Whether it is through quirk or coincidence, Liverpool’s previously ultra reliable defence has conceded 15 goals in eight Premier League games since becoming champions.
That includes four against Manchester City when the players still had their Formby Golf Club title-winning party in their system, two inexplicable gifts presented to Arsenal, three at home to Chelsea on the night Jordan Henderson lifted the trophy, and another three in last weekend’s Premier League opener against a Leeds United side with a tendency to attack with seven men.
Should he seek excuses or explanations, Jurgen Klopp will have no difficulty in offering extenuating circumstances, many of those goals a product of a momentary lapse in concentration more than structural damage. Mistakes by Virgil van Dijk and Alisson Becker are anomalies rather than a habit.
Nevertheless, given last year’s championship was built on the foundation of solid defence - especially a run between 7 December and 15 February when they conceded once in 11 league games - there is enough to refocus minds before what could conceivably be another goal fest at Stamford Bridge on Sunday.
Klopp and his analysts will also be studious enough to notice a trend where opponents are perceiving a vulnerability in his back line.
Of Leeds’ attacks, 85.1 per cent targeted Liverpool’s wide areas. The heat map was especially radioactive on the home side’s right, with just under 50 per cent of the visitors’ forward moves in that zone. The easy conclusion is Liverpool’s full-backs are deemed susceptible, but it is not so simple.
Trent Alexander-Arnold and Andy Robertson’s advances naturally leave space beyond, which is rarely an issue when Gini Wijnaldum, James Milner or Henderson are there to temporarily fill the ‘false full-back’ position. Klopp’s decision to leave out Fabinho in preference for a more attacking midfielder, in last weekend’s case Naby Keita, generally means only two of Liverpool’s three midfielders are naturally inclined to drop back when either full-back pushes on. Leeds’ willingness to encourage more players forward than is usual at Anfield exposed that.
This has been the conundrum for Klopp for a while as he works out how or if to evolve a winning formula amid the fans’ enduring clamour for a more ‘productive’ central midfielder. Every time he introduces one of a more adventurous profile, be it Keita, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain or potentially Curtis Jones, he needs to trust them to replicate the generally unnoticed and unheralded tactical shrewdness of the established middle three.
Should he be inclined to change, the most obvious first move is for Klopp to return to his tried-and-trusted trio of Fabinho, Henderson and Wijnaldum at Stamford Bridge, but Joel Matip’s return to fitness will also give the coach a welcome dilemma in the coming weeks as he looks for the defensive numbers to return to normality.
It is generally overlooked how Matip was established alongside Van Dijk prior to injury last season, part of the Champions League-winning defence and flawless start to the campaign. The quietly spoken centre-back is not someone likely to bang on the manager’s door demanding inclusion, but with the side currently conceding at just under two goals a game since the title win, a polite enquiry as to when he will be reintroduced would not be without merit.
That, of course, would be harsh on Joe Gomez who, while striving to return to his best, was integral to the mid-season excellence which yielded so many clean sheets in the title charge from December onwards.
Statistically, the performances of Matip and Gomez are remarkably similar. As is always the case with Opta stats, there should be a degree of caution as the levels of every centre-back playing alongside Van Dijk tend to rise.
The only solid conclusion when assessing those fighting to be Van Dijk’s partner is the manager would have no qualms about seeing either as his first choice. The figures are off the scale in their excellence.
Liverpool concede an average of 0.6 goals a game with Matip and Van Dijk together and 0.7 with Gomez and Van Dijk. Liverpool’s win rate with Van Dijk and Gomez (76.9 per cent) is slightly higher than with Matip (76.7 per cent), but the points-per-game average is identical at 2.5 per cent.
Where Matip currently has the edge over the youngster is aerial duels, headed clearances and, perhaps slightly surprising, passing accuracy. Gomez’s speed means he makes more recoveries, which is likely to give him the edge when Klopp wants to play a high defensive line.
Will the recent defensive issues, which included similarly daft lapses in the pre-season games, prompt Klopp to make a change at Chelsea?
Given Frank Lampard has his own problems at the back and in goal, it is doubtful the Liverpool manager will be too perturbed at this stage as he seeks the right balance. The logical conclusion is that the recent trend is a consequence of specific events and idiosyncratic opponents rather than cause for broader concern. Lest we forget, Liverpool won five of the eight games referenced above.
That said, one suspects the next narrow 1-0 Liverpool victory during which Alisson returns to spectator duties will be Klopp’s most satisfying three points since the title celebrations.