Ragnar Klavan

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Klopp’s reliance on top CB pair nothing new, but a problem

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When Jurgen Klopp was hired at Borussia Dortmund in 2008, he did something right away that would set the stage for BVB’s run back into Bundesliga power.

Klopp brought defender Neven Subotic with him from Mainz, and took Mats Hummels on loan from Bayern Munich.

The 19-year-old Subotic played 38 times for BVB that season, and Hummels played well on way to a permanent transfer.

[ MORE: Klopp left fuming at defending ]

Largely, Klopp seemed to “set it and forget it” with his center backs from that point forward: No big summer buys, and neither Subotic nor Hummels was headed anywhere.

That didn’t change until 2013-14, when Klopp bought Sokratis Papastathopoulos from Werder Bremen, adding Matthias Ginter the next season.

Klopp left BVB after a disappointing 2014-15, taking the job at Liverpool in October 2015.

He didn’t do much in January, but agreed to terms with Schalke center back Joel Matip in February and landed Ragnar Klavan from Augsburg in the summer. The Reds already had bought Dejan Lovren from Southampton in the Summer of 2014, and Klopp seemed set.

[ MORE: League Cup Weds. wrap ]

Lovren improved a lot with Matip next to him, and Klavan made just 15 appearances for the Reds last season. The Reds went hard at Southampton’s Virgil Van Dijk, but failed to get him for any number of reasons. Still, Klopp figured his quartet, including young Joe Gomez in a pinch, would be just fine this season.

And maybe they will be, but there are daunting signs for the Reds in the first couple months of the season. Klopp has used Matip in eight matches, tied for the most on the team with Mohamed Salah and Roberto Firmino. He’s used Lovren six times, and Klavan four.

Liverpool’s record by CB pair (admittedly a tiny sample size):

Matip-Lovren: 3W-2D
Matip-Klavan: 1W-1D-1L
Gomez-Klavan: 1L (today)

The center backs, sans Matip and Lovren, especially hurt the Reds in the 2-0 loss to Leicester on Tuesday. All three moments of Leicester threat in this highlight package find either Klavan or Gomez cooked or out-of-place.

Look, a lot of teams are going to be hurt when using their second-choice CB pair, and many won’t be bothered by Liverpool’s exit from the League Cup. Furthermore, it’s not like anyone has been mistaking Lovren and Matip for Puyol and Pique.

But look at every English team in Europe, including the ones with far fewer defensive frailties heading into this summer than Liverpool.

Chelsea bought Antonio Rudiger.

Everton added Michael Keane.

Manchester United bought Victor Lindelof.

Spurs bought Davinson Sánchez and Juan Foyth.

Arsenal didn’t buy anyone besides Alexandre Lacazette, while Man City bought full backs and has received plenty of criticism for failing to add to its center back corps of Vincent Kompany, John Stones, and Eliaquim Mangala.

Liverpool? They sold Mamadou Sakho.

It’s problematic, yes, and it can’t be fixed until January. The question is whether Klopp sees a need to spend in the winter window. As illustrated above, he loves to ride his horses, even if Lovren and Matip aren’t quite Hummels and Subotic.

Think of what’s ailed Liverpool in recent seasons: Are some of those flops against lesser Premier League teams changed with more rest for their top pair or a better option for the mix?

PL Playback: Mane’s red masks Liverpool’s real problems

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MANE RED MASKS LIVERPOOL ISSUES

Sadio Mane‘s red card in the 36th minute was the main talking point from Liverpool’s 5-0 defeat at Manchester City on Saturday.

It was a big moment but in no way should it have masked the bigger problem Liverpool have failed to address over the offseason: their defense.

[ MORE: Watch full PL match replays

Jurgen Klopp was scathing after Mane’s red for a high challenge on Man City goalkeeper Ederson. Told to calm down on the sidelines by officials, perhaps Klopp was so incensed because he had seen his team go 1-0 down after a poor piece of defending, plus miss glorious chances via Mohamed Salah to compound Mane’s sending off.

[ MORE: Klopp vs. Guardiola antithesis

Speaking to the media afterward, Klopp stood up for Mane as Guardiola also believed it was an accident but that the action was dangerous.

