Are defensive set-pieces coming back to haunt Liverpool?

After what was a dire beginning, and an equally emphatic comeback against West Brom, Jurgen Klopp lamented Liverpool’s frailty from dead ball situations,

“It feels as though 98% of the goals we concede are from set-pieces!”

Last year Rodgers’ Liverpool similarly succumbed to numerous, and significant goals from set-pieces. Aston Villa, West Ham, Middlesbrough, Manchester City and crucially Basel had all scored from set-pieces by the beginning of October. In response Brendan stated,

“We have conceded a large number of soft goals, there’s no argument about that, but I think it is just a lack of coaching time that is hurting us. We need to reinforce basic principles at defensive set pieces, but we know that already. We have to get better and we will be working on it”

In all, Rodgers failed to address the issue and refused to hire a new defensive coach, suggesting that Liverpool could in time become more resilient at the back without too much work. Although the problem declined somewhat, Liverpool would go on to concede a total of 14 goals from set-pieces in the season – the largest amount in over 5 years.



With the same problem apparently still occurring it may lead us to observe Klopp’s record at Dortmund for signs of improvement, and thankfully this makes for encouraging reading. In his second season in charge Klopp’s team suffered from a rather unusual 17 goals from set-pieces. However, in the next two years just 6 and 7 goals were conceded from such situations on the route to Dortmund winning back-to-back titles. In the 2012/13 season Dortmund conceded a rather high 13 goals, however this dropped to just 8 in the next campaign. Subsequently, although Klopp’s record appears rather erratic it does suggest general improvement across his time at the club, and certainly a better record than Liverpool have possessed across the last six years.

In the Premier League this season Liverpool have currently conceded 6 goals from set-pieces, placing them joint fourth highest with both Bournemouth and Leicester. This means in total set-pieces account for 31% of goals conceded, and 32% in all competitions (a number slightly less than Klopp’s suggested 98%). However, when comparing Liverpool to other Premier League teams, surprisingly, the club are only slightly higher than the average of 28%. Yet, although these statistics mitigate the supposed disaster of Liverpool’s defending from set-pieces they do not lessen the frustration or vulnerability that set-pieces recurrently seem to cause.

Generally defending from set-pieces amounts to a couple of key qualities: organisation, concentration, motivation and actual heading ability. With Mignolet at the helm of the defense organisation is perhaps the least choice word for Liverpool’s defensive establishment currently. Though, it must be noted that Klopp continues to defend the divisive Belgian whilst challenging the validity of the second goal itself,

“I said to Simon at half time, ‘if somebody says it is your fault, you can say it’s not true, it’s my fault.’ Because I want a keeper who helps. I want a keeper who comes out and tries everything, with 20 players around him, he tried but didn’t get the ball for the first goal”

“Their second goal was offside and a foul. Nobody talked about this. It was all about Klopp, Pulis and going to the fans.”

Certainly in terms of the latter factor – ability, Liverpool appear to have a more than capable enough back-line. Skrtel, Lovren, Sakho and Benteke all have the capability to dominate in the air. Particularity Benteke has the potential to be utilised as Chelsea used Dider Drogba in his later years, as a first line of defensive, primarily employed to go out and win the ‘first ball’. Simply enough however, Liverpool are plagued with a lack concentration and motivation, appearing to react sluggishly to offensive runners and failing to stick tight to the opposition; rarely do we see a defiant effort from a defender to clear the ball at the first time of asking.

These failings against West Brom were perhaps more galling when it was so patently obvious that the opposition would employ long-ball tactics. Pulis’ team are infamous for their physicality and drive, and although most would condemn the level of such techniques, it was truthfully enough to bully Liverpool’s feeble defense. Ultimately Klopp suggested that it was all rather inevitable, “they had six or seven players who are six feet four or taller, it’s really difficult for us to defend”. And yet, that fails to diminish the frustration of West Brom’s continual aerial dominance for which they scored two goals and one thankfully offside goal. Though West Brom were taller on average, was there not something Liverpool could do?

Liverpool’s own inability to score from set-pieces has become a real concern, especially considering James Milner’s woeful attempts and a litany of short corner techniques that fail to result to anything more than a loss of possession. Though I have written in time that this could be Klopp’s trump card it certainly would be a confidence boost to emulate some of West Brom’s aerial threat in the impending fixtures.

Undoubtedly, there is a lot to be said on the randomness of set-piece goals. Although Liverpool often appear to concede sloppy and slapdash efforts, set-pieces are far more difficult to coach or defend against then many imagine. Slow-motion TV replays clearly demonstrate split-second mistakes but they also sensationalise the inability of a defense when often the unpredictable flight of the ball or bounce off the turf contributes more to a goal than defensive mismanagement. Returning to Jurgen Klopp’s support of Mignolet, it is clear positivity and confidence will be of paramount importance to Liverpool’s ability to improve at defending from set-pieces,

“We tried it, we have to do better, we will work on it but nothing to say negative about Simon. First goal of course for me he tried and that’s important. It’s really difficult in England because there is no-one to protect goalkeepers. But I want him to come out because he can help. Sometimes you try something and it’s a fault but it’s not the biggest problem.”

Statistics currently suggest that set-pieces are not playing as large a factor in Liverpool’s defensive concerns than many would assume. However, the manner in which these goals occur consistently and exasperatingly will be of real alarm despite these figures. That five of the six set-piece goals scored against Liverpool since Klopp has taken over have been conceded at home also points to the established notion that Liverpool’s home ground must be made a fortress once more. An indication duly responded to by the German after insisting players applaud the home fans following their well-supported comeback against West Brom.

Regardless of the attempts to improve Anfield’s atmosphere largely indistinguishable goals conceded from set-pieces against Norwich through Russell Martin, Sadio Mane and Southampton, Scott Dann for Crystal Palace, and finally West Brom have lost Liverpool significant points which would have perhaps seen them rise to the top-four. Consequently, Klopp and his management team will be expected to banish the ghost of set-pieces past if Liverpool wish to maintain any sort of defensive confidence at Anfield, and if the club still aspires to be in the Champions league next season.

Ben Butler

Ben Butler

Music, Film and Sports blogger. Ardent Liverpool fan writing to convince myself, and the reader that this is our year.
Ben Butler