When Liverpool won the Premier League title in 2019-20, it fielded only three center-back combinations in its starting eleven over the entire season. Virgil van Dijk, widely regarded as one of the best central defenders to have ever played in the Premier League, played each and every minute of Liverpool’s 38 matches, partnered with either Joe Gomez, Dejan Lovren or Joël Matip. It was a formidable central defense that formed the backbone of a team that conceded the fifth-fewest expected goals and the fewest actual goals en route to amassing an astounding 99 points. Liverpool’s title campaign was one of the most dominant in the history of English soccer — and it owed a lot of that dominance to its central defense.
However, the Reds weren’t so lucky last season. Liverpool sold Lovren during the transfer window in summer 2020, which meant they entered the 2020-21 season with only three senior center backs. In Matchweek 5, they lost van Dijk to a season-ending knee injury — the result of a nasty tackle by Everton keeper Jordan Pickford — and then, just a few weeks later, they lost Gomez to a season-ending knee injury. These injuries left them with only one senior center back, the injury-prone Matip. So it was perhaps no surprise when Matip went down with a season-ending ankle injury in Matchweek 20.
That nearly impenetrable title-winning central defense, defined by experience and continuity, was suddenly gone. For the remainder of the season, Liverpool was forced to field a patchwork central defense that consisted of some configuration of its two best defensive midfielders (Fabinho and club captain Jordan Henderson), two Premier League rookies (Nathaniel Phillips and Rhys Williams, both of whom are in their early 20s,1 and an emergency, last-minute winter transfer from Bundesliga basement-dwellers Schalke 04 (Ozan Kabak, who is also in his early 20s). All told, during the 2020-21 season, Liverpool fielded 20 different center-back partnerships.
Somewhat remarkably, the Reds managed to hang tough in the title race through Matchweek 21, but a stretch of six losses in seven matches between February and March derailed their chances of repeating as champions. Despite all the turbulence in the center of its defense, Liverpool finished third, securing their Champions League qualification. Indeed, Liverpool’s expected-goals-against and actual-goals-against numbers weren’t too dissimilar from 2019-20. The patchwork defense did a solid job in the face of the crisis. Fabinho proved he’s almost as good at center back as he is in the defensive midfield role — he played plenty of center back at Monaco, so he wasn’t exactly a stranger to the position — and Phillips and Williams proved very handy in the air. Phillips became a cult hero for his unrelenting willingness to sacrifice the safety of his head in order to make any clearance, but it was actually Williams who emerged as a borderline elite header of the ball, winning a league-best 78.9 percent of his aerial duels.2
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Defensive solidity notwithstanding, what hurt Liverpool most last season was less about what the patchwork central defense did to keep the ball out of its own net and more about what it didn’t do to help move the ball up the field and toward the opponent’s net. In 2019-20, van Dijk, Gomez and Matip each ranked among the top six central defenders in passes that ended in the opponent’s half and passes made into the attacking third per 90 minutes. In 2020-21, none of Liverpool’s primary center backs during the injury crisis — Kabak, Phillips or Williams — ranked higher than 14th in passes that ended in the opponent’s half, or higher than 17th in passes made into the attacking third.
Without the likes of van Dijk, Gomez and Matip for the majority of the season, Liverpool was a less progressive team, especially out of the back. When it won the title in 2019-20, a big part of Liverpool’s offensive threat revolved around its ability to strike from just about anywhere on the pitch. Yes, full backs Trent Alexander-Arnold and Andy Robertson did most of the damage in terms of chance creation,3 but van Dijk’s ability to pass forward, coupled with his formidability in one-on-one situations as well as in the air,4gave the likes of Gomez and Matip license to carry the ball forward and push up into space, which they both do exceptionally well. They could find forward passes while dragging the opposition out of its shape, thus opening up more space for the full backs. When Liverpool’s central defenders stepped into that space in 2019-20, they were buttressed by defensive midfielders like Fabinho and Henderson. This made for a more progressive and varied Liverpool.
Unsurprisingly, Liverpool struggled — insofar as finishing third and qualifying for the Champions League can be considered struggling — when its spine fell apart last season. Kabak, Phillips and Williams did an admirable job under duress, but they don’t possess the same anticipation or recovery speed as van Dijk or Gomez, and they didn’t regularly operate with the kind of protection Fabinho and Henderson provide. Now that van Dijk, Gomez and Matip are all fit — Liverpool also added French wunderkind Ibrahima Konaté to strengthen its central defending core — and Fabinho and Henderson can return to their more natural roles in the center of the midfield, the Reds should more closely resemble the team that ran away with the title two seasons ago, not the one that failed to retain it. That is, as long as they can stay healthy this time.
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