“It was an accident. A very unlucky situation. I think everybody knows Sadio didn’t see the goalie. He just wanted to get the ball as soon as possible… and then it was a red card. We cannot change that anymore,” Klopp said. “Hopefully the goalie isn’t seriously injured. At the first moment when the people were on the pitch it looked like this, but after the game he was running around the dugout. Hopefully it was not too serious.”

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Ederson did not break anything but had some nasty cuts on his face and will be feeling the impact of that reckless challenge from Mane, which deserved a red, for quite some time.

Klopp was also asked if Liverpool would appeal against Mane’s three-game ban, and reports have since suggested they could do: “It would be another waste of time. Like the game today,” Klopp said.

Yet, the game wasn’t a complete waste of time.

We learnt an awful lot about Liverpool’s defensive deficiencies and the usually charismatic Klopp seem distracted as he mumbled through his answers in his post-game press conference.

He admitted it was far too easy for Man City’s midfielders, the brilliant David Silva and Kevin De Bruyne in particular, to turn and hurt his defense but that he “will try, with the boys, to forget the result. Not the mistakes, but the result” as Liverpool were torn apart time and time again.

“We have four in defense and six in midfield and in these situations, yes, we could have done better. We could have done better with the ball in the second half. You don’t lose 5-0 when a lot of things are right. It is not that I am concerned in the long-term,” Klopp explained. “I think if City takes too much confidence from this game today it is a mistake, if we lose too much confidence from this game we will also make a mistake.”

Analyzing Liverpool’s defensive display before and after Mane was sent off will draw a similar conclusion: gaping holes. Not just among the defenders because that is an easy target. But in midfield, which player is the true holding midfielder to provide a shield? Jordan Henderson isn’t and Emre Can and Georginio Wijnaldum lack discipline defensively. Even club-record signing Naby Keita, who will arrive next summer, is a two-way player who chips in with goals and assists.

City’s balanced midfield of Fernandinho behind Silva and De Bruyne is what Liverpool should aim for if their extreme attacking side is going to challenge for trophies.

Liverpool’s young right back Trent Alexander-Arnold was targeted too easily and the center back duo of Joel Matip and Ragnar Klavan (who was preferred to Dejan Lovren) didn’t know whether to step up or hold with Sergio Aguero and Gabriel Jesus buzzing around them. Every time City put the ball in the box it looked like they would score and they had two more goals ruled out for offside. Yes, Liverpool aren’t a team who are ever going to set back but when you’re 2-0 down at Man City at half time and a man down, surely Klopp didn’t expect the defensive capitulation he witnessed.

Even if Mane hadn’t been sent off, it would be tough for Man City not to have won that game.

Liverpool went all-in on center back Virgil Van Dijk this summer and they didn’t get their man. They didn’t seem to have a Plan B about strengthening their defense, which is undoubtedly their Achilles heel. Until they defend better, they will not win the title or challenge in Europe. Simple.

Klopp tried to mask the issues with Mane’s red card but you felt that, like Liverpool’s defensive display, it was halfhearted.

“After the international break, one man down, young players on the pitch in different positions. It was hard for the boys, I know, but we don’t look for excuses. It [the red card] changed the game today, we know it,” Klopp said. “What would have happened if we played 11v11? But I don’t have the chance to watch this game.”


DE BOER UNLUCKY

Quite why Crystal Palace hired Frank De Boer in the first place is mind-boggling.

It is admirable that for the second time in 12 months Steve Parish and Palace’s U.S. owners Josh Harris and David Blizter want to change the playing style of the south London club to an attractive, possession-based side, but now on both occasions it has failed. Miserably.

Palace now have to be brave and stick with what they want to be. Substance over style is okay. If you’re going to do it, just own it. And give it longer than four games.

[ VIDEO: Premier League highlights ]

Frank de Boer was nothing more than a victim of Palace’s ongoing identity crisis. They have now replaced Alan Pardew‘s experiment with a more attacking side with the pragmatism of Sam Allardyce and after the de Boer experiment went horribly wrong they are reportedly going back to basics with Roy Hodgson lined up to take charge as a horror run of games is on the horizon with Man City, Man United and Chelsea all in their next four PL games.

