Dejan Lovren bore the brunt of most supporters’ criticism following Liverpool’s 2-1 defeat at Old Trafford last weekend. It wasn’t his finest performance but singling him out was a little harsh as the blame was collective and the Croatia international’s culpability in both United goals has been overstated.
Romelu Lukaku is a powerful striker so it’s asking a lot of any defender to win every single aerial duel against him. Yet based on the criticism he has received, that is what Lovren is expected to do. Some will argue that he shouldn’t have challenged at all as by doing so, he left space in behind for United’s runners. He could have backed off and held his position. That may be true but you very rarely see Liverpool’s centre-backs take that approach, so it’s reasonable to assume they are instructed by Jurgen Klopp to challenge for those long balls.
Lovren had enjoyed great success against Lukaku in previous encounters but was aided by Jordan Henderson, who would often occupy a position directly in front of the striker, making it difficult for Lukaku to do anything even if he was able to win the ball. Henderson was left out of the line-up on Saturday and his replacement, Emre Can, was stood around doing nothing on both goals. He was in the vicinity and should have been shielding Lukaku; instead, he was ball-watching from five or six yards away.
Others could have done better too. Trent Alexander-Arnold’s positioning wasn’t good on the first goal and Van Dijk’s could have been better on the second. Klopp alluded to all of this after the match but Lovren’s critics will not be assuaged.
The former Southampton man is an easy target but there is a reason for it. He has a track record of making costly mistakes and therefore has very little credit in the bank with the fans, particularly as he also has a habit of making bullish comments to the media in the build-up to big games that often leave him looking foolish. While many supporters would happily see him relegated behind Joel Matip and even Ragnar Klavan in the pecking order, Klopp is certainly not going to cast Lovren aside now given that he has stuck with him following far worse performances than the one at the weekend.
Nevertheless, with the Champions League quarterfinals on the horizon, Klopp needs to settle on who Van Dijk’s partner will be in the most difficult games.
Lovren has looked marginally more accomplished than Matip of late but his display at Old Trafford did him no favours. Not specifically because of the two goals conceded, but given other more glaring aberrations. When Juan Mata narrowly failed to make it 3-0 with a spectacular overhead kick, many wondered how he had so much space in the penalty area. The reason was that Liverpool had been holding a defensive line on the edge the box but Lovren had dropped several yards deeper than everybody else and played Mata onside.
In the second half, as Liverpool were trying to build pressure on United, Lovren twice lunged in unnecessarily on Marouane Fellaini. The first slide failed to bring the Belgium midfielder down but the second one did, giving United a cheap free-kick deep in Liverpool territory and allowing them to kill Liverpool’s momentum, waste valuable seconds and get themselves higher up the pitch.
An animated Klopp had to be spoken to by the referee and fourth official, with most assuming his ire had been directed at the referee. Yet it could just as easily have been with Lovren for his lack of discipline: had the defender been up against the speedy Marcus Rashford, you could understand him diving in to stop him in his tracks. Fellaini poses no such threat and was going nowhere. He was hoping to simply keep the ball in Liverpool’s final third and perhaps win a throw-in or lure Lovren into doing something rash. In truth, it didn’t take much luring.
Lovren wasn’t the only Liverpool player who failed to do himself justice or who made poor decisions, either due to frustration or simply the pressure of the fixture. Others were just as culpable, some even more so, but most fingers of blame are always going to be pointed at Lovren because of his reputation. Equally, mistakes by forward players further up the pitch rarely receive the same level of scrutiny.
You will struggle to find a Liverpool fan who does not think that Klopp should invest in another centre-back this summer. Few believe that Lovren is the answer and Matip has not fully convinced yet either. The Cameroon international’s reputation isn’t damaged to the extent of Lovren’s but he hasn’t built on the impressive start he made to his Anfield career. If he can’t dislodge Lovren from the side between now and the end of the season, what might that say about him?
As for Lovren, even if he plays very well over the next few weeks the feeling within the fans is always going to be that it’s only a matter of time before he suffers the usual meltdown. In fairness, there’s three-and-a-half years of evidence to support that view.
Dave Usher is one of ESPN’s Liverpool bloggers and the founder of LFC fanzine and website The Liverpool Way. Follow him on Twitter: @theliverpoolway.