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Was Liverpool duped by the system when signing Dejan Lovren?

Sunday 29th October 2017
Dejan Lovren has not been a successful signing. Signed for £20 million in the summer of 2014, he is yet to vindicate the price tag paid. But such was  the defensive philosophies of Southampton that prior year, from a disciplining and instructive manager to a cast of supporting teammates, were Liverpool duped by the system?
After just 31 minutes, a sloped and slouched Dejan Lovren was trudging off a pitch that had seen him battered and bruised. It was a Harry Kane shaped thumping that the centre-half had taken, with the Spurs striker, who is in a rich vein of form, it must be admitted, powering through, running round, and thoroughly dominating his opposite number. In 31 minutes of football.

It was Lovren's error for the first goal, as he inexplicably allowed a clipped through ball to simply bypass him, with Kane surging onto it, hurdling the rushed challenge of Simon Mignolet, and volleying into the goal; it was Lovren who was again to blame for the second, this time getting caught under a long, bowled throw from Hugo Lloris, allowing Kane to slip in, unattended, to lay the ball on a plate for Son Heung-Min who duly scored. Klopp had had enough. Lovren was hauled off; Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, the true benchwarmer, was introduced, and a system change was enforced.
This is not the first time that Lovren has been at the heart of Liverpool's defensive problems, a team that is renowned for their vulnerabilities at the back as much as they are for their blistering prowess going forward. The Croatian has, in no uncertain terms, failed to deliver on expectations. For reasons that are difficult decipher, from lack of confidence to an exposing team with little support, Lovren has not lived up to the billing that he came to Anfield with. And because of that, it makes me wonder: What if his billing was wrong in the first place? What if his qualities were not what was advertised? What if Liverpool, when they prised the centre-half away from Southampton for £20 million, were duped by the system, overestimating the role of the player, and, consequently, overpaying for a lacking defender?
Dejan Lovren had only played one season at Southampton before Liverpool swept in. It was a small sample size on which to judge someone. Now, the likes of N'Golo Kante, Toby Alderweireld, and, if you want to tread further back in time, Carlos Tevez and Javier Mascherano, have proven that one season is enough to accurately establish one's qualities at a lesser Premier League side. But, for the most part, it is not many games, on only one team, in one system, under one manager, with the same players, to precisely analyse and classify a player's level. It is easy to be deceived. And three years after Liverpool signed Dejan Lovren, looking back at the environment that he was in at Southampton does pose a serious question about the role that he himself played.

Let's start with the other four members of the back five. Artur Boruc, a perfectly adequate goalkeeper -- more so than Mignolet -- was between the sticks. Jose Fonte, at the peak of his powers, was his centre-half partner. And a pair of searing and yet solid full-backs hemmed him in on either flank: Nathaniel Clyne, who is now at Liverpool but is currently absent through injury, and Luke Shaw, who Manchester United valued at £27 million in the very same summer. Moreover, there was great consistency between the five. Out of 38 Premier League games, Lovren played 31. Clyne played the least, just 25 (5 substitute appearances). But when he was out the team, he was replaced by Calum Chambers, a player who Arsenal valued at £18 million at the end of the season. Hardly a shoddy alternative. Boruc, in net, made 29 appearances, all of which were starts, Shaw, at left-back, played 35 games, all of which were starts, and Fonte made 36 appearances, with just one being a substitute. That is a back five that has outstanding continuity and consistency, which, if you ask any defender or goalkeeper, is essential to having a successful defensive unit.

But it was more than just the back five. In midfield, Lovren had two players who, at the time, were considered some of the best shielding midfielders in the Premier League. Morgan Schneiderlin, who United signed in 2015 for £25 million, and Victor Wanyama, who Spurs signed in 2016 for £11 million, were a stout and stifling partnership in the centre of midfield. Physically imposing, tactically astute, and nitty and gritty in the tackle, they were the archetypal dour duo that the slighter, more technical players used to hate facing. They would bully their way to domination of games, were rarely pulled out of position, and provided the perfect screen for an already connected and cohesive defence. Loveen was in the perfect team to excel.
And that is all without considering the manager. Mauricio Pochettino might be the best manager in the Premier League. After the 2013/14 season, where he led Southampton to an eighth-placed finish in the Premier League, Tottenham Hotspur came a calling. In the three years that he has managed Spurs, they have finished fifth, second and second, including collecting the most points in the Premier League over the past two full seasons. Additionally, they have been excellent defensively. In his first full season in North London, Spurs conceded 53 goals. Not an especially magnificent tally. But the next year, that number fell to 35, which was the joint-best in the league with Manchester United. The next season, that number fell again, to 26, the best in the league. The only other team to have conceded fewer than 30 was Manchester United, with 29 goals against. And, as of writing, Spurs have conceded only six goals this season, which can only be bettered by the two Manchester clubs.

Not only is Pochettino an excellent manager in terms of getting results, but he excels at setting up his side to succeed defensively. Tactically, he is astute. Strategically, he instructs his players clearly and concisely, ensuring that each is aware of their specific role. And then he instils discipline into his players, knowing that what he demands of them will be executed at a high and consistent level.

From the players to the manager, Dejan Lovren was in the perfect position to flourish. He could not have asked for a better team to sign for, for better teammates to play with, and for a better manager to be coached by. Perhaps he was never that good in that first place; perhaps Liverpool has been duped after all.
Andrew Dowdeswell

A sport obsessed 20 something who just really wants Arsenal to finally win the league. Please Wenger, what the hell happened to you?!


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