Sacked just four Premier League games into the season, FDB lasted 77 days and set a new record for the fewest PL games managed by a permanent boss. This comes after his disastrous 85-day spell in charge of Inter Milan last season as the Dutchman will do well to rebuild his coaching reputation following his four-straight Dutch titles with Ajax.

He was given some funds to strengthen and loanees Ruben Loftus-Cheek and Timothy Fosu-Mensah looked okay, but Mamadou Sakho never played due to injury and Jairo Riedewald also suffered on the sidelines. The players are partly to blame, particularly with their poor finishing and shambolic defending, but without a complete squad overhaul these systematic changes were doomed from the start.

This squad flourished under the direct approach of Allardyce last season and was now expected to play expansive, flowing soccer from the back.

Yet, this isn’t really about de Boer. Sure, he wanted to bring his expansive style of soccer to Selhurst Park, but that’s what Parish and others wanted too. And although you could accuse Palace of making horrendous defensive mistakes as they tried to keep the ball, they mixed it up and played long balls and got in crosses against both Liverpool and Burnley where they could have picked up points.

But they didn’t and they lost all four opening games without scoring a goal and the killer-blow was that three of those defeats came against Huddersfield, Swansea and Burnley who are all likely to be relegation rivals.

With 54 points from their last 63 games, Palace have racked up the second-lowest points total out of the 92 professional teams in England in that period. They have been scrapping away and fighting with themselves for so long now. Do they try to create a different identity or do they play it safe and aim for 40 points each PL season? The financial implications of relegation, plus the impending arrival of Hodgson, suggest the latter.

This is no longer de Boer’s problem to sort out.


DE BRUYNE OTHER-WORLDLY

Kevin de Bruyne provided two wonderful assists for Manchester City on Saturday in their demolition of Liverpool and the Belgian wizard finally seems to have found his spot in the team.

[ MORE: Premier League schedule

Under Pep Guardiola last season he was played in a deeper role and he flourished, grabbing 18 assists in the Premier League (more than any other player)

This season he is again lining up centrally rather than out wide and it giving City extra balance to their play with a 3-5-2 system allowing Jesus and Aguero to start up top, plus wing backs Benjamin Mendy and Kyle Walker to bomb forward.

De Bruyne, 26, spoke to the media in the tunnel area at the Etihad Stadium with a smile on his face as he discussed his match-winning display like it was a kickaround with his mates in the schoolyard.

“I just do whatever I need to do. I’d prefer to get zero goals and zero assists and win the league. Obviously it is a little bit different. I will try to do my thing and the coach is very happy with the way I am playing since the beginning of the season. I feel sharp. It always depends, but think where I am playing right now is the position which is best for me. Obviously every game is a little bit different, higher, lower, but it is small margins.”

Those small margins are what Guardiola and City are all about and De Bruyne believes they are hungrier than ever to win silverware this season after a barren spell in Pep’s first campaign.

“Everybody wants to win,” De Bruyne explained. “Obviously we have a couple of years where we don’t win a lot so there’s maybe more urgency to win something between the players. I have a good feeling about this season but you never know. We started well.”

And if those trophies arrive with him playing in a deeper role and not scoring as many goals?

“If it happens, it happens. If we win at the end of the season you will see a very happy Kevin.”


USMNT UPDATE: CAMERON OUT; EPB ON THE WAY?

Couple of U.S. national team notes to catch up on from around the Premier League.

Pro Soccer Talk understands Stoke City’s Geoff Cameron will be out for up to two weeks after injuring his hamstring just before half time in the Potters’ 2-2 draw against Manchester United.

Cameron, 32, started at center back but hobbled off after pulling up as he tracked back Romelu Lukaku. The experienced defender will now face a race against time to get back to full fitness before the USMNT’s final two World Cup qualifiers against Panama and Trinidad & Tobago with a trip to the 2018 tournament in Russia on the line.

A younger USMNT center back has also been in the news with reports stating that Sporting Kansas City’s Erik Palmer-Brown will join Manchester City.

EPB, 20, has been a star for the U.S. youth national teams and his coach as SKC, Peter Vermes, has confirmed he will move on at the end of the 2017 MLS season when his contract expires.

