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Manchester United expose Liverpool’s urgent need to strengthen at centre-back

Melissa Reddy
·3-min read
 (POOL/AFP via Getty Images)
(POOL/AFP via Getty Images)

The wait on Sunday evening was 18 minutes, and having struck out in their four previous fixtures, a Liverpool strike had finally disrupted the back of the net.

Mohamed Salah’s composed dinked finish after a perfect throughball from Roberto Firmino had ended the drought and elevated hopes that the league champions had shaken off a slump that saw them devolve into awfully poor imitators in attack.

There had been much noise that Liverpool’s problem isn’t in the rearguard, where Jurgen Klopp has been robbed of his senior centre-backs through injury, but in their offensive approach.

This FA Cup defeat to Manchester United provided more evidence to bin that line of thinking.

Liverpool flickered into life through spells in the fourth-round clash, with Salah the chief menace. They showed greater chance creation, intent and direction than in recent games when in possession.

Rhys Williams’ error cost LiverpoolPOOL/AFP via Getty Images
Rhys Williams’ error cost LiverpoolPOOL/AFP via Getty Images

But Salah’s second goal of the night was preceded by successful efforts from Mason Greenwood and Marcus Rashford before Bruno Fernandes’ brilliant free-kick settled the tie.

While the match was in the balance for large stanzas and the away team could have clinched it, Liverpool struggled to be compact, put pressure on the ball or contain United’s constant threat on the counter.

They always looked value to get one more.

"There was a lot of good things and some mistakes around the goals," Klopp admitted. "If you want to win here you have to be absolutely top and we were not.

"For the first goal we had no protection, we wanted it too much. Things like this should not happen but they can happen. We had too many players in a receiving position.

“We had problems on the counter-attack, it was intense."

Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s men derived continual joy down the visitors’ right flank where Luke Shaw and Marcus Rashford worked in tandem to exploit the space between Trent Alexander-Arnold and Rhys Williams, as well as the latter’s inexperience.

That would be the area usually covered in midfield by the sidelined Jordan Henderson, but who if fit, would’ve been stationed alongside Fabinho in central defence.

The errors Liverpool made at Old Trafford - diving in, standing off and allowing opponents to turn and face their goal during transitions - were individual failures materialising from a system that is missing its steel.

The absence of Virgil van Dijk, Joe Gomez and Joel Matip is not a purely defensive issue - it affects the positioning and confidence of the fullbacks, changes the personnel in midfield and reduces the ability to get the ball to the forwards quicker.

Having to play a teenager in Williams against Rashford, who sparked him on repeat, with the youngster now receiving a flood of abuse for his performances is far from ideal.

Following the defeat at home to Burnley, Klopp had admitted signing a “centre-half would help, 100 per cent” this month to give Liverpool “a little bit more stability in specific moments.”

This encounter was filled with such examples and it is bewildering that the Merseysiders will not be rectifying this matter in the market when the title race is so volatile and their opportunities of winning silverware have now been further reduced.

Klopp refused to use the lack of a new defensive recruit as a reason for Liverpool’s steep dip because “it would be really an excuse and we don’t need that.”

It’s not. It’s a fact. Liverpool really need a good centre-back. For the sake of the system, for the sake of young players not being unfairly vilified when they’re asked to take on more than they’re primed for and for the sake of the season.

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