Liverpool: A case for the defence and why 34 Is the magic number

Liverpool manager Jurgen Klopp.
PHOTO: Reuters

Honeymoon period concludes

The honeymoon period is well and truly over for Jurgen Klopp and his squad of underachieving players. Upon his arrival in October most Liverpool fans were pleased he'd have the rest of the campaign to transfer his tactics and techniques on to our team without too harsh a judgment. Set pieces and a goalkeeper that doesn't save shots have put paid to that notion.

After a promising start which saw wins away to Chelsea and Manchester City our form has been patchy at best, with the sublime and the ridiculous often appearing in the same game. The lack of goals scored has been compounded by a disturbing tendency to gift goals to the opposition.

Individual errors, low save percentages and a chronic problem with set pieces has derailed what could have been a promising season.

Since Klopp's arrival the team has conceded 22 goals in just 15 games which equates to 1.46 goals conceded per game (GCPG). This is slightly worse than the 1.25 GCPG in the eight games Brendan Rogers was in charge for, which was about par over the course of his tenure. Compared to other Liverpool managers Klopp actually comes out even worse, although it is very early days.

There are however extenuating circumstances, namely this isn't his squad and he's only been here three months, yet the defensive side of our game is probably more urgent to fix then our lack of available strikers.

After all, wisdom tells us to build from the back.

Similar defensive crisis

One aspect of this I find comforting (if that's the correct word) about Klopp's current defensive predicament is that Gerard Houllier suffered a similar defensive crisis upon his arrival at Anfield.

Given sole charge of the club in November 1998, he inherited an extremely fragile defence with the abysmal David James in goal and a back four that included Babb, Staunton, Bjornebye and Kvarme.

All these players would leave the club within the next 13 months. Houllier managed 26 league games in the remained of the 1998/99 season, conceding 35 goals which is only slightly better (1.34 GCPG) then Klopp's current rate.

Liverpool did however concede 23 goals over a 15 games period in that same season. It didn't take a genius to work out what was required to sort this team out and in came Westerveld, Hyypia, Henchoz and Hamann which instantly shored up the leaky defence.

It went from a porous 49 goals right down to 30 (the best in the division) and saw us finish the season comfortably in fourth position.

Unfortunately, this wasn't enough for Champions League qualification as the Premier League didn't gain four qualifying places until the 2001/02 season.

Nevertheless, Houllier had built a solid foundation on which the Treble season would be build on.

Magic number 34

So what is the most goals a team with Top Four aspirations should be looking to conceded? As few as possible obviously, but is there a defining number? Over the 23 Premier League seasons to date the Top Four teams have averaged 0.91 GCPG. That equates to 34.75 goals over a 38 games season (38 over a 42 game season).

Clearly, and I must stress this, it is not essential to finish in the Top 4 with fewer than 34 goals conceded.

In fact, of the 92 teams who finished 1st - 4th since 199/93, 55 per cent have conceded more goals than 34 in the campaign. The flip side is that 85 per cent of the teams who achieve the magic 34 goals conceded (or less) have finished in the Top Four. The majority of the other 15 per cent finished in fifth place. It is clear that a strong defence is a catalyst for success. If you don't concede, you don't lose.

As much fun as the 2013/14 season was an attack that scored 101 league goals was never sustainable. Building a team with a goalkeeper and back four that conceded 34 or less is a much more obtainable goal and one Klopp should be (and probably is) prioritizing.

Table of teams finishing outside the Top Four with 34 or less goals conceded.

Needless to say, defence is only one aspect of the game. Roy Hodgson did a magnificent job with Fulham in 2008/09 finishing seventh conceding only 34 goals.

While this was a springboard for a European final twelve month later it shows that neglecting the attack will only take you so far. For a team of Fulham's stature it was a great achievement.

The same with Arsenal in 1992/93 with their legendary back five, but with very little in attack.

Benitez alone and away on the defensive end

When it comes to Liverpool managers, Rafa Benitez had by far the best defensive record in the Premier League era conceding on average 30 goals per season.

It is of little surprise that Rafa qualified for the Champions League through league position in four out of six of his seasons with us. While he strived for a balanced side, the defence was always up to task.

The closest long term figures to Benitez are unsurprisingly from Houllier whose defensive, counter attacking style would on average concede seven more goals per season than Rafa.

Houllier did however finish in the Top Four in four of his five full seasons. Both are without doubt the most successful managers we've had in the Premier League era.

From Houllier's first full season until Benitez's departure, Liverpool finished Top Four in eight of their eleven seasons and saw their GCPG drop from their Premier League average of 0.99 GCPG (38 goals) to 0.85 GCPC (32 goals).

Is it coincidence that they've had by far the best defences too?

What will the future hold for the Reds?

While not every appointment or transfer works out for a whole host of reasons, I hold Klopp in as high regard as I did Benitez's when he was appointed back in 2004.

Both have won league titles, both had success in Europe even if Klopp fell at the final hurdle and both had created teams that were the envy of many in Europe.

I've no doubt that this summer's transfer window will be a busy one with defensive reinforcements surely coming in. I think I know for certain is that if the Goals Against column doesn't start dropping dramatically then it'll be a while longer before the Reds are hearing the Champions League Anthem ring around Anfield.