Pro Soccer Talk understand there is interest from Man City and that any deal will be sealed for him to join at the start of 2018. A versatile defender who can also play in midfield, EPB will likely join City’s development squad and then be loaned out.


INTRIGUING GOLDEN-BOOT RACE

We are only four weeks into the Premier League season but the Golden Boot race already seems like an intriguing one.

Harry Kane, the reigning two-time top scorer in the PL, is off the mark (because it is September) with two goals, while he has a little catching up to do as Romelu Lukaku has four goals, while Alvaro Morata and Gabriel Jesus have three goals each.

[ MORE: Premier League stats

There’s no doubt Sergio Aguero and Alexandre Lacazette (both on two goals) will also be up there all season long, but this could well be a three-horse race between Kane, Lukaku and Morata.

All three are the main-men up top for their teams and will likely start every single game. They are also very similar players who are comfortable with scoring in the air, holding the ball up and able to score all kinds of goals.

Let the best man win. And by win, I mean score a bucket load of goals.


Premier League Playback comes out every week as PST’s Lead Writer and Editor takes an alternative look at all the action from the weekend. Read the full archive, here

Three things we learned from Man City’s win v. Liverpool

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MANCHESTER — One moment helped to swing the game in Manchester City’s favor, but in truth they were too good for Liverpool on Saturday.

[ VIDEO: Premier League highlights ]

A goal from Sergio Aguero set Man City on their way and then two goals from Gabriel Jesus, after Sadio Mane‘s straight-red, either side of half time sealed the win for City with substitute Leroy Sane adding another two late on to rub salt in the wounds.

With the 5-0 win Pep Guardiola‘s men momentarily moved top of the Premier League table with 10 points from their opening four games, while Jurgen Klopp‘s Liverpool (who suffered their heaviest defeat since he took charge) remain on seven points after their first defeat of the campaign.

Here’s a look at what we learned from a one-sided encounter at the Etihad Stadium.


MANE’S RED CARD CORRECT

There is only one place to start. Yes, it was a red card.

Sadio Mane was sent off in the 37th minute (see video above) with Liverpool already 1-0 down. Sure, they may have already been trailing and Man City were clicking through the gears, but any hope Liverpool had of getting back in the game was dashed by Mane’s ridiculously rash challenge.

A day after he was named the Premier League’s Player of the Month for August after scoring in each of the first three games, Mane was the villain.

The margins were close but he had time to pull out of a high challenge with his foot raised.

As the ball was clipped over the top he raced clear but Ederson too raced off his line and got their first. Mane could have pulled out of the challenge or continued with his head. He wasn’t brave enough and paid the price for having his foot shoulder high. Yes, Ederson did bring his head down but not enough to warrant Mane’s foot being that high.

Mane was in on goal but his exuberance got the better of him. It may not have been deliberate but it was clearly reckless. With Ederson stretchered off the pitch in a neck brace the contact was heavy and Mane, when he looks at it again, can have no real complaints with the decision.

After the red card Liverpool collapsed with their fragile defense (which saw Ragnar Klavan come in for Dejan Lovren) caving in as Jesus, Aguero and Kevin De Bruyne ran riot. Jurgen Klopp’s side will have to lick their wounds after suffering a first defeat of the season (and the heaviest since their 6-1 pummeling by Stoke City at the end of the 2014-15 season) but they can be comforted by the fact that they created good chances in the first half which Mohamed Salah should have done better with.

This was a reality check for Liverpool after they blitzed Arsenal before the international break and perhaps points to the madness of Klopp not strengthening his defense, Virgil Van Dijk aside, in the final days of the transfer window.


MAN CITY FLUID, BALANCED IN 3-5-2 LED BY KDB

Man City look so much better in a 3-5-2 formation. With Pep Guardiola spending big on two attacking full backs over the summer in Kyle Walker and Benjamin Mendy (particularly superb with his crosses from the left) this system gives them balance and allows the likes of Kevin de Bruyne and David Silva to roam free. And that they did.

De Bruyne was particularly superb, grabbing wonderful assists on City’s opening two goals and then launching the attack for the third.

