Lovren the scapegoat but Liverpool's problems under Klopp are collective
Dejan Lovren is not to blame for Liverpool's defensive troubles. He should not be the scapegoat. The problems in the Anfield rearguard go far deeper than his repeated blunders.
The centre-back, 28, looked like a broken man at Wembley, hauled off after 31 minutes of the 4-1 defeat by Tottenham Hotspur. Lovren was at fault for the first two goals and afterwards a furious Jurgen Klopp said that Harry Kane's opening strike "would not have happened if I'd been on the pitch." On the face of it, the German manager might well do a better job than his defenders.
Lovren has been struggling with injuries, but they are hardly an excuse. Even when fully fit, he has been prone to slip-ups.
His insecurities at Anfield predate Klopp's arrival as manager. He has appeared uncertain and tentative from almost his first day on Merseyside. This despite the fact that he arrived with a glowing reputation as a solid defender -- at a hefty cost of £20 million from Southampton -- three years ago.
In his single season at St Mary's -- under, ironically, Mauricio Pochettino, Tottenham's current manager -- Lovren drew praise from pundits and the attention of a number of big clubs. His inability to reproduce that form at Anfield reflects badly on Brendan Rodgers, who bought him, and Klopp.
Pochettino's success is built on the foundations of a strong defence. His Southampton team, like the Tottenham side now, were well organized and difficult to break down. At Anfield, Lovren has worked under two managers who put more emphasis on attacking play. Their approach means that defenders can become overwhelmed when the opposition get behind the forward-looking players.
In his first season for Liverpool, Lovren had Steven Gerrard in front of him as the sitting midfielder. At that stage of his career, the 34-year-old had neither the mobility nor the inclination to spend the game protecting the defence. Lovren, who was used to Morgan Schneiderlin helping out at Southampton, struggled to adapt. It has not got much better. Liverpool's midfield still neglect their defensive duties with far less reason than Gerrard.
The problems were not only in front of Lovren. Simon Mignolet, the goalkeeper, does not inspire confidence in his teammates. He has been a source of dissatisfaction at Anfield ever since he was signed from Sunderland four years ago. Liverpool's hierarchy have talked about replacing the 29-year-old since the January 2014 window, yet he remains in possession of the goalkeeper's shirt.
None of Liverpool's back four could walk away from Wembley on Sunday feeling good about themselves. Alberto Moreno, the left-back, is first choice despite a litany of errors during his three years at the club. He was benched last season in favour of James Milner, a midfielder. Liverpool also bought Andy Robertson from Hull City in the summer, but Klopp seems curiously reluctant to play the Scot in place of Moreno.
Joel Matip, Lovren's partner in the centre, has been unconvincing. Simple balls through the middle -- like Jonjo Shelvey's pass to Joselu for Newcastle United's goal in the 1-1 draw at St James's Park -- bisect the centre-backs too easily. Neither player is strong on set pieces and Liverpool rarely win the second ball from a clearance.
On the right, Joe Gomez, Trent Alexander-Arnold and Nathaniel Clyne have varying amounts of potential and ability. None, however, are solid enough at this point in their career.
If the defence are expecting help from the midfield, they can think again. Dele Alli's goal just before half-time at Wembley, was a shocking example of the failure of the midfielders to cut out danger. Matip's clearance was poor but the ball dropped 20 yards out to the Tottenham man. There was no Liverpool player within yards. Emre Can is too immobile to provide adequate support and Jordan Henderson's industry often seems aimless. Milner, who was offered out on loan during the summer, looks lost when filling in.
Klopp has repeatedly blamed "individual mistakes" when his defenders commit catastrophic errors, but the pattern of blunders suggest a deeper malaise. It is hard to imagine that Pochettino, Antonio Conte, Rafa Benitez or Jose Mourinho would allow the mistakes to mount up. These more defensively minded coaches work relentlessly on the training ground to eradicate errors. All have produced better back lines, some with more unpromising raw materials than Lovren.
Liverpool have not improved defensively under Klopp. If anything, they have regressed. For a manager with such a high reputation as a coach, the inability to form a coherent defence raises questions about his strengths and weaknesses.
In recruitment terms, Liverpool have a blind spot when it comes to defenders. They pursued Virgil van Dijk in the summer but botched the deal.
Michael Edwards, the sporting director, is the man responsible for recruitment. Defenders should be easier and cheaper to find than attackers and goalscorers, but Liverpool have struggled to locate players they like. When Rodgers wanted to shore up his rearguard in January 2014, the message from the scouts was that "there are no defenders out there."
Klopp seems to be on the same page as Edwards. In the summer, he asked those who questioned the club's inability to bring in centre-backs to "look out there and tell me five who would make us stronger." Anyone who could, the German continued, would "win a prize." An award might also go to anyone who can name a handful of Premier League stoppers that make more mistakes than Liverpool's contingent.
Skill is not the most important quality for a defender: fortitude, mental toughness, willingness to learn, stamina and bravery all rank high on the list of virtues needed for the position. Jamie Carragher turned himself into one of the division's most influential defenders by sheer force of will and a commitment to studying the greats of the game. He also had good coaching. If skill were the only criteria, Carragher would not have become an Anfield great. Perhaps Liverpool's recruitment team are looking for the wrong things.
Lovren's failure on the pitch and the inability of his colleagues to defend adequately is a manifestation of a failure of coaching and recruitment at Anfield. Klopp can no longer complain about individuals. It is a collective failure and the manager needs to sort it out.
Tony Evans has been a sports journalist for more than 20 years. He writes for ESPN FC on the Premier League. Twitter: @tonyevans92a.