Liverpool looked a title contender from the very start of the season, but one major flaw threatened to bring them down before they could mount a serious challenge to the Premier League crown.
The Reds conceded goals in bunches. At first, it didn’t cause a problem; two late goals in a 4-3 win over Arsenal on Opening Day, a goal past the hour mark in a 2-1 win over Chelsea, blowing two leads to Crystal Palace before putting them away late. But that trend wasn’t sustainable. Eventually, the defense would cost them points, and it began to.
Dejan Lovren lost Harry Kane, and lost two points against Spurs. The epic loss to Bournemouth featured a defensive comedy of errors that led to a historic collapse after holding a 3-1 lead with 20 minutes to go. They went up 1-0 to West Ham, only to conceded a pair, requiring a comeback to earn a point.
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After the Reds went down 2-1 to West Ham, Jurgen Klopp brought in Ragnar Klavan as a halftime substitute for Lovren.
The Estonian defender joined Liverpool this summer from FC Augsburg for $6 million, with Klopp using his intimate knowledge of the Bundesliga to pluck a value buy from a mid-table German side. Klavan rode the bench for much of October and November, as Lovren, Joel Matip, and occasionally Lucas stumbled their way around the defensive half.
Before Klavan entered against West Ham, Liverpool had three clean sheets in 14-1/2 matches. Since, they’ve conceded a single goal in 405 minutes. With opponents like Middlesbrough, Everton, and Stoke City, that streak wasn’t all that impressive.
Then Klavan and Liverpool shut out Manchester City and the Premier League took notice.
In that match, Pep Guardiola‘s bunch held 57% possession, out-passing Liverpool 461-306. But they were feeble in the attacking third, mustering just three successful passes in the Liverpool penalty area, with Klavan making seven clearances, completing three of four tackles, and man-marking Sergio Aguero on several occasions, holding the Argentinian without a touch in the penalty area.
Evaluating a single defender over a small sample size is difficult, and an uptick in form by Lovren has partially contributed, but it’s obvious that Klavan’s inclusion has made an enormous difference. With Matip out injured but expected to return shortly, it will be difficult for the Cameroonian to find his way back into a defensive line performing at a title-winning level.