Just over 12 months into the gig Guardiola has finally found his best team with KDB pulling the strings in a central role.

John Stones and Nicolas Otamendi still have their moments in defense, especially without Vincent Kompany around on Saturday to steady the ship, but Ederson, until his injury appears to give City’s defense confidence.

With Aguero and Gabriel Jesus combining menacingly in attack, it will be difficult to understand why Pep, who has been a master tinkerer in his time so far at City, would deviate far from this system and these players. Last season City’s big problem was beating the teams around them in the top six. They has just two wins versus the top six last season in 10 games, with only Arsenal below them in the top six “mini-league” in 2016-17. Just as everyone thought they would (thanks largely to a record summer spending spree) they are figuring things out.

Guardiola’s side have quietly gone 12 games without defeat in the Premier League, dating back to last season, and have also lost just once (at champions Chelsea) in their past 24 PL games. If that’s the kind of form they’ve had while they figure things out, then we are in for a treat now everything appears to be slotting into place.


AGUERO’S CLASS CONSTANT

Kevin de Bruyne didn’t really need to lift his head up as the ball dropped to him in midfield. He already knew where Aguero was heading to.

With his 124th Premier League the Argentine, 29, became the highest-scoring non-European in Premier League history. The way he nonchalantly rolled around Simon Mignolet and slotted home oozed class. You get the sense that Guardiola finally trusts in Aguero after spells of leaving him on the bench, even at the start of this season.

Starting up front with Gabriel Jesus the duo were distant early on, too stretched and too easy to mark. Pep Guardiola then signaled to Jesus to get closer to Aguero, moving past and underneath him. Within 60 seconds City went 1-0 up with Aguero’s goal.

Jesus scored twice, and had one disallowed for offside, while Aguero had another chalked off for a correct offside call. They ran riot.

The way Aguero then raced free in the second half but instead of rounding Mignolet, as he could have easily done, he squared to Jesus to slot home and make it 3-0.

Aguero has been greedy over the years. Which top striker hasn’t? But he is showing Pep, most importantly, that he is now more of well-rounded team player who can still score the goals City need.

PL Sunday preview: Liverpool, Man Utd chasing top-four finishes

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Are Manchester United really in the top-four race? Will Liverpool sprint or stumble to the finish line? Are Burnley and Crystal Palace safe from relegation?

Questions to ponder ahead of Sunday’s slate of Premier League fixtures…

[ FOLLOW: All of PST’s PL coverage ]

Burnley vs. Manchester United — 9:15 a.m. ET, on NBCSN and NBCSports.com

After eight sterling months (17 PL goals, 28 in all competitions), now begins the post-Zlatan Ibrahimovic era at Man United after the Swedish superstar suffered a “significant” knee injury (as did defender Marcos Rojo) during United’s Europa League triumph over Anderlecht on Thursday. 22 games unbeaten (12 wins, 10 draws) in league play, and United have not only kept pace with Liverpool and Manchester City in the race for a top-four finish, but closed the gap to six and four points, with two and one games in hand, respectively.

With Ibrahimovic out for the remainder of the season — and perhaps the rest of the calendar year — Marcus Rashford has already stepped up and assumed the role of line-leading, goal-scoring striker in his absence. Last weekend, Rashford started in place of a healthy Ibrahimovic and scored what turned out to be the winning goal against PL leaders Chelsea. The 19-year-old followed that up with the 107th-minute winner against Anderlecht to reach double-digit goals, including three in his last four games, for the first time in his career.

With the Manchester derby not far on the horizon (Thursday), a United win would move the Red Devils to within a single point of fourth-place Man City, with the two sides finally level on games played.

INJURIES: Burnley — QUESTIONABLE: Sam Vokes (hamstring), Johann Gudmundsson (knee) | Man United — OUT: Zlatan Ibrahimovic (knee), Marcos Rojo (knee), Juan Mata (groin), Chris Smalling (knee), Phil Jones (toe)

[ MORE: Chelsea beat Tottenham to reach FA Cup final ]

Liverpool vs. Crystal Palace — 11:30 a.m. ET, on NBCSN and NBCSports.com

Unbeaten in their last seven PL games (five wins, two draws), Liverpool’s disastrous start to 2017 (zero wins in their first five games after New Years Day) has long faded from the rearview mirror. With signature victories over Arsenal and Everton, plus a convincing win over Tottenham Hotspur separating the above streaks, Jurgen Klopp‘s first full season at Anfield sits 450 minutes from achieving a goal thought improbable or impossible by many back in August: Champions League qualification.

