Jürgen Klopp has been heralded for his sterling work in guiding Liverpool back into the Champions League in his first full season in charge, despite obvious defensive frailties in his squad.
The 42 goals they conceded last season were the most by any of the top four, and it was even worse with 50 the season before. Leaky defences will not necessarily sink lofty ambitions, but if Klopp wants to do more than just challenge for the top four, the Reds must tighten up.
Scoring goals does not seem to be a problem, and the signing of Mohammed Salah from Roma will only add to Liverpool's attacking options. But all good coaches know that a miserly defence is essential to a title campaign, and this is an area Klopp has to address this summer.
Opposition teams scored 12 times from set pieces against Liverpool last season. That was the 10th worst in the league – mid-table form, while their top-six rivals all had a much better record.
For most observers there is one obvious solution – the signing of a top quality central defender. Such an addition could end their vulnerability at the back and would go a long way to ensuring Liverpool's quest for Premier League glory does not derail so easily as before.
Klopp did well last summer to land Joël Matip, but he needs a partner who is both commanding and comfortable on the ball. Reds fans of a certain age recall the glory days of the 1980s when Alan Hansen and Mark Lawrenson were the rock on which Liverpool’s European and domestic success was founded.
With Mamadou Sakho out of favour, and the jury out on Dejan Lovren’s suitability, Klopp identified Virgil van Dijk as the solution, but after a botched bid and complaints of ‘tapping up' from Southampton, Liverpool's attempts to sign him seemed to hit the buffers.
But for Liverpool legends Danny Murphy and Dietmar Hamann, the acquisition of Van Dijk would eradicate any lingering fears regarding Liverpool's defensive problems.
“Van Dijk would be a brilliant signing,” Murphy claimed. “If they can get him ahead of some of the big clubs it would be a superb bit of business. He's a good footballer as well, which always helps. Someone who has the capability of playing out from the back, relieving pressure.
“Defensively and especially on set plays, they struggled a bit at times last season and that's where Jurgen Klopp will be looking to improve. In football, there is always a balance between being an attacking side that scores goals and being tight at the back as well.”
Murphy's praise for the Saints centre-half is matched by former Reds team-mate Hamann. The German says the capture of Van Dijk would not only represent excellent business, but also send a message of intent to Liverpool's direct title rivals.
“It would be great,” Hamann added. “He's one of the best centre backs in the league. I would love to see him at the club because I think he will improve the squad no end.”
When Southampton complained to the Premier League about Liverpool's illegal approach to Van Dijk, the Reds said they would make no further attempts to sign the player. That has not stopped the speculation, however, and Hamann added: “I think the club handled the situation poorly, being reported to the Premier League. Whether that has an effect on his decision now, I don't know.”
However, the acquisition of a centre-half will not solve all defensive concerns. With James Milner occupying an unfamiliar role at left-back for much of last season, Liverpool can't afford to overlook that particular area of the pitch too.
Milner's seamless transition into his left-back berth was quite extraordinary, but the Reds cannot expect to solely rely on the former England international's relative defensive inexperience.
With a return to the Champions League beckoning and another run at the Premier League title anticipated, Murphy has stressed the importance of having a squad capable of consistently competing on all fronts.
“My understanding is that they are really trying to have a go next season,” said Murphy, who is still well connected at Anfield. “As a football club, if you are going to put your hand in your pocket and try, then that's the best you can do because you're competing with billionaires.
“I think the fans are on Klopp's side and I hope that they do well. I think they play good football and that's what you want to see. If they improve defensively then they will, of course, have a good chance.”
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