smarterthinking

Who can solve Liverpool's central defender shortage?

First Virgil Van Dijk went down with an ACL tear after a messy challenge by Jordan Pickford. Then Joe Gomez ripped a tendon in his knee during England training. And now just one dedicated central defender – the excellent but rather injury-prone Joel Matip – remains in Liverpool's 25-man Champions League senior squad. By the way, they also have to play in the Premier League and the FA Cup on a pandemic-intensified schedule. So how will they manage? Are things really as bad as they seem on Merseyside?

Perhaps not. Nat Phillips has had a star turn as Van Dijk's stand-in that would have come as no surprise to our smarterscout users. His performances last season for Stuttgart in the 2. Bundesliga helped to get the German club promoted back to the top flight, and his style at RCB was incidentally pretty close to Matip's. Here's a comparison of their stats at a Premier League standard, with Sepp van den Berg, another central defender on Liverpool's Premier League roster, thrown in as well:

Phillips didn't carry the ball forward as much as Matip last season, but he was equally aggressive in his defending and often linked up the play for Stuttgart, despite his lower ball retention – a common issue for young players. Phillips should be on a steep development curve now, and he was already starting from quite a high level.

Yet between them, Matip and Phillips have played a grand total of fewer than 200' as a first-team LCB in the past five seasons. So that brings us to Van den Berg.

Our stats above are from Van den Berg's latest exploits in the Eredivisie, where he showed excellent link-up play, ball retention, and tackling ability but still had room to improve his overall defending and the effectiveness of his attacking. But come on, during the 2018-19 season he was only 16! Since then, he's been putting in the minutes with Liverpool's reserve team. But could he play in the Premier League in a pinch? Could Rhys Williams, who has played in this season's Champions League already at RCB?

That phrase "in a pinch" could apply to some other Liverpool players, too. Fabinho has pitched in admirably at RCB in Van Dijk's absence, and he did play one match at LCB during Liverpool's 2018-19 Champions League campaign:

We'd be foolish to doubt Fabinho's ability to play virtually any position, and given the roster situation he may be forced into service as a Champions League LCB. So the question is more about who will back up Matip, Phillips, and/or Van den Berg in the Premier League and FA Cup.

To be frank, the options are pretty scarce within the rest of the squad. Thiago Alcantara and Jordan Henderson have only played a handful of minutes at CB in their careers, and both are right-footed like Fabinho. That's not a dealbreaker, but all three have generally tended more to the right side of the pitch, even at DM. Moreover, Jurgen Klopp seems to prefer Thiago in a more advanced role as a CM. Andrew Robertson and Kostas Tsimikas have each had a game or two at LCB earlier in their careers, but both are such attack-minded fullbacks that it's hard to imagine them patrolling the back line.

Undoubtedly, Henderson would play LCB while being chased by lions and wearing a kit made entirely of antelope steaks, if that's what Klopp asked him to do. But is there a better solution?

One option might be to play three at the back with two fullbacks overlapping on the left. Even in that scenario, though, you'd want a seasoned and vocal CCB to anchor the group. So Liverpool may just find themselves looking for a bit of experience in the free agent market. And there are some interesting names in search of a club.

First up is Andre Almeida Pinto, last seen on a one-year contract with Al-Fateh in Saudi Arabia after leaving Sporting Lisbon in the summer of 2019. He never set the world on fire at a Premier League standard, but his most recent minutes at LCB in the Primeira Liga were credible. He's also 1.96m tall and outstanding in the air on dead balls:

Next is Ashley Williams, who once plied his trade on the other side of the Mersey at Everton. He can play anywhere at the back, but his ball retention – measured below at a Premier League standard – isn't what it used to be, especially at LCB:

So that brings us to Jozo Simunovic. The 26-year-old Croatian left Celtic this summer after his contract was not renewed, and he mostly played RCB during his five-year tenure there. But he did get quite a few games at LCB along the way. If we cast our eye across several seasons of sparse data, he looks... actually very good. Just check out his overall defending and ball retention ratings:

Simunovic is only about average in duels by a Premier League standard, but that may be good enough for now, especially given his style of play. Below is a comparison of his minutes at LCB across all competitions last season. In every one of them, he offered a lot of dribbling, link-up passing, ball recoveries, and disrupting opposition moves – much like Matip in the chart above:

Now, we have no idea what kind of personality Simunovic would bring to the Liverpool changing room, but we can see that he's an aggressive player who could tick a lot of the tactical boxes for Klopp's style. Simunovic has also had a spate of knee problems, though, so there's no guarantee that he wouldn't join the list of walked wounded. The same goes for Sebastian Langkamp, who played most recently for Werder Bremen. He has the right sort of personality for Liverpool, but he's had a string of joint and muscle injuries.

We can probably rule out some others, too. Ezequiel Garay, the former Valencia stalwart, is also available, but he's hardly ever played on the left and saw his numbers drop off a cliff last season. Cedric Yambere played quite a bit of LCB for Anzhi back in 2016-17, but he's poor in the air. Then again, if Liverpool sign anyone, they'll have to compromise on something – or take a chance.

That chance might well be Leo Lacroix. The one-time Swiss international is still just 28 years old, but he didn't get a single game for Saint-Etienne after returning from a fruitful loan at Hamburg in 2018-19. The German club missed the promotion playoffs by one point after conceding the second-fewest goals in the 2. Bundesliga. Lacroix played mainly RCB, but he was colossal:

Lacroix has played spottily at LCB, too, but the key here is his skill in duels. His ability in the air and on the ground won't change (at least not much) depending on which side he plays.

In an interview last month, Lacroix said he was training with a coach from the Swiss third tier and eager to get back in the game. Could he be the answer, if only just for now? Our guess is that Liverpool will go for someone sturdy like Williams, if they sign anyone at all. But if Klopp could turn Lacroix into a success story, it would be another wondrous chapter in his growing legend.

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