Talking Point: Is Liverpool's defence really the problem?

With the aid of Opta data, we take an in-depth look at Liverpool's scoring statistics in the Premier League.

Leicester City striker Shinji Okazaki (centre) shoots to score the opening goal of the English League Cup third round match between Leicester City and Liverpool. The team's defence has copped heavy criticism from fans, media and pundits.   -  AFP

It is still early days in the season, yet Liverpool needs to find a cure to prevent it from becoming the Premier League's Jekyll-and-Hyde team.

Scintillating to watch at times in attack but capable of simple mistakes at the back, Jurgen Klopp's side can delight and frustrate in equal measure. Last Saturday at Anfield was a case in point, as it dominated visitors Burnley in a game that somehow finished 1-1.

The disappointing result was sandwiched in between a 2-2 draw with Sevilla in the Champions League and a 2-0 loss at Leicester City in the EFL Cup, pushing the normally upbeat Klopp to finally snap.

"I'm sick of goals like this, to be honest. It's unbelievable," the German told Sky Sports after watching Leicester score twice from set-piece situations at the King Power Stadium. You're not alone, Jurgen. 

The defence has copped (or should that really be Kop-ped?) heavy criticism from fans, media and pundits. Now the manager has waded in on the topic. Some supporters have even turned on Klopp following his failure to strengthen an obvious area of weakness during the last transfer window.

However, while Liverpool's back four have all the solidity of a setting jelly, do they deserve to shoulder all of the blame for the recent malaise that has swept over Anfield?

SHOOT TO THRILL

Against Burnley at the weekend, Liverpool had 35 shots. THIRTY. FIVE. SHOTS.

It wasn't for a lack of trying that it only scored once past rookie goalkeeper Nicky Pope. Liverpool incessantly attacked, controlled possession for the vast majority of the match and poured bodies forward. 

However, sometimes more equals less. With a conversion rate of just 2.9 per cent, the home side had to settle for a point at home against a team it was expected to beat.

So, was it just a bad day at the office or the sign of a more serious problem that needs correcting?

Well, since August 2016, Liverpool has had the second most attempts at goal in the Premier League. Only Tottenham (774) have had more than their 737, which averages out at 17.1 a game. Of that overall total, 37.4 per cent hit the target — the best ratio of any of the top six from last season.

Blessed with top-end speed and drilled to pass at a high tempo when appropriate, Liverpool's forward line has no problem cutting through teams. What Klopp's men lack, though, is a ruthlessness in front of goal. That inability to take advantage of opportunities at one end of the field is exacerbated by its problems preventing the opponent scoring at the other.

Opposing teams know if it hangs in there, get a little lucky and remain within touching distance for as long as possible, it can capitalise at some stage. The Anfield crowd know this too, and that tension can be transferred onto the field.

Liverpool don't need to take more shots — they just need to make sure they take more care with the ones they get away.

SETTING THE TABLE

Last season, Liverpool excelled against its rivals.

When it came to the heavyweight battles, it managed to roll with the punches, delivered plenty of its own and eventually walked away with an unbeaten record that helped it clinch a top-four finish.

In 10 games against the other members of the Premier League's big six, it managed five wins and the same number of draws. It was an impressive record, but one that looked tough to repeat.

Sure enough, Liverpool has regressed in the early stages of the 2017-18 season. While it puts Arsenal to the sword, thrashing it 4-0 at Anfield on August 27, the boot was firmly on the other foot when it suffered a 5-0 hammering at the hands of Manchester City after the international break.

Taking into consideration all league fixtures since the start of August 2016, it has conceded 14 goals in 12 games against the top six (and four of those came recently when down to 10 men against Manchester City). Against the rest of the league, however, it has leaked 37 in 31.

Liverpool has a better conversation rate against the top six (13.4 per cent compared to 11.4 per cent) too, suggesting it can rise to the big occasion.

When it turns into a slug-fest, Klopp's playing style causes opposing side all sorts of problems. Where Liverpool must improve is against those who utilise the rope-a-dope tactic, sitting back and defending in the hope they can draw out a mistake. Substance over style, because results are what really matter in the long run.

DRAWING CONCLUSIONS

Dropping points at home is frustrating, no matter who the opposition. Dropping points when you have enough efforts at goal to win half-a-dozen games, let alone one, is infuriating.

Liverpool's failure to beat Sevilla and Burnley in back-to-back fixtures at Anfield is a bad habit it needs to kick — and quickly.

It only needs to take a look at its arch rivals down the road to see how minor setbacks can end up derailing a top-four push.

Last season, Manchester United finished in sixth place despite losing one fewer game than Liverpool. The problem for Jose Mourinho and his players? Too many draws. It won just eight of 19 at home in the league, not helped by a 7.7 per cent conversion rate in front of goal at Old Trafford.

United's underlying problem was up front, not at the back. Its tally of 26 home goals was two fewer than relegated Hull City.

Liverpool, for the record, scored 45 and conceded 18 at home in 2016-17. Defensive deficiencies can easily be masked when they occur in entertaining victories. Now it has to make sure this mini run of disappointing results doesn't become a season-long trend, because it may not have the Europa League to fall back on.

Like Bill Murray's lead character in the movie Groundhog Day, Liverpool will keep experiencing the same issues over and over again until it gets it right. That goes for what it does with the ball, as well as what happens when it's without it.

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