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Could Schalke’s Benedikt Howedes prove an economical solution to Liverpool’s defensive woes?

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Benedikt Howedes

It has been apparent for some time that the Achilles’ Heel of Jurgen Klopp’s Liverpool has been their fragility in defence. Last season, the Reds shipped 42 goals in their 38 Premier League games, an improvement on the 50 goals they shipped in 2015/16.

However, with four goals in two matches conceded already this term, in all competitions (a 3-3 Premier League draw at Watford and a 2-1 Champions League qualifying win at Hoffenheim), and having developed what appears to be an alarming inability to defend set-pieces, it is clear that the Reds defence continues to be a hindrance to the Merseyside club’s title ambitions.

All four goals they have conceded so far have been avoidable, with individual errors culpable, an issue that must be addressed before it proves detrimental to another Liverpool season.

More worryingly for Liverpool fans, despite defence being the pressing issue in the current squad, it is a problem that Jurgen Klopp is still yet to address, and with just a fortnight left of the transfer window, time is quickly running out.

Trent Alexander-Arnold’s performance at Hoffenheim, in which he demonstrated his great ability to get forward and capped off his night with a fine free-kick, has provided some encouragement that Liverpool have some up and coming promise in the full-back areas at least.

However, at 18 years of age, he is still very much learning the defensive side of his game, having been caught noticeably out of position at Watford, and being at fault for Hoffenheim’s goal.

Klopp’s only other defensive recruit has been Hull City’s Scotland left-back Andrew Robertson, who is yet to feature with Alberto Moreno preferred in the position. Yet that still leaves the centre-back positions in urgent need of strengthening.

Under pressure to add to his defence in the waning days of the transfer window, Klopp could do worse than look to his homeland for a solution to the problem.

Reports from German newspaper Bild have suggested that Schalke’s German international centre-half, Benedikt Höwedes, is looking for a fresh challenge, and with more than enough knowledge of the Bundesliga, Klopp would do well to make an approach for the 29-year-old, who would be available for a cut-price €20 million in today’s market.

The source claims that clubs from England have already inquired about the player’s availability, and with such proven quality available at such a small price, it could be a huge opportunity missed for Liverpool if they didn’t make an approach, particularly given the player’s links to Jurgen Klopp.

He praised the former Dortmund coach when he took up the post at Liverpool back in 2015 in an interview with Bild.

A seasoned Bundesliga player with well over 200 appearances for Gelsenkirchen outfit Schalke, Höwedes has also won 44 caps for his country since 2011, including the 2014 World Cup final victory against Argentina in Rio de Janeiro. He also featured in the German U21 side that triumphed at the 2009 U21 European Championship, humbling England 4-0 in the final.

Now 29, he is very much in his prime as a defender with a wealth of experience and likely the best of his physical game still at his disposal. He has also featured in the full-back positions and as a sweeper in front of the defence, which could add some much needed versatility to Klopp’s rearguard at Anfield.

What the German may also provide to the back four is a leader figure which the club have lacked since losing the likes of Jamie Carragher, Sami Hyypia, Martin Skrtel and Daniel Agger in recent years, a figure which compatriot Jurgen Klopp could look to build a defence around.

The opportunity of a reunion with former Schalke teammate Joel Matip at Anfield, a player with whom Höwedes will now have an innate understanding, is also a beneficial aspect to be considered. Matip is still to fully convince the Anfield faithful since his arrival from the Veltins Arena, and the presence of Höwedes in the defence alongside him may just be the key to coaxing the best form from both players.

Höwedes is well-known for his aerial presence and being comfortable with the ball at his feet and playing out from the back, and may just be the cool head Liverpool need surrounding set-piece situations at present. He also offers more consistency in performances than the erratic duo of Ragnar Klavan and Dejan Lovren.

There would also be very little concern over Liverpool’s ability to attract the player, with the Reds on course to qualify for this season’s Champions League after an impressive victory in the away leg of their qualifying playoff round tie against Hoffenheim.

Höwedes would prove a comparatively cut-price solution to the defensive problem compared to the primary target they have been linked to over the summer, Southampton defender Virgil van Dijk.

Of course, a move for Höwedes would have no bearing on whether the club moves for the Dutchman also, but landing one or even both would signal Liverpool’s intent as title challengers, as well as adding some much needed depth to the side, with injuries proving the Reds’ undoing in last season’s title challenge; Lovren and Matip amongst the club’s defensive players to have spent extended periods on the sidelines.

For the player himself, Liverpool may well offer the next big career challenge that he is seeking, with the opportunity to play and learn under the tutelage of Jurgen Klopp, of whom he is a known admirer. It would certainly be a shrewd move for both parties, but only time will tell if the Reds opt to bring in the German.

Scott is a Port Vale fan who writes regularly for The Boot Room as a freelancer. He is a fan of several sports but most of his experience in journalism comes from football and volleyball. He has produced several works on major Championships for both the FIVB and CEV in the volleyball world out in Switzerland, and is currently studying for a BA Hons in Modern Languages at the University of Oxford.

