Liverpool’s sturdy defence key to resurgence and Champions League reward

Liverpool knew back before the World Cup that continuing their European adventure was an improbability. It wasn’t that Real Madrid are an infallible side, nor the fact that the Reds had lost to them in the Champions League final only months earlier, but more the fact Jurgen Klopp’s side were in disarray, struggling to find consistency and with large and regular defensive concerns.

Beating the Spanish side across two legs would be a big task, which was only reinforced by Karim Benzema and Co producing a second-half masterclass at Anfield in the first leg.

Klopp will say that while there’s a chance then his team have to try, and he’s right, yet it’s clear and has been for some time that Liverpool’s best hope for Champions League action next season will come via a good enough recovery domestically to ensure another top-four finish in the Premier League.

After a 3-0 thrashing at Wolves at the start of February, that looked a forlorn hope; it left the Reds 10th in the table with a single win in seven - against the same opponent in an FA Cup replay - and coming off one of their worst performances in the manager’s entire tenure.

However, since then there has been a change. Liverpool have found a way of playing again, not just in attack - which has been far better, above all in Sunday’s 7-0 utter dismantling of Man United - but also in defence. Despite the headline-making side of the scoreline, it is the blank side which provides the real reasoning for Klopp and his side to think a top-four finish can be claimed.

It’s now five Premier League matches in a row for the Reds with a clean sheet attained in each.

It’s also the first time this season they’ve gone five league games without defeat; it’s not a coincidence those things happen at the same time.

Despite riding their luck - woodwork intervened against Newcastle and Alisson Becker has been called upon more than should make Virgil van Dijk and his partners comfortable - but overall the approach off the ball has been considerably and constantly improved.

Of course, if you’re scoring seven in a game then it’s not entirely imperative to keep a clean sheet. But the humiliation of their greatest rivals will very much be seen as a one-off; it’s the clean sheets, not the ruthless clinical finishing that many times a game, which can be replicated over a longer period.

In that regard, individuals have helped. Ibrahima Konate is easily the most consistent and best long-term solution as a partner for Van Dijk. Stefan Bajcetic, left on the bench against United, has been a good addition to the lineup for his defensive ability, while Fabinho’s recent return to form is also huge in that regard.

But the team performance and approach to moments in matches out of possession is the far bigger contribution here.

 (Getty Images)
(Getty Images)

There is better pressing off the ball, a more cohesive arrangement in the middle of the pitch and far, far more energy in matches across the team.

United couldn’t cope with it on this occasion, while Liverpool kept the defensive intensity throughout, ensuring the clean sheet to go with the points.

After Wolves, they were tenth. After Wolves, they were 11 points off fourth.

Since then, they haven’t conceded a goal in league play, have only failed to win one from five and have moved up to fifth place - just three points off Tottenham now and with a game in hand.

Liverpool cannot claim to be “back”, nor will they be bothered about such talk. They’ll only be so when titles are in their sights again and that won’t be this season.

But they can certainly claw back enough ground and games over the remaining 13 fixtures to ensure they once more end the campaign in the top four and return to the Champions League.

And as much as they’ll want Mohamed Salah back in top form and the football to remain free-flowing in attack, it’s the defensive consistency they are again looking capable of displaying which will be what carries them there.