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Not so long ago, Dejan Lovren was viewed as something of a figure of fun at Liverpool. Along with Loris Karius and Simon Mignolet, depending on who was in favour at the time, the Croatian was deemed to be the embodiment of the Reds’ weakness as a team. They had quality in attack, but at the back Lovren was considered to be a problem.
How times change. Lovren picked up his form in dramatic fashion in the second half of the 2017/18 season, impressing as Liverpool made a run all the way to the final of the Champions League. Now, the 28-year-old is carrying that form into the World Cup, playing a key role for Croatia in Russia this summer.
While Luka Modrić grabbed the headlines with his performance in the 3-0 win over Argentina on Thursday night, Lovren was impressive as Croatia shut out the likes of Lionel Messi, Sergio Agüero and Gonzalo Higuaín. It was a result that marked out Croatia as challengers at the World Cup this summer, and Lovren has been an integral part of what they are looking to achieve in Russia.
In the air, Lovren offers a great deal of presence. He has won 4.5 aerial challenges per 90 minutes at this World Cup, in games against Nigeria and Argentina. He has yet to lose the ball once over the course of the two games, making 0.5 interceptions and 0.5 tackles per 90 minutes. That suggests that Lovren’s positioning is preventing him from having to make last-ditch actions. This is the sign of a shrewd centre-back.
Lovren has acted as something of a quarter-back for Croatia as well at this World Cup, averaging seven long balls per 90 minutes. Of course, it isn’t advisable that Croatia, with their strength through the centre of the pitch, skip their midfield area too often, but Lovren gives them the sort of variety that makes Croatia unpredictable for opposition sides.
That midfield unit of Modrić, Ivan Rakitić and Marcelo Brozović doesn’t just give Croatia a degree of control in the centre of the pitch, they provide protection for the back four. Not so much in terms of interceptions and tackles, but in the way Barcelona’s midfield unit used to protect their defence – by establishing a solid possessional platform in front of them.
Football is a fickle business. At Southampton, Lovren was viewed as one of the best central defenders in the Premier League. It’s why Liverpool paid £20 million for him in the first place. Four years ago, that was quite the outlay for a defender. Very quickly, though, the Croatian suffered a decline and eventually became something of a scapegoat for those looking to assign blame at Anfield.
The arrival of Virgil Van Dijk at Liverpool in the January transfer window was a watershed moment in Lovren’s career at the club, though. The Dutchman has been a calming influence across the back four since signing from Southampton, but his influence on Lovren has been greatest of all. The two have forged a strong partnership in a very short space of time. Lovren has looked a completely different player, at least a more confident, assured one.
But what is most impressive about Lovren’s early form at this World Cup is that he is playing with such authority without Van Dijk alongside him. Instead, he has Domagoj Vida as a partner. This suggests that his upturn in form over the second half of the season has stuck, that his improvement won’t be temporary and that he has learned from past mistakes.
Jürgen Klopp has long stood up for his centre-back, pointing out his physical attributes earlier in the season, when criticism of the Croatian was at its peak. “I said to Dejan: ‘If somebody told me, come on, you have the chance, create a centre-half. We found a way to do it, genetically, bam, bam, bam.’ That's him, strong, quick, both feet, can head like crazy, jumps through the roof. He's all you need,” said Klopp in typical fashion.
“Yes, a few things you can improve – his concentration for example. But these are human beings. Other centre-halves make mistakes.” Now, Lovren has added that concentration to his game. It’s been quite some time since he made one of the mistakes Klopp talks about. It doesn’t appear that one is coming at this World Cup either.
Croatia came into this tournament with the time-honoured ‘dark horses’ tag attached, but now they might be considered one of the frontrunners following their two group performances to date. This is a golden generation of talent for the country and Lovren deserves a mention as a part of that group.