Klopp, for one, is wary of coming up against Christian Benteke, not long a former Liverpool striker, in red-hot form (three goals and an assist in his last four games — two wins and a draw for Crystal Palace).

“He is obviously another player with confidence, in a good run and all that stuff,” Klopp said. “Like it is always when you play against Zlatan, other strikers, these kinds of strikers — tall, good with their back to the goal — you have to avoid the crosses and you have to avoid the passes. That’s how it works.

“If we let them cross 50 balls it’s pretty likely he will have a few dangerous headers. That’s not his only strength, of course, but that’s a real strength.”

INJURIES: Liverpool — OUT: Sadio Mane (knee), Adam Lallana (thigh), Jordan Henderson (foot), Danny Ings (knee); QUESTIONABLE: Joel Matip (knock), Daniel Sturridge (hip), Ragnar Klavan (knee) | Crystal Palace — OUT: Scott Dann (knee); QUESTIONABLE: Loic Remy (calf), James Tomkins (calf)

Stoke 1-2 Liverpool: Coutinho, Firmino launch comeback

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  • Goal each for Coutinho, Firmino
  • Stoke led 1-0 through Walters
  • Liverpool move on to 63 points
  • Stoke winless in four

Liverpool launched a steely second half comeback at the bet365 Stadium to keep their Premier League top four hopes on track

Jonathan Walters have Stoke the lead just before the break but two half time subs changed the game for Liverpool with Philippe Coutinho equalizing and Roberto Firmino scoring a stunning volley to win it for Liverpool, their first away win of 2017.

With the victory Jurgen Klopp‘s side move to 63 points, nine points clear of fifth-place Arsenal, while Stoke remain on 36 points.

[ MORE: Watch full PL match replays

Stoke started well with Xherdan Shaqiri having the ball in the back of the net but he was offside, then Glen Johnson surged forward but couldn’t get his cross right and Erik Pieters had a shot well blocked as Liverpool struggled to get going.

The chances kept coming for the Potters too.

[ MORE: Latest Premier League standings ]

Stoke continued to push forward before half time as Arnautovic was set free over the top but slammed his effort into the side-netting at the near post as half of the stadium thought he’d scored. Liverpool barely got forward in a woeful first half for the Reds as the Potters pinned them back.

Then a moment of real controversy arrived as Ben Woodburn went down in the box under a challenge from Pieters but no penalty was awarded and then Stoke took the lead moments later.

Shaqiri skipped past a tackle and clipped the ball into an unmarked Walters who nodded home at the near post. 1-0 to Stoke and Klopp was misery personified on the sidelines as both Joel Matip and Ragnar Klavan were caught out.

[ VIDEO: Premier League highlights ]

At half time both Coutinho and Firmino came on for Liverpool, replacing youngsters Alexander-Arnold and Woodburn, and Klopp’s changes paid off. Big time.

After the break Dejan Lovren hit the crossbar with a header, while Stoke should have scored through Charlie Adam by Simon Mignolet denied him superbly.

Liverpool pushed hard to get back into the game but Stoke looked dangerous on the break and were calling for a red card for Klavan who hauled down Shaqiri but no second yellow card was handed to him.

[ MORE: Full lineups, stats, box score

Coutinho recovered from sickness and jumped off the bench to turn the game as he equalized with just under 20 minutes to go. Liverpool smelt blood in the water.

Less than two minutes later Georginio Wijnaldum‘s superb long ball forward found Firmino and the substitute smashed home an unstoppable volley to turn the games on its head and make it 2-1 to

Moments later Mignolet pulled off a superb stop as Arnautovic whipped in a cross from the left which Berahino connected with at the back post but Liverpool’s Belgian goalkeeper clawed the ball away brilliantly.

Liverpool held on for the win as Klopp and his players celebrated a major comeback and a major step towards a top four finish.