Liverpool face defensive problems ahead of trip to Brighton as Fabinho looks set to fill in at centre-back
Injuries to Matip, Lovren and Gomez leaves Klopp scratching around for Van Dijk's partner when Premier League leaders travel to south coast
A team conceding a mere 0.48 goals per league game cannot have a defensive crisis. Not when they are the most frugal side in England, possess the man described increasingly frequently as the world’s finest centre-back, and a goalkeeper and a left-back who may at least belong on the shortlist for the best in their respective positions.
So a different phrase is instead required. Liverpool have defensive difficulties, personnel problems. The issue is not one of quality, but of quantity. Virgil van Dijk, Alisson and Andrew Robertson, the aforementioned members of the elite, should be joined at Brighton & Hove Albion on Saturday by Trent Alexander-Arnold.
Yet if the hamstring injury Dejan Lovren sustained in the opening minutes of Monday’s FA Cup loss at Wolverhampton Wanderers precludes his inclusion, the league leaders will head south without three of their four centre-backs and a time when they will be scrutinised for any evidence of frailty.
Ragnar Klavan’s rather overlooked summer move to Cagliari could suddenly become an issue. The forgotten Estonian would be starting if he were still around.
Instead of a specialist, Liverpool may have to make do, navigating their way through a January that has brought successive defeats so far. Joel Matip could return against Crystal Palace next week and Joe Gomez in February.
Brighton can anticipate facing either Ki-Jana Hoever, the 16-year-old who showed precocious assurance in possession as he became the third youngest player in Liverpool’s history at Wolves on Monday, or Fabinho.
“I'm a versatile player,” the Brazilian told FourFourTwo in the summer. “I've played in several positions in my career and I believe that's a very important characteristic.” So it may prove. The arrival from Monaco has become the Brazil’s first-choice right-back. Jurgen Klopp has shown a reluctance to deploy him at the back. “He’s said he might use me in a few different positions but the plan is to play me in midfield,” Fabinho added then.
But he was an auxiliary centre-back at Molineux. It is a role he may have to reprise. Klopp has a fondness for reinvention and is no stranger to using midfielders in the rearguard.
Lucas Leiva’s appearances for the German largely came in the back four. The taller Fabinho is better qualified. Only Liverpool’s four specialist centre-backs win more headers on average per game for them.
And that aerial ability could be significant. Set-pieces form a key part of Brighton’s attacking armoury. Their centre-backs already have seven league goals between them this season. This is a game where Lovren’s height could have come in handy.
And yet the American Express Stadium feels a fitting venue. Liverpool went to Brighton last season with an ersatz back three of Gini Wijnaldum, Lovren and Emre Can. They won 5-1 with two midfielders in that trio.
They find their adaptability under examination, along with their powers of recovery. Having negotiated their first 20 league games without losing, they were beaten by Manchester City. A weakened team lost at Wolves.
They are bidding to become the first Liverpool team in 29 years to become champions. In the short term, however, they have unwanted distinctions to avert.
Liverpool have not suffered three straight defeats since January 2017; they have never lost back-to-back league games under Klopp. After a nine-point swing from City to them in December, much of it could be reversed with another setback.
And yet it is worth noting Liverpool still have not dropped a point against any of the bottom 15 sides. If Van Dijk has been a transformative figure, making Liverpool more consistent and more resilient, making their other defenders better, now his task may be to make a makeshift defender resemble a regular.
Updated: January 11, 2019 12:34 PM