Opportunity knocks for the World's Greatest Defender
Background photo: Robert Cutts, CC BY 2.0
As Liverpool beat Manchester United on Sunday, Jurgen Klopp must have allowed himself a wry smile. If anyone was going to derail his title ambitions, it was Jose Mourinho.
Instead, Liverpool were in a telling manner. Xherdan Shaqiri came off the bench. His two deflected goals were more than luck. It was a testament to the squad depth Klopp now has at his disposal. Big money purchases improved the starting XI and further strengthened the ranks. So did those who didn’t cost quite so much. The diminutive dynamo was picked up at Stoke City’s relegation clearance sale for a cool £13.5 million.
Where Liverpool once had few options, they now have plenty. The squad is as strong as it has ever been. Shaqiri is proof in the Swiss pudding. His match-winning goals and excellent performances this season are the best evidence in decades that Liverpool can go the distance.
These games, the frustrating ones wherein things don’t go right, are the ones that make the difference. In the past, United’s quick equalizer would have turned the game on its head. Now the Reds have the belief to shake off adversity and continue to follow their plan.
The problem is, nobody appears to have informed Lady Luck. Shaqiri’s brace was scant compensation for the injuries plaguing the Merseysiders.
A shoulder problem for Joel Matip coupled with foot and ankle issues for Joe Gomez and Trent Alexander-Arnold could not have come at a worse time. With the busy Christmas schedule upon them, Liverpool needed their defence fighting fit. Only Virgil Van Dijk and Andy Robertson remain battle-ready. Even utility man James Milner is nursing a chronic muscular problem.
Gomez’s loss is a particularly cruel blow. The youngster flourishes alongside Van Dijk, developing into a quality centre-back. Their partnership is the base of Liverpool’s rich form.
Breaking them up creates chinks in the armour. With Alexander-Arnold out, Klopp cannot rotate his backline as effectively this season. The manpower shortage is ‘Pool’s first real test. It comes at the worst possible time.
Step forward Dejan Lovren. Fate has presented him with a chance at redemption at Anfield. Post World Cup, the Croatian claimed he had a point to prove, now the opportunity to do it.
Despite his prodigious self-assurance, he has been ousted at Liverpool. Lovren may believe he is among the best defenders in the world but his club manager apparently employs those few who outrank him. In Klopp’s eyes, Lovren is down the pecking order. The Kop agrees.
The 29-year-old fails to impress on Merseyside, never quite living up to the price tag or billing that Brendan Rodgers afforded him. This is his chance to revise the consensus. With Gomez and Matip sidelined, he must come alongside Van Dijk during the crucial Christmas period.
If he can help out Liverpool in their time of need, it will go a long way to improving his standing. In fact, it may a Liverpool career that was ending sooner rather than later a welcome shot in the arm. It will also raise him up in the Kop’s eye. They have never warmed to the Croatian but have been swayed by good work before.
Unfortunately, early signs are not positive. Thrown in at the deep end against Manchester United, Lovren lived down to expectations.
If taking wild shots from distance wasn’t bad enough, his defending made up for it. Lovren remains a see-sawing player. One week he is excellent, erratic the next. United was the next.
His lacklustre attempt to block the cross that led to Jesse Lingard’s equaliser deserved Graeme Souness’ criticism. Moments like that are too regular from Lovren.
Perhaps Van Dijk will bring the best out of him given more time. The giant Dutchman has made every partner look better. Lovren could do with a makeover.