Liverpool

Roberto Firmino: His performances will shape the end to Liverpool’s season

Martyn Cooke

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On Sunday afternoon at St Mary’s Stadium the returning Virgil Van Dijk took centre stage and assumed the role of pantomime villain for the day.

However, whilst much of the pre-game build up was centred on the former Southampton defender, who was making his first return to the club since signing for Liverpool in January, the post-match conversations were focused on the brilliance of the Dutchman’s attacking teammate.

Roberto Firmino is one of the most under-rated players in the Premier League and his performance last weekend reaffirmed that he is one of the most effective forward players in the top-flight of English football.

The Brazilian has rarely been the centre of attention since arriving at Anfield in the summer of 2015 for £29 million and the media have often overlooked his significant contributions on the pitch.

Roberto Firmino

At Liverpool he has been forced to be content playing in the shadow of Philippe Coutinho, prior to his move to Barcelona, and Mohamed Salah, who has been a revelation since joining the club in the summer.

But Firmino is now emerging as one of the most creative, innovative and exciting forwards in the Premier League and he is undoubtedly one of the most improved players of the season.

The 26-year-old is both a creator and a goal scorer, as Southampton discovered to their cost at the weekend, when he opened the scoring with a neat finish within the opening six minutes before providing the assist for Salah’s goal with an ingenious flick.

The goal was his 20th of the campaign, which was shortly followed by his 21st of the season against Porto in the Reds’ midweek Champions League fixture, and he is now only nine short of becoming the Premier League’s all-time highest Brazilian goal scorer.

Firmino is a unique mixture of technical brilliance, creativity, innovation and an intelligence that makes him unpredictable, difficult to mark and a constant threat, regardless of where he pops up on the pitch.

However, whilst his Brazilian flair may catch the eye it is his willingness to pressurise opponents and work hard off the ball that is genuinely impressive.

He is certainly a favourite of Jurgen Klopp, who admires his hard running, work rate and pressing that often sets the tone for the rest of the team.

The 26-year-old has still gone somewhat unnoticed this campaign despite his consistency and performances on the pitch and the fact that he has missed only one league game all season.

But that is set to change.

Firmino’s performances and form have proven that there is still a bright future at Anfield despite the departure of Coutinho in January.

Deployed as an unconventional number nine, the Brazilian is the centre of a dynamic attacking forward line that sees him flanked by Salah on one side and Sadio Mane on the other.

The trio possess the pace, intelligence and creativity to threaten any team in Europe, as demonstrated by the mid-week five-goal demolition of Porto in the Champions League, and central to their effectiveness is the link up play of Firmino.

Still only 26, the Brazilian is about to reach the peak of his prowess and his continued development under Klopp poses the exciting question of how much better the forward might become in the forthcoming two or three years.

He certainly possesses all of the characteristics to become a legend at the club, should he choose to remain at Anfield long term, and he now has the opportunity to step out of Coutinho’s shadow and enjoy the limelight for himself.

Liverpool supporters will be hoping that Firmino can maintain his current run of form over the coming months and his performances will shape the club’s season.

His creativity and knack for scoring goals will be an invaluable commodity as Klopp goes in search of a top four place and potential silverware.

Firmino my have been underrated in the past, but he is now taking centre stage as the focal point of Liverpool’s attack.

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Liverpool

Virgil Van Dijk plays pantomime villain but oozes class on his Southampton return

Martyn Cooke

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Virgil Van Dijk
Photo: Reuters

It is fair to say that Virgil Van Dijk was certainly not the most popular figure inside St Mary’s last Sunday afternoon.

The Dutch central defender made his first return to Southampton since joining Liverpool for £75 million in early January and he was subjected to a continuous chorus of boos, jeers and mixture of colourful language from the home supporters, who certainly did not hide the ill-feeling that they feel towards their former star.

However, the reaction from the crowd appeared to have little impact on the 26-year-old who, in actual fact, looked to be enjoying his role as the designated pantomime villain for the day.

He spent much of the afternoon with a smile across his face, although admittedly there was plenty to enjoy within the game for anyone connected with Liverpool.

Van Dijk produced his most dominant and imposing performance of the season against Southampton on Sunday and he was the model of composure and control at the heart of a defence that has looked increasingly frail and fragile at times this campaign.

The Dutchman was near faultless and looked every inch the world’s most expensive defender.

That 26-year-old has experiencing something of a topsy-turvy start to his career at Anfield and his return to form on Sunday will have come as a relief for player, manager and club.

The defender scored on his debut in the Merseyside derby but was then part of the team that lost consecutive games against Swansea City and West Bromwich Albion.

He was then the centre of attention last week when he conceded a somewhat controversial last-minute penalty against Tottenham Hotspur.

However, he was in cruise control on Sunday against a Southampton team that struggled to make any clear-cut goal scoring opportunities.

Van Dijk was unaffected by a hostile St Mary’s crowd who certainly showed no signs of forgiving either the Dutchman or Liverpool for the controversy that surrounded his on-off transfer sage for almost half a year.

