Coutinho is back but problems run deeper at Liverpool

AP
However many goals it scores, though, Liverpool seems destined to be debilitated by its frailty at the back.
AP
AFP

Liverpool manager Juergen Klopp speaks to midfielder Philippe Coutinho as he prepares to play during the UEFA Champions League Group E match against Sevilla at Anfield in Liverpool, northwest England, on September 13, 2017. The match ended 2-2.

Philippe Coutinho's belated return to the Liverpool team adds an extra layer of ingenuity to a forward line that promises to be one of the most thrilling in European soccer this season.

Entertainment is unlikely to be in short supply at Anfield now that the front three of Sadio Mane, Roberto Firmino and Mohamed Salah will be prompted from midfield by Coutinho, who has been reintegrated after his unsettling offseason when he was wooed by Barcelona.

However many goals it scores, though, Liverpool seems destined to be debilitated by its frailty at the back.

Whether it's a collective problem — as manager Juergen Klopp is suggesting — or individuals simply making bad decisions or mistakes, Liverpool doesn't have the defense to make a realistic challenge for major honors this season.

This past week, Liverpool has lost 0-5 at Manchester City, albeit after being down to 10 men for more than half the game, and then ruined a dominant performance against Sevilla in the UEFA Champions League by giving away two sloppy goals in a 2-2 draw.

There are legitimate concerns starting with the goalkeepers and going right across the defensive line, and they have been there from the moment Klopp took over in October 2015. It was odd, then, that he chose to sign only one defender during the transfer window, left back Andrew Robertson from relegated English Premier League team Hull City for 8 million pounds (US$10.7 million). Robertson has played only one game so far this season.

Would things have been different had Liverpool managed to sign Southampton center back Virgil van Dijk, its much-publicized top defensive target? Klopp doubts it.

"I know here you're always looking for this thing about the defense ... that these problems will have been sorted with one player — it was mentioned we put all our money together and do this," Klopp said after the Sevilla game. "It's not about this. It's about being dominant and losing a little bit of concentration, the grip of the game that you do not have in all defensive moments."

The issues are clear to see. Klopp has rotated his two goalkeepers, Simon Mignolet and Loris Karius, in the last four matches, continuing the long-held uncertainty in that position.

At center back, Joel Matip is good on the ball but not a commanding presence at set pieces or under the high ball, while Dejan Lovren can be clumsy and error-prone, as shown against Sevilla when he completely missed an attempted clearance to allow a tap-in goal in the fifth minute.

At left back, Alberto Moreno can be an attacking threat but a defensive liability, and Robertson is inexperienced on this stage. At right back, youngsters Trent Alexander-Arnold (18) and Joe Gomez (20) have bright futures but can be caught out in behind them.

Of the so-called "Big 6" in the EPL in Klopp's time in England, Liverpool had the leakiest defense in the 2015-16 season and only Arsenal conceded more goals last season.

The neutral will want Klopp to keep things as they are, starting with the home match against Burnley in the league on Saturday. Liverpool is arguably the most exciting team to watch in the EPL, with opportunities popping up regularly at both ends. The team's first-half performance in the Sevilla game was so exhilarating that Liverpool's fans gave the players a standing ovation as they went off for halftime.

Throw the returning Coutinho into the mix, and Adam Lallana when he is back from a thigh injury maybe next month, and Liverpool's attacking options are seemingly limitless.

It's what happens at the other end, however, that could decide the Reds' fate this season.


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