The absence of Trent Alexander-Arnold, given the lack of an obvious replacement, has been a major concern for Liverpool in recent weeks. With Nathaniel Clyne on loan at Bournemouth, Jürgen Klopp has been forced to field both Jordan Henderson and James Milner in the position.
Some have pointed to this lack of depth in a key position as one of the reasons for Liverpool’s dip in form. The most damaging absence, though, has been at centre back, where Joe Gomez has been out for the best part of two months with a fractured leg.
An imminent return does not seem likely: the 21-year-old is due to have an operation and no timescale has been set on his recovery. It is a big blow for Liverpool as Gomez established himself as a key player prior to his injury.
The difference in Liverpool’s defensive performances before and after Gomez’s injury is certainly noticeable. In the 14 Premier League games the England international started, just five goals were conceded, at a rate of 0.35 per game. In the ten games since, nine goals have been shipped (0.9 per game).
That does not seem coincidental. The disruption at right back will not have helped matters, of course, but neither of the central defenders who have stepped in for Gomez have looked as assured.
Dejan Lovren came into the side first and struggled. Then it was the turn of Joël Matip, whose deficiencies were clear to see during Monday night’s 1-1 draw at West Ham, a game Liverpool might have lost had the hosts been more clinical.
Virgil van Dijk has rightly been lauded throughout the season, but his performances, in the early stages of the season, were matched by those of Gomez. They formed an impressive, near impermeable partnership, one that Liverpool have been unable to replicate since it was disrupted.
The structure of the team, though, remains solid. Aside from an anomalous 4-3 win against Crystal Palace last month, Liverpool are not exactly leaking a huge number of goals.
The issue is that the narrow victories that came so often earlier in the season are turning into draws. Clean sheets have been scarce – only one in the last six Premier League games, compared with 12 in the previous 19 – and goals are not flowing at the other end of the pitch.
Gomez’s injury came at an unfortunate time and might prove more damaging than many expected. For a defensive unit so finely tuned, growing in confidence with each passing week, even the slightest disruption can have a major impact.
Liverpool’s success this season has been based primarily on the efficacy of their defence, and so losing Gomez has perhaps caused more of a problem than if they were to lose an attacking player.
It is clear from the results, which have taken a slight dip largely because of the defensive lapses that have started to creep in. The draws against West Ham and Leicester were games Liverpool would probably have won 1-0 earlier in the season with their settled back four.
Now, though, teams are creating better chances and putting them away more often. The number of shots Liverpool face per game has not changed – an average of 8.19 – but, significantly, the quality of those shots has.
With Gomez in the side, Liverpool’s xG conceded per game was 0.81. Since his injury, it is up at 0.96. Klopp’s side look more vulnerable from set pieces, too. Before Gomez’s absence, they had let in just one goal from a corner or free kick. Now it is up at four conceded, and they often looked in disarray when defending set pieces against West Ham.
There is little Liverpool can do now but hope van Dijk and Matip form another strong partnership between now and the end of the season. Gomez’s injury is not a terminal blow – Liverpool remain three points clear at the top, for now – but it could be pointed to as a turning point should Manchester City go on to clinch the title.
“It's a blow for the boy and for us – because prior to the injury he was in such fantastic shape,” Klopp said after the news that Gomez would undergo an operation.
“He is too valuable to take any risk with, both for our present and future, so we get this procedure done and he comes back when he's ready.”
When he does return, Gomez will be welcomed back with open arms.