Despite our offensive struggles since the turn of the year, failing to break down low block sides that give us little space to operate in, there’s no doubt that our defence is the area of our team that needs most significant improvement heading into next season and beyond.
A solid base to work from is crucial, and would give us a better chance of picking up results and points in games in which the attack is not clicking.
For the last 5 seasons we’ve simply conceded too many goals too consistently to compete at the top end of the table, being exposed on the counter attack and dominated in the air, not to mention gifting our opposition goals with comical individual errors.
A number of the defenders currently at the club have proven on many occasions that they cannot play in the tactical system that Jürgen Klopp implements and that they don’t possess the general quality required.
Joël Matip impressed hugely towards the beginning of the season, and despite being largely poor since his injury, his place in the team is secure. Finding him a partner this summer has to be a priority.
Virgil Van Dijk is the player everybody talks about, and for obvious reasons, given the immense quality he’s displayed in his 2 years at Southampton.
To put it bluntly, though, we have little to no chance of signing the Dutchman. He’ll likely cost around £50m, and Manchester Utd, Manchester City and Chelsea will all be in for him when the transfer window re-opens in June.
I’ve seen few alternatives linked by papers or even mentioned by fans, so here I’ve had a look at 3 players I think Liverpool should be targeting.
This lad is a tank.
Despite not pulling up any trees in his first season at Napoli, the 25 year old Senegalese international has quickly risen to prominence under the management of Maurizio Sarri, attracting the interest of Arsenal last summer, as well as Chelsea, who supposedly tabled a hefty bid for the player before resigning David Luiz.
Despite being 6”2, an average height for a centre back, he’s particularly imposing physically, with his strength and aggression being the most notable facets of his game.
The power that he possesses is something we seriously lack, resulting in us being bullied by centre forwards such as Fernando Llorente, Salomon Rondon and Olivier Giroud in the recent past, not to mention the havoc that the limited Marouane Fellaini has managed to cause in several previous meetings with Manchester United.
We wouldn’t be so soft with Koulibaly in the lineup, as despite not being exceptional in the air (though by no means is he poor), he would at least challenge and make life uncomfortable for opposition forwards, knocking taller players off balance and preventing them from making clean contact; this would make a change from the often passive marking we see from our backline.
Statistically he performs well, making more tackles than Matip, Lovren, Klavan and Lucas with 2.2 per game in all competitions, Lovren and Klavan being the closest with 1.4 each.
Koulibaly has actually made an even more impressive 2.9 tackles per game in the Champions League this campaign, demonstrating his ability to perform on the big stage against top players.
His positioning and reading of the game is impressive too, completing 2.2 interceptions per game this season, again more than any of the players we currently have to choose from, demonstrating his tendency to defend on the front foot, suitable for the high press.
Much like the ostracised Mamadou Sakho, he is an astute and progressive passer of the ball as well, despite a rather ungainly appearance.
He also possesses the ability to maraud up the pitch, last season completing a remarkable 88% of 17 attempted take ons, whilst this season he has completed 0.4 dribbles per game, twice as many as Matip, who most would consider to be a very accomplished ball carrier.
Lovren is limited in possession, and having two centre backs that can bypass opposition players next year could prove invaluable against sides that sit deep as others are draw out of position to close down.
My only concern over Koulibaly is his capacity to randomly switch off and make costly errors in games despite playing to an otherwise high standard, again like Sakho to an extent.
He’s made more errors leading to goals (2) so far this season than Matip (0), Lovren (1), Klavan (1) and Lucas (1).
He has played more games than the aforementioned quartet though, and the latter 3 certainly have gotten away with a number of howlers.
Presnel Kimpembe is a 21 year old French centre back who plays for PSG.
He’s very highly rated in France and across Europe, having drawn particular praise following his impressive display on his Champions League debut against Barcelona last month, as PSG demolished the Spanish champions 4-0 at home in the first leg of their last 16 tie.
PSG opted not to buy a new CB in the summer of 2016 despite the departure of Brazilian David Luiz, who joined Chelsea in a £30m deal, speaking volumes about the trust that manager Unai Emery has in his abilities, especially given the tendency of captain Thiago Silva to pick up injuries and miss key matches.
Like Koulibaly, Kimpembe is 6”2 and left footed, which is by no means an essential or decisive characteristic but the balance either would provide, particularly when playing out from the back, could be of benefit.
