Liverpool and Arsenal's defensive issues not an easy fix
Liverpool's lack of attacking quality puts pressure on their defence; Arsenal's backline lets down their all-star attack. Both Brendan Rodgers and Arsene Wenger would paint themselves as devotees of attacking football, yet each manager requires defensive solutions to save his season.
A frail defence cost Liverpool last season's title, as they conceded 50 goals (two more than 11th placed Crystal Palace.) While Arsenal lost any chance to challenge at the top when being thrashed by the clubs that finished above them -- Man City, Liverpool and Chelsea -- at an aggregate of 18-7.
The evidence this season is that neither club has properly addressed their glaring problem. In fact, both have defended much worse than at this point last season. After 16 games of the 2013-14 campaign, Arsenal led the Premier League, with Liverpool two points behind them. Wenger's team had a positive difference of plus-16, while Rodgers' was at plus-21 but little has altered for the better.
They meet on Sunday with sixth-placed Arsenal's goal difference at plus-9 and 11th placed Liverpool's a disastrous minus-3. And in terms of goals conceded, the Gunners (19) and Reds (22) have both shipped only slightly less than 19th placed Hull City (23).
Arsenal, with five wins in six, may be in finer fettle than Liverpool, who have five defeats already (one more than they conceded in the whole of 2013-14) but both have suffered most from a severe lack of clean sheets. Arsenal have had five, while Liverpool have had just four, and that including two 0-0 draws. Liverpool have had one shut-out win (1-0 against Stoke) since August.
"Defence is a place where we want to be better," Rodgers said in July during preseason training. "It wasn't good enough to concede that many goals, considering the amount of possession we had and amount of goals we scored."
"I was concerned and shocked by the number of goals that we conceded," said Wenger the same month while looking ahead to the imminent season. "We were Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde defensively."
Deepest problems for both lie in recruitment. All of Rodgers' defensive additions have struggled, while Wenger left himself damagingly short by not buying a central defender after Thomas Vermaelen moved to Barcelona. The plight of Dejan Lovren at Liverpool might suggest why Wenger was so reluctant to go into the market to buy a central defender. The Croatian's 20 million-pound purchase from Southampton was the going rate for a player with a single decent Premier League season behind him. The results so far have been disastrous for club and player.
Lovren's panicked clearance straight to Juan Mata, who laid the ball on a plate to Robin van Persie for Manchester United's final goal in last Sunday's 3-0 win, was the act of a player whose radar is malfunctioning, and who has lost the poise with which he distinguished himself at Southampton.
At present, Liverpool's most reliable defender is Kolo Toure, a player who left Arsenal in 2009 and was a key man in the club's "Invincibles" season of 2003-04. For all of Toure's capacity to make mistakes, he has organisational qualities that Lovren is yet to show and that his centre-back partner Martin Skrtel has never provided in almost seven years at the club.
Alongside Toure, full-backs like Javier Manquillo and Alberto Moreno have shown some signs of promise, but have also been responsible for serious errors. The sight of Joe Allen being nutmegged by United's Antonio Valencia in providing the cross for Wayne Rooney's opener on Sunday owed plenty to Allen being marooned by Moreno's poor positioning.
Rodgers' willingness to experiment with different formations sets him apart from Wenger, who has only very rarely veered from a four-man defence during his tenure at Arsenal. It was three at the back, with Moreno as attacking wing-back, that led to Allen's isolation, though the same formation drew rather better results at Bournemouth on Wednesday as the Reds won their Capital One Cup match 3-1.
Manquillo and Moreno are widely reported to be the choice of Liverpool's transfer committee rather than Rodgers, while Lovren's purchase was the manager's personal project. Meanwhile, centre-back Mamadou Sakho has been largely an absentee since September, when he was omitted from the matchday squad for the Merseyside derby and left Anfield before the game kicked off. Veteran right-back Glen Johnson, meanwhile, has not shown the form likely to win him a new contract when his current deal expires in the summer.
Arsenal's most obvious problems have occurred when necessity has forced unsuccessful inventions. Laurent Koscielny's ongoing Achilles problem has exposed Calum Chambers, Nacho Monreal and Mathieu Debuchy in playing centrally. Chambers, still 19 after arriving for 16 million pounds this summer from Southampton, was red-carded at Stoke on Dec. 6, and is yet to live up to the promise shown in Arsenal's impressive 3-0 Community Shield win over Man City back in August.
"Chambers is among the best three defenders I have and if I can find another one I will do it, but to find another one of that quality will not be easy," said Wenger that afternoon in discussing transfer options. "Maybe a guy who can play in two or three different positions would be a better asset for us."
Such a "guy" never arrived, and Per Mertesacker has been Arsenal's only fit centre-back far too often. Against Newcastle on Saturday, Debuchy, an attacking right-back less than six feet tall, played well alongside the German, but is nothing like a long-term solution. Nor is left-back Monreal, who had been filling in from the other side before he picked up an injury himself.
As Louis van Gaal at Manchester United might perhaps agree, good central defenders are becoming as difficult to find as high-grade forwards. Chelsea continue to be hugely reliant on John Terry at 34; his partner Gary Cahill, the best available to England, is currently going through something of a confidence crisis himself. Such a dearth is why Chelsea were able to charge PSG 50 million pounds for the services of David Luiz this summer.
The high market value of the likes of Dortmund's Mats Hummels (at over 40 million euros) reflects a seller's market, as did a wrangle over the 15 million-pound rated Vermaelen between United and Barcelona. With Wenger publicly stating a reluctance to spend in January, and Rodgers unlikely to be allowed to spend after Liverpool's heavy summer outlay which saw the club spend 117 million pounds, both managers must locate defensive solutions from within.
John Brewin is a staff writer for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @JohnBrewinESPN.