Joe Gomez

Tactics Session: Liverpool’s midfield to blame for poor defending, too

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Here’s something said by anyone and everyone who’s watched an hour of the Premier League over the last 24 months: Liverpool won’t win the PL title until Jurgen Klopp sorts out that shambolic defense.

[ PL ROUNDUP: Man City’s historic start; Man United, Arsenal win ]

Well, duh, and thanks for really going out on a limb with that one.

On Saturday, NBC Sports’ Robbie Earle went error-by-error in picking apart one of the Reds’ many defensive breakdowns (above video) during last weekend’s 4-1 defeat at the hands of Tottenham Hotspur. In short, Dejan Lovern, Joel Matip, Joe Gomez and Simon Mignolet were all guilty of critical errors as Harry Kane opened the scoring after just four minutes. There’s another group of players, though, which is worth considering as opponents continue to pick Liverpool apart on a near-weekly basis.

[ PL PREVIEW: Battle of the new bosses; Brighton vs. Southampton ]

Theory: it’s actually Liverpool’s midfield which is most responsible for this season’s repeated disasters at the back. The results are as poor as they’ve ever been under Klopp — they had the worst defensive record of the PL’s “big six” sides during Klopp’s first (partial) season at Anfield, followed by the second-worst of the six last season, and are sixth out of six thus far in 2017-18 — with little reason to expect significant change as the defensive characters remain the same. When called upon in 2016-17, again, it was simply more of the same.

The key difference being: they were better protected, thus forced into action less frequently, in the past. Whether by design or happenstance, the midfield and forward lines aren’t disrupting possession and winning the ball back as consistently as previous iterations of Klopp’s old gegenpress system. Most notably, it’s the early moments (first five seconds, or three passes) of opposition possession which haven’t been challenged with that familiar urgency.

[ MORE: England top Spain, win U-17 World Cup ]

Take, for instance, that loss to Tottenham — while Jordan Henderson, James Milner and Emre Can are probably the three most “defensive” midfield options in Klopp’s squad, they’re also the three least mobile and press-suited. Georginio Wijnaldum is often labeled an “attacking” midfielder, that what makes him perfectly suited for the transition from pressing to attacking. The same goes for Adam Lallana, who’s currently injured and gutting this side through his absence. Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, should he ultimately end up in central midfield, is very similar in that regard. Marko Grujic, while still a relative PL unknown, profiles better as a central midfielder than the three who started at Wembley Stadium.

Without that constant on-ball pressure, Mauricio Pochettino was inspired in his tactical tweak to feature Harry Winks, Christian Eriksen and Dele Alli in a pass-heavy midfield-three, as the three on-ball technicians were able to play through the middle third of the field with very little resistance and get at the likes of Lovren, Matip and Gomez more directly. The return of starting right back Nathaniel Clyne (hamstring), who hasn’t played a minute this season, will undoubtedly add a bit more mobility and athleticism to an otherwise plodding rearguard.

It’s a trend that, should it continue, will result in more and more — and easier and easier — goals conceded by the Reds.

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?

AT HALF: Liverpool waxing Arsenal; Spurs 0-0 Burnley (video)

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Roberto Firmino and Sadio Mane have helped Liverpool to a 2-0 lead over directionless and visiting Arsenal on Sunday at Anfield.

[ STREAM: Liverpool – Arsenal ]

Minutes after Petr Cech had robbed Mohamed Salah at the back post, Joe Gomez spied his big Brazilian target in the heart of the six for a grounded finish.

Mane then punished Rob Holding for giving him time and space with a simply marvelous curling finish around Cech in the 40th minute.

Arsenal has struggled to find anything of consequence in terms of possession or attack, as Alexis Sanchez’s season debut hasn’t gone to plan. Part of that is surely down to Danny Welbeck starting over Alexandre Lacazette as Arsene Wenger experiments with his XI. Sead Kolasinac also started on the bench.

Tottenham Hotspur 0-0 Burnley — [STREAM]

Not much cooking here, as Spurs run the risk of extending story lines which revolved around their Wembley Stadium “hoodoo” another week.

Joe Gomez set to miss remainder of season for Liverpool

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It’s been all smiles at Anfield since the appointment of Jurgen Klopp, but it looks like Liverpool has been dealt some bad news.

Joe Gomez is set to miss the remainder of the season after suffering a serious knee injury while playing for the England U21 side over the international break.