Perhaps the most notable strength that Kimpembe possesses is his ability with the ball at his feet. He’s averaged an impressive 93.4% passing accuracy this season, despite attempting more long balls than all of our centre backs bar Lovren, and has averaged 0.8 successful dribbles when he’s taken to the field, twice as many as Koulibaly and thus four times as many as Matip.
It is worth noting the relative lack of pressure he’s put under in Ligue 1, though he was equally as expansive against Barcelona, one of the best teams in the world at winning the ball back high up the pitch.
Of course, most Liverpool fans are probably more interested in his defensive prowess, and are probably keen to depart from the Brendan Rodgers approach of buying centre backs according to their ability as footballers rather than their ability to keep the ball out of our net.
Kimpembe, though, has conceded just 8 goals this season in the 20 appearances he’s made in all competitions, keeping a clean sheet against arguably the best strike force in the history of football.
Alongside another young player in Marquinhos, and in a game where PSG certainly didn’t sit back, Kimpembe held his own and looked assured.
On average, he’s been dribbled past just 0.2 times per game, half the rate of Lucas and Klavan and nearly a quarter that of Lovren (0.7) , demonstrating his ability to defend one on one, vital for us given the number of times our centre backs are left isolated.
For me his age is the only off-putting factor, as we’re crying out for reliability and leadership, though given the players we’ve gone after in the past, his youthfulness may make him a more realistic FSG buy.
One general grievance I’ve had with our transfer activities in the past, though, is that despite a dedication to buying young players with potential who we believe will develop into top class players, we rarely buy the best and most highly rated youngsters around.
The likes of Tiago Ilori and Luis Alberto, for example, were unknowns, Ilori being on the fringes of the Sporting Lisbon team and Alberto plying his trade in the Spanish second division.
There are few better centre backs right now at Kimpembe’s age, so if we opt to sign someone with little experience who we have long term plans for, then at least make it be him.
Brooks is probably the least well known of the 3 players I’ve mentioned, but he could well be the ideal fit for our team.
The American has been a key player this season for German Bundesliga outfit Hertha Berlin, a side on course for the their best league finish since 2009 following a turbulent decade for the club and currently firmly in the race for Champions League qualification.
He was also his country’s star player as the USA reached the semi-finals of the 2016 Copa America Centenario.
Brooks is 6”4, so partnering him with 6”5 Matip would give us the tallest centre back pairing in the Premier League.
Given the relative lack of height throughout the rest of our first team, (Clyne, Alexander-Arnold, Milner, Moreno, Wijnaldum, Lallana, Coutinho and Mané are all 5”9 or under!) and our subsequent inability to deal with set pieces, this would be of massive help.
He would also be extremely effective in helping to counteract the long ball, a tactic sides are using with increasing regularity against us, as it allows them to bypass the pressing of our forwards and midfielders but also because it inexplicably seems to cause mass panic and confusion in and around our penalty area.
I’m also not just assuming that him being tall would ease the chaos, as Brooks puts his height to good use that’s for sure.
He’s won a remarkable 70% of his aerial duels this season, significantly better than Klavan with 49%, Lucas with 50%, and Lovren, who’s best attribute is probably his heading ability, with 64%.
And make no mistake, the Bundesliga has its fair share of powerful target men, most notably the likes of Anthony Modeste, Sandro Wagner and Alexander Meier, and centre backs such as 6”7 Jannik Vestergaard who he would’ve had the pleasure of marking at corners and for free kicks, meaning Brooks wouldn’t face a particularly sterner challenge if he were to make the move to England.
The American is again a left footed and thus left sided player, and as he’s quick for a centre half he should, as with Koulibaly and Kimpembe, be able to handle being part of a high line next to Matip.
He reads the game well, like Koulibaly making more interceptions per match this season than any of our current crop, and with 2.8 he’s actually made a good few more than the Senegalese man too, with Koulibaly averaging 2.2 as mentioned above.
Also having more tackles per game than our 4 current options, he’s been instrumental in Hertha boasting the 3rd best defensive record in Germany so far this campaign, conceding less than the likes of Dortmund and 13 fewer than Bayer Leverkusen, who a centre back very popular amongst Liverpool fans, Jonathan Tah, features regularlyfor (not to say Tah’s a poor player or at fault of course, as in fact I agree that he is another player we ought to consider).
Another factor that works in Brooks’ favour is the fact that he speaks English. Communication between a back line is vital, so not having to learn the language could contribute to more instant success. Of course, though, this is no guarantee.
Written by @MickeyO_BrienLFC