Defensive chaos hands brutal reality check to Liverpool, Manchester United and Bayern Munich

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Hind Al Soulia - Riyadh - Two months after football in Germany resumed after the spring lockdown, the Bundesliga acting as pathfinder for other leagues seeking ways of staging marches amid a pandemic, the statistics were revealing some unusual features.

Away teams were more successful – unsurprising, given the empty stadiums, with no hostile home supporters. Less expected was that the number of clear defensive errors had soared.

Five months after that tentative resumption, with almost every league now back up and running, the tendency for slipshod defending seems more and more pronounced. It is spreading across elite club football.

What happened on Sunday in the Premier League was startling: the finest club side in Europe for most of 2019-20, Liverpool, shipped seven goals at Aston Villa.

That rout had begun when television viewers were still checking whether what they had just watched, broadcast from Old Trafford, was true. It was: Manchester United beaten 6-1 at home by Tottenham Hotspur.

While those eye-catching results were being compiled, Bayern Munich, who won a Treble only a few weeks ago, were busy conceding three goals at home to Hertha Berlin. Bayern have let in seven in their last two games.

United, Liverpool and Bayern. Look through the list of the world’s most expensive defenders, and these clubs all feature among the buyers.

Lucas Hernandez, the France international, is the costliest footballer ever to join a German club, although Bayern doubt the wisdom of that investment. He cost €80 million ($94m).

United’s Harry Maguire and Liverpool’s Virgil van Dijk cost even more. They were both on site, uncomfortably burdened with their price-tags, for record-breaking events (for Spurs and Villa) at the weekend.

Ambitious clubs invest so heavily in central defenders because ambitious managers demand such a range of qualities from the leaders of a back line.

They must, as ever, command, contain their opponents, and, these days, jump up to win aerial challenges while keeping their arms as close as possible to their torsos and hips, lest they fall foul of stringent new guidelines on handball.

Above all they must be bold, and sure-footed enough to pass precisely, long and short, while under a heavy opposition press, something Eric Bailly – drafted in by United manager Ole Gunnar Solskjaer to partner Maguire – failed to do against Spurs. His ball out from his own penalty area, intended for Nemanja Matic, invited Harry Kane to pounce for Tottenham’s third goal.

The same instincts put Liverpool in trouble from the start against Villa, the goalkeeper Adrian assuming that, with the ball at his feet in open play, his first responsibility was to pass to one of his ball-playing centre-backs, even while he was liable to be aggressively closed down.

Adrian looked for Joe Gomez, and his pass was imprecise: It effectively gave Villa their early lead.

Villa would go on to shred a Liverpool defence that has been carefully constructed to master the most demanding extremes of defensive excellence.

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Aston Villa v Liverpool player ratings

ASTON VILLA RATINGS: Emiliano Martinez - 7: Called into action twice in the first 20 minutes to deny Firmino. Produced a one-handed save to palm an attempted lob by Jota over the bar. Parried a Robertson shot over just before the break. Looks an important signing for Villa. EPA

Matthew Cash - 6: Right-back had his hands full from the start dealing with Robertson and Jota’s attacks down his flank. Caught out of position for Salah’s first. Stuck to his task and life was made easier as Grealish, Watkins and Co ran riot in attack. EPA

Tyone Mings - 7: Straight into the action with a marauding run down the right flank and couple of important blocks in his own box. EPA

Ezri Konsa – 7: Forming really good partnership with Mings in centre of Villa’s defence which must please assistant manager John Terry. Reuters

Matt Targett - 7: Non-stop running down the left, helped stop Alexander-Arnold from becoming an attacking threat and was an important part of Villa’s victory. AFP

John McGinn - 8: Can count himself lucky not have conceded a penalty after quarter of an hour for a clumsy block on Salah in the box. Enjoyed another slice of luck when his shot from edge of the box deflected into the next off Van Dijk after 35 minutes. Great pass to put Grealish through for his second. Looks back to his best. EPA

Douglas Luiz - 7: Harsh booking for pulling back Minamino just after half-time. A good show from the Brazilian midfielder who was happy to take a back seat as his teammates ran riot in attack. AP

Ross Barkley - 7: Could and, arguably, should have had a first-half hat-trick like teammate Watkins. Loan signing from Chelsea missed an absolute golden opportunity to make it 2-0 in first 10 minutes but could only scuff shot wide. Then put another chance wide of the target moments before Salah pulled the score back to 2-1. Saw near post shot saved by Adrian. Finally scored, via a deflection, 10 minutes after the break. EPA

Trezeguet - 8: Wonderful crossfield pass to Grealish that set up Barkey’s second chance to score after 31 minutes. Perfect ball across box set up Watkins’ hat-trick header. Excellent performance from the Egyptian wideman. AP

Jack Grealish - 9: At the heart of Villa’s victory from the moment the game kicked-off. Kept his composure to set up Watkins’s opener and then handed another chance on a plate to Barkley a few minutes later. Lovely pass down the left to put Watkins away for his second. A third assist to help supply Barkley’s fifth goal on night. Credited with sixth goal although took huge deflection off Fabinho. No doubt about his second - and Villa's seventh- with cool finish when one-on-one with Adrian. AFP