[ MORE: Premier League injury report ]

While Liverpool is yet to confirm the severity of the injury, multiple reports out of England have tabbed Gomez with a ruptured ACL, which would put an end to his first year in the Premier League.

The 18-year-old defender moved to Liverpool from Championship-side Charlton over the summer for around $5.5 million. He immediately became a favorite of Brendan Rodgers, starting Liverpool’s first five matches of the Premier League season at left-back.

Without Gomez, Liverpool is a bit thin in the defense. Alberto Moreno is the only true left-back on the squad, with Joe Flanagan yet to play this season while recovering from injury.

Three things we learned from USA U-23’s defeat vs. England U-21

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PRESTON — The U.S. U-23 national team lost 1-0 to England’s U-21 side at Deepdale in Preston on Thursday.

[ MORE: Klinsmann rejects criticism ]

Andi Herzog’s side are currently in England on a training camp and the first of their two friendlies, the second is against Qatar next Tuesday, was a good measuring stick for where they are at ahead of the all-important CONCACAF Olympic qualifying tournament for Rio 2016 next month.

Here are three things we learned from the young U.S. side at Preston in front of a crowd of 10,187.

“HEY, IS THIS THE SENIOR TEAM…?”

For plenty of moments during this game, you could’ve been forgiven for thinking you were watching the U.S. national team in action, not the U-23 side. Perhaps it was understandable against a very good England side — nine of England’s 11 starters either started or were involved in Premier League action last weekend — but the U.S. kept dropping back and inviting pressure from wide areas, especially the longer the first half wore on. Time and time again we’ve seen the senior team sit back and soak up pressure under Jurgen Klinsmann before hitting teams on the break (see: USA 4-3 Netherlands and to a lesser extend USA 2-1 Germany this summer) and this performance was almost a mirror image of that. The young Yanks are aspiring to fill the boots of those in the full national team and on this showing, they are a spitting image. Emerson Hyndman and Will Trapp used the ball well in the first half, but the U.S. had too many turnovers in the middle as the game wore on and a plethora of second half subs changed the tempo of the game. The U.S. finally succumbed to England late on as James Wilson grabbed the winner when the defense switched off from a quick free kick in the 70th minute and the Three Lions could have easily doubled their lead on numerous occasions. In the end it remained 1-0 but against a strong England side, Herzog’s team look more than capable of handling Canada, Cuba and Panama when the Olympic qualifying tournament comes around in October.

CROPPER vs. STEFFEN

Head coach Andi Herzog gave both of his goalkeepers 45 minutes, with Cody Cropper starting the game and Zack Steffen replacing him at half time. After being released by Premier League club Southampton this summer, 22-year-old goalkeeper Cropper was at a crossroads in his young career. After a move to MK Dons of England’s second-tier and a solid outing at Deepdale, he looks like he’s navigating it just fine. On Thursday Cropper proved why he is currently at the top of the list from the USA’s European contingent of young goalkeepers. In the 25th minute he stood tall and pushed away Cauly Woodrow’s powerful blast at the back post.

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Hyndman looked steady in the middle for USA.

Cropper was marshaling his backline loudly, and was a leader as he is obviously reaping the benefits from spending time in several senior squads with Brad Guzan and Tim Howard. As for Steffen, his impressive form at the U-20 World Cup saw the Freiburg youngster elevated to the U-23 side and although he conceded a goal in the second half he didn’t put a foot wrong during his 45 minutes on the pitch with solid distribution and made three decent stops. In the years to come it will be one heck of a battle between Cropper, Steffen and William Yarbrough for the starting spot for the full national team.

RODRIGUEZ, HERNANDEZ LIVELY

Without much service, the forward duo of Mario Rodriguez and Alonso Hernandez caused England’s defense plenty of problems for the first 60 minutes. With Rodriguez leading the line and Hernandez buzzing around just behind him, England’s center backs Eric Dier and Calum Chambers didn’t know whether to step up or cover and in the 40th minute came a perfect example of the nuisance the pacey duo can cause. First Monchengladbach prospect Rodriguez nipped in and intercepted a loose ball out of the back on the edge of England’s box from a goal kick, then a run from Juarez’s Hernandez allowed Jerome Kiesewetter to ghost in-behind Joe Gomez and almost stole the ball off of the foot of England goalkeeper Jordan Pickford. With Rubio Rubin and Maki Tall in reserve, Herzog has options ahead of the game vs. Qatar next Tuesday but Rodriguez and Gonzalez are a good partnership up top.