The ill-feeling stemmed from the summer when Southampton reported Liverpool to the Premier League for making an alleged illegal approach for their star defender.

Liverpool issued a public apology and ‘withdrew’ their interest in the player only for Van Dijk to subsequently hand in a transfer request, which the Saints refused.

The 26-year-old did eventually get his move to Anfield, although he had to wait until January, and the £75 million fee sparked plenty of discussion and debate.

However, now five games into his Liverpool career, Sunday’s performance would suggest that Van Dijk has now settled into life at his new club and it will be intriguing to see what impact he has on the team over the remainder of the season.

Under the management of Jurgen Klopp, Liverpool are undoubtedly entertaining to watch.

The team attack with pace, energy and dynamism and the forward trident of Sadio Mane, Roberto Firmino and Mohamed Salah have proven to be devastatingly effective so far this campaign.

However, much of the progress that has been made in recent years has been undermined somewhat by the defensive fragility in the side that always leaves the team likely to concede goals.

Whether the arrival of Van Dijk will correct all of Liverpool’s defensive frailties is yet to be seen. He is, after all, just one new addition to a defensive unit that still has obvious weaknesses.

However, his performance on Sunday is a sign that he will have a positive impact on the team and may be part of a wider solution.

Ironically, the boos, jeers and colourful language that was directed towards Van Dijk by Southampton supporters were being thrown towards a different figure by the end of the contest – that of their beleaguered manager Mauricio Pellegrino.

Van Dijk may have been the pantomime villain on Sunday in the eyes of the home supporters, but for Liverpool supporters he will be the hero if he can help the club to secure silverware by the end of the campaign.

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Champions League

Porto 0-5 Liverpool: Three talking points from Estádio do Dragão

Rob Meech brings us three talking points from Estádio do Dragão, as Jurgen Klopp’s Liverpool dismantled Champions League opponents Porto.

Rob Meech

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Photo: Reuters

Sadio Mane plundered a hat-trick as Liverpool produced a five-star performance to thrash Porto and virtually seal their place in the quarter-finals of the Champions League.

Mane opened the scoring on 25 minutes before adding two more in the second half which, coupled with goals from Mohamed Salah and Roberto Firmino, made it a hideously one-sided affair at the Estádio do Dragão.

Porto offered precious little resistance during the 90 minutes and were completely outclassed by a Liverpool side bursting with confidence.

The return leg at Anfield in three weeks’ time will be nothing more than a formality to confirm the Reds’ place in the last eight.

Here are three talking points, as Jurgen Klopp’s men sounded a warning to the European elite…

Mane emerges from the shadows of Salah and Firmino

Liverpool’s ‘Fab Four’ has been a member short since Philippe Coutinho’s big-money switch to Barcelona in January.

But there has been no sign that the Reds’ form is suffering as a result. If anything, they look stronger by the game.

By his own high standards, Mane has had a relatively quiet campaign thus far and been overshadowed somewhat by the exploits of Salah and Firmino, both of whom were also on the scoresheet against Porto.

But the Senegalese forward returned to his dazzling best on the European stage to help Liverpool take total control of this last 16 tie.

Although he had a helping hand from the Porto keeper for his first goal, which really should have been stopped, Mane took his next two with great precision to round off a sensational evening for the visitors.

Klopp will be delighted that the former Southampton man proved to be so influential in arguably their most important game of the season.

Free-scoring Liverpool will take some stopping

It is not just Liverpool’s performances in the Champions League that have drawn widespread praise, but the amount of goals they have scored in the process.

No club have netted more than the Reds, with the five they bagged in their first knockout fixture since 2009 leapfrogging them above French giants Paris Saint-Germain.

It is now 28 goals in total for Klopp’s free-scoring charges, whose attacking weaponry proved too hot to handle for their Portuguese opponents.

As they showed against Sevilla in the group stage, Liverpool’s defensive frailties can sometimes undermine them.

And when, as expected, they line-up in the quarter-finals, they are likely to face a side with much more to offer in attack than Porto did.

However, new signing Virgil van Dijk, who made his Champions League debut for the Reds, should bring stability and leadership to the back line.

On this evidence, they look like viable contenders for the main prize.

Klopp’s reign is delivering the goods

When Klopp joined Liverpool in the autumn of 2015, many Liverpool supporters believed he would bring them immediate success.

The gregarious German is still yet to win silverware at Anfield, but there is no denying the club are taking significant strides forward under his management this season.

Some of the money they received from Barcelona for Coutinho has already been reinvested into the squad and more high-profile arrivals are likely to follow in future transfer windows.

Liverpool remain prone to suffering off-days against lesser opposition, perhaps more so than any of their main domestic rivals, but they possess the armoury to blow away teams of the highest quality.

Even Manchester City, the runaway Premier League leaders, recently succumbed to the Reds’ attacking might.

As always, the proof will come at the end of the season.

But under Klopp, Liverpool are playing an attractive brand of football that is illuminating Europe.

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