Zoning out, not zonal marking is the real problem

By Richie Lunt

So once again Liverpool are undone by a team who set out to exploit them from set pieces. It was a foregone conclusion that Palace would score from one and that of course it would be Christian Benteke.

Frustrating isn’t it. It’s a narrative that has been present all season and yet despite having a quality manager and world class training staff, we still end up right back where we started.

Come to think of it, when was the last time Liverpool could ever rely on their goalkeeper and back four, oh of course it was when Rafa Benitez was the manager. And what type of marking system did he employ? Zonal. It is definitely worth pointing out that under Rafa, Liverpool in 2005-2006 and 2006-2007 were the team to concede the least goals from set pieces (6 in total in each season). The season after this they conceded 17 but in 2008-2009 and 2009-2010 conceded 10 and 12 respectively and finished with the fourth best defence at marking set pieces in the Premier League.

Those with short memories are once again flooding the airwaves with their disgust at Klopp’s decision to employ the same type of marking that the best defence in world football, Juventus, predominantly also believe is the correct way to defend. That’s right, if you have a problem with zonal marking you also have a problem with the bench mark for defence in world football (the attack isn’t bad either mind you).

A seemingly overlooked fact is that a tactic can be correct and the problem is the fact it has not been carried out correctly. When Klopp was on Monday Night Football after just beating Swansea, he pointed out even then that it was second balls, reactions and awareness that were his worry. These are things that for the most part you have to have yourself and while to a degree can be trained are mostly inherent or come with experience. Going back to Juventus again, what is remarkable about their defence is how calm it is. Regardless of how much space a player seems to have or how dire the situation seems to be, you will rarely see a player stray from their clearly fantastically drilled instructions. It is this cool demeanour and regimental conditioning added to the natural ability of the players in question that Liverpool sorely lack.

If we actually look at the issue in more detail we find that it is not defending the initial ball at all that is causing the problem. According to Kristian Walsh of the Liverpool Echo, the only goals conceded from the first phase of the set piece (i.e. with no Liverpool player getting contact on the ball) was by Richard Stearman of Wolverhampton Wanderers.

The problem for Liverpool this season has been a lack of intelligence and reactions when defending the second ball, it isn’t just from set pieces either.

So this leads us conveniently on to another hot topic for Liverpool fans. Is Simon Mignolet to blame? Well the answer would seem to be no if you look at the fact it’s second chance and poor defending that is hindering him, however, as is often the case, it is rarely that straight forward.

While our Belgian keeper is not directly to blame he is complicit in my opinion by his lack of action. If someone’s house is burning down and you stand by and watch, is that your fault? No, of course not but by doing nothing to prevent the situation, you’ve become part of the reason the crime was allowed to happen. Mignolet’s goalkeeping isn’t criminal, it’s fearful.

The perfect example of how he can and should make a difference was when we played West Brom. He was fantastic. He looked confident, he looked composed and he looked commanding and all this while making a world class save to boot. He wasn’t watching as the fire took hold, he was putting out the fire before it had a chance to start. If he performed like that every game (with or without the worldy) then I would have no criticism. Sadly though, I do.

What is the solution? Tactically you can work on defending all you like, if you don’t have the right players with the right skills and mentality then your defence will not consistently improve. Both Simon Mignolet and Dejan Lovren have now to me had their time as first choice players at Liverpool. Both have had some fantastic games but consistency is what matters and they have had more than enough time and the fact is neither has lived up to the fleeting promise.

If you add in the fact that Clyne is probably at best above average and also struggles for consistency (though I believe he should be given another season) and Milner is not a left back and is targeted constantly, it seems glaringly obvious that we need 3 defenders and a goalkeeper this summer.

Joel Matip I give complete exemption this season. Walking in to this calamity of a back four with a keeper seemingly scared of his own shadow is not a time to judge a player of his undoubted ability. He could be a very special defender in the not too distant future but at the moment he’s a victim of the uncertainty and calamity that emanates around Liverpool’s defence.

One more important point to make is about our unfortunately injured captain Jordan Henderson. I hope people can truly see how important he is to this team now. It seems everyone and his dog is aware of the passing stats he has put up and while this is to be commended of course, what I find much more of a loss and clearly irreplaceable is his ability to cover the back four. I believe personally I would rather see someone next to him with more positional sense to again sure up this shaky defence but take nothing away from the transformation that Jordan Henderson has had under Jurgen Klopp.

Back to the matter at hand and the question is, with what we have available now, can we give enough protection to Milner and Mignolet to not be exposed? Will Mignolet go back to the imperious form he showed against WBA? Can we simply just take a not from Louis Van Gaal’s Barcelona and just score the opponent in to submission as we did at the beginning of the season? Or will we once again rue the fact that our poor defence along with injuries has cost us all that a scintillating attack once promised?