Ollie Watkins – 9.5: A goal after just three minutes thanks to Adrian’s howler and Grealish’s calm pass. A sensational second after 22 minutes, picking up another great ball from Grealish, cutting inside Gomez and sliding a cracking finish into top corner. Incredibly, the former Brentford man headed home a Trezeguet cross to complete a first-half perfect hat-trick. Should have had a fourth when clean through with 20 minutes left but was denied by Adrian’s boot. Hit bar in last 10 minutes. Not bad for your first Premier League goals. Reuters

Subs: Ahmed El Mohamady - (On for Cash 80’) N/A. EPA

Marvelous Nakamba - (On for Douglas 80’) N/A

Bertrand Traore – (On for Terezeguet 87’) N/A. ALmost made it eight but was stopped by Milner tackle. Getty

LIVERPOOL RATINGS: Adrian - 4: In due to Alisson’s injury, but had catastrophic start when, instead of clearing it long, he gifted possession to Grealish who squared for Watkins to slot home. Another distribution error handed another chance to Villa midway through second half that they failed to capitalise on. Made a couple of decent saves and was given no chance with some wicked deflections on Villa shots but his confidence looked shot by the end. EPA

Trent Alexander-Arnold - 4: Like the rest of Liverpool’s defence, struggled to deal with Villa – and Grealish in particular – and their attacks down his right flank. Villa’s fifth, through Barkley, came via deflection of Alexander-Arnold’s leg. Badly caught out for Villa’s seventh. EPA

Joe Gomez - 3: Woeful game. Allowed Watkins to cut inside and get his shot away for second goal. Lucky not be punished by Villa after being caught in possession by Grealish just before the break. Positioning all over the place, confidence non-existent and was substituted on the hour. AP

Virgil van Dijk - 4: A game to forget for the big Dutchman. He deflected McGinn’s strike into the net, was then booked for foul on Barkley and the resulting free-kick led to Villa’s fourth goal. Even Vin Dijk’s immense presence couldn’t hold the team together in a truly atrocious Liverpool defensive show. PA

Andrew Robertson - 6: Saw early chance deflected wide after being set-up by Wijnaldum. All of Liverpool’s best attacking work came down his left flank. Forced good stop from Martinez just before half-time. AFP

Naby Keita - 5: Little influence on the game and, after a disastrous Liverpool first half, was hooked at the break. In the Guinean’s defence, there were others that performed far worse than him in that opening 45 minutes. EPA

Fabinho - 5: Huge deflection off the Brazlian from a Grealish shot made the score 6-2. Anonymous as Liverpool completely lost the midfield battle. PA

Georginio Wijnaldum - 5: Brilliant diagonal ball into the box to give Robertson chance after 10 minutes but little other big moments from the Dutchman in a disastrous Liverpool performance. Reuters

Dioga Jota – 6: Nearly caught out Martinez with lovely dink from outside the box just before the half hour mark, Caused Villa problems down the left with Robertson in first half. EPA

Mohamed Salah - 7: Hardly figured until he blasted the ball into the top corner in ruthless fashion to makes the score 2-1. Another quality finish made it 5-2 but the Egyptian looked shell-shocked as the chaos unfolded around him. AFP

Firmino - 6: Denied twice by Martinez early on – one blocked at close range, one near-post drive parried away. Provided assist for Salah’s second. AFP

SUBS: Takumi Minamino – (On for Keita 45’) 4: Klopp turned to the Japanese midfielder at half-time but he contributed next to nothing to Liverpool’s cause. Reuters

Curtis Jones – (On for Gomez 61’) 5: Hard time for the youngster to come on with his experienced teammates well off their games. Reuters

James Milner – (On for Firmino 68’) 6: Should have been brought on at half-time to try bring a semblance of sanity to Liverpool’s shambolic organisation. Timely sliding challenge to stop Traore making it eight. Reuters

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Liverpool’s back four are required, without the ball, to maintain a very high line, close to the halfway line.

With the ball, when they regain possession within 18 metres of their own goal, they look for the most positive pass, with an emphasis on speed, and a rapid transition.

Their expertise in both areas made them the most brilliant counter-attacking team in 2019-20 while keeping the tightest defence in the Premier League, well ahead of Manchester City, whose collective spending on defenders in the last three seasons has eclipsed everybody else’s.

“We have to take risks,” said Klopp after the heaviest defeat of his five years in English football. “But we have to protect the risks. We didn’t. Pretty much everyone made massive mistakes around the goals. They [Villa] were quicker of mind.”

Villa’s was a studied destruction, a combination of aggressive pressing and readiness to exploit the space behind Klopp’s high line. They chose a good day.

Sadio Mane was absent, which deprived Liverpool of the striker who best defends from the front. Goalkeeper Alisson was injured: Adrian seldom resembles a like-for-like deputy.

A theory from Germany, where they first noted the higher ratio of goals from obvious defensive lapses in post-Covid football, is that the lack of a crowd, rather than eliminating distraction, actually hinders a defender’s concentration, the silence a stimulus for moments of doziness.

A plausible theory across the elite level is that a shorter pre-season, because of the rescheduled calendar, has left inadequate time for defenders to practice the detailed drills a back line need to ensure the positional discipline that ‘risk’ strategies, as Klopp calls them, function.

It is also possible that the pursuit of a higher and higher defensive line, a fashionable tactic over the last decade, may have reached the end of its usefulness, and that, like sky-high fees for defenders, and extraordinarily high scorelines, it is due a reality check.

Updated: October 6, 2020 09:11 AM

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