Despite keeping a rare clean sheet at St Mary’s, Liverpool’s win on Saturday showed just why similar shutouts might prove elusive over the last 10 games of the season and why that may not make any difference to their title ambitions.
Consider the following facts: Liverpool’s win at Southampton saw them reach their highest ever points total after 28 games of a Premier League season. Liverpool are the highest scorers in the league with 73 goals, four more that Manchester City, although the Blues have played two games less, but strikingly 21 more than title rivals Chelsea and Arsenal (it’s worth noting that the top scorers have been champions in six of the last seven seasons). On the other hand, Liverpool have the worst defensive record of the top four sides and have only managed three clean sheets away from home all season.
Clearly Liverpool’s ability going forward has been enough to render any apparent defensive looseness largely irrelevant up to this point. After all, they climbed into second spot with Saturday’s win – their seventh win in their last nine games. And there’s little evidence from the season to date to suggest that things will change. In fact, having been carried by the goal scoring prowess of Suarez and Sturridge, the goals are starting to come from other departments of late, if anything strengthening their title credentials.
But against the Saints, the reason why Liverpool have conceded more than their rivals was plain for all to see – and it’s not simply down to their back four. Liverpool may have won 3-0, but in truth, the result was harsh on the hosts who often made the game very uncomfortable for the Reds. Southampton had plenty of the ball and plenty of chances – largely because Liverpool’s collective focus on nicking possession and committing as many players forward as quickly as possible leaves their back line almost completely exposed should an attack breakdown.
On Saturday, and indeed last week against Swansea, Liverpool time and again pushed two of their midfield three in support of almost every attack, which might also have involved one or other of their full backs. It goes a long way to explaining just how Liverpool create so many chances and score so many goals.
And at the same time, it explains the apparent generosity of their defence. With the focus so clearly on winning the ball cleanly and springing lightning quick attacks, Liverpool’s midfield are often taking an anticipatory step or two forward as soon as possession is won. But should the attack falter, they often find themselves on the wrong side of the opposition’s midfield runners. This results in defensive anchor Steven Gerrard being overrun and the central defence being overloaded not just by the opposition strikers and but untracked midfield players on the burst as well.
Ultimately, it’s a risky strategy that often gives Liverpool’s defenders some extremely difficult decisions to make, but it’s also the bold approach that has made Liverpool exciting and welcome title challengers this season.