more than Pep Guardiola’s men and Chelsea.
It takes time to build a successful defense with partnerships and relationships needing to be forged on the pitch. Yet as Van Dijk proved when signing in January 2018, the very best defenders will make an immediate, transformative impact.
But Liverpool are still benefiting from a settled backline, with that perhaps partly explaining why summer signing Ibrahima Konate, Joe Gomez and Kostas Tsimikas find themselves primarily serving as rotation options. After all, the Reds current starting defense of Alisson, Trent Alexander-Arnold, Joel Matip, Van Dijk and Andy Robertson have played together for four seasons and are the same quintet that triumphed in the Champions League final three years ago.
With the two starting center-backs now both 30, they are enjoying their peak years with two young deputies capable of succeeding them when the time comes. Meanwhile, the full-backs are both young enough to retain their starting roles for years to come.
As Liverpool flourish with such a sturdy defense, the lack of one has ultimately cost Manchester United dear. Tipped to be title-contenders last summer, they brought in Raphael Varane from Real Madrid in a £ 41m deal, confident that the World Cup winner and four-time Champions League winner would transform their flailing defense overnight the same way Van Dijk did at Anfield three and a half years earlier.
Unfortunately for the Red Devils, they didn’t take into account club captain and the world’s most expensive defender Harry Maguire having an absolute stinker of a season, and failed to sign a world class holding midfielder, instead opting to re-sign an aging Cristiano Ronaldo. Meanwhile, their strongest defense is still unidentifiable with Diogo Dalot, Aaron Wan-Bissaka, Victor Lindelof, Eric Bailly, Luke Shaw and Alex Telles all taking it in turns to flatter to deceive and lose their places.
Having conceded 40 goals in the Premier League this season as a result, it’s no surprise to see them enduring another trophyless campaign and floundering down in sixth, unlikely to even qualify for the Champions League. Those title hopes died a long time ago.
In total contrast, the 2020 signing of Ruben Dias at local-rivals Man City bolstered an already strong defense and saw Guardiola’s men reclaim the title from Liverpool last season. With the likes of Aymeric Laporte, Joao Cancelo, John Stones and Kyle Walker also competing to start in front of Ederson, their days of blowing millions on defender after defender before swiftly selling them on at a loss now appear to be behind them. And with the latter the only man in that backline the wrong side of 30, their defense is set to peak together in the seasons ahead.
It’s a different story at Chelsea, however. Under Thomas Tuchel they have become one of the best sides defensively in Europe and one of the toughest to break down, as Liverpool have found out on three occasions this season. Such traits are why they were able to win the Champions League last season.
Meanwhile, they will claim they have the best goalkeeper in the world in Edouard Mendy, though the Reds and City would both argue the same regarding Alisson and Ederson. Regardless of which side of the debate you fall on, his impact di lui at Stamford Bridge is unquestioned and he is getting the recognition he deserves for their Champions League win and helping Senegal both win the Africa Cup of Nations and qualify for the World Cup.
But as good as Chelsea are defensively, their backline in front of Mendy will look very different next season and, having already fallen behind Liverpool and Man City in the title-race this season could prove rather costly to their future aspirations. Currently in limbo after owner Roman Abramovich was sanctioned due to his connections di lui with Vladimir Putin, they are currently unable to sign players or offer new contracts.
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Antonio Rudiger and Andreas Christensen are out of contract this summer and are wanted by Barcelona while captain Cesar Azpilicueta could join them, despite an option on his own deal being exercised ahead of it expiring at the end of the season. Clearly losing the trio would be detrimental, especially when they play a back five, and leave Tuchel having to start over when building a defense.
Thiago Silva remains after signing a one-year extension back in January, while Trevor Chalobah has enjoyed a respectable campaign so far and Malang Sarr has featured sporadically. But it would leave Ethan Ampadu, Baba Rahman and Matt Miazga as their own other senior center-back options, with the trio currently all enjoying the latest in a long line of loans away from the club to Venezia, Reading and Alaves respectively, if they remained unable to buy players like the summer.
At least they are stronger at wing-back with Reece James one of their star players, though Ben Chilwell is currently recovering from serious injury and question marks remain regarding 32-year-old Marcos Alonso.
With Liverpool only short for a senior back-up right-back, their defense will need the least surgery in the years ahead, with City in a similar boat when it comes to needing a new left-back. But a look at Chelsea and Manchester United and major defensive upheaval is coming one way or the other, and could slow down any future title aspirations in the process.
While a four-horse title-race was predicted in May, it remains the two old favorites who lead the way as their rivals fall short, with such stability more than beneficial at Anfield and the Etihad. As things stand, you’d expect that to be the case again next season.
The two best sides in Europe as a result, Ferguson wasn’t wrong when suggesting defense wins you titles. But whether it’s Liverpool or Man City’s defense which come out on top in the title-race come May remains to be seen.