“Attack wins you games, defence wins you titles.”
One of Sir Alex Ferguson ’s more famous quotes has certainly been proven true in the Premier League in recent seasons.
As Liverpool stormed to the Premier League title in 2019/20, finishing 18 points clear of second-placed Man City, Pep Guardiola’s side were left to curse the absence of star centre-back Aymeric Laporte after the Spaniard suffered a serious knee injury in August.
Limited to 15 Premier League appearances that season as a result, City already found themselves 13 points behind the Reds, having played two matches more, when the centre-back returned against Sheffield United that January with the damage already done and the title-race effectively already won.
Yet the shoe was on the other foot last season as Liverpool saw defensive injuries of their own decimate their own title defence.
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As Guardiola signed Ruben Dias for £61.2m to strengthen his centre-back options, with the Portuguese shining alongside a revitalised John Stones, the Reds lost Virgil van Dijk for the season after he infamously suffered an ACL injury against Everton in October just six games into the season.
Losing the talismanic Dutchman was bad enough but when Joe Gomez suffered a season-ending injury of his own the following month, the writing was on the wall for Jurgen Klopp.
Joel Matip then suffered the same fate come January as Liverpool were forced to field youngsters Nat Phillips and Rhys Williams, and bring in emergency signings in Ozan Kabak and Ben Davies, with the Reds essentially left to settle for just a top four finish as City stormed to title success.
The fact that Dias won both the FWA Footballer of the Year and Premier League Player of the Season awards only demonstrated further how decisive Man City and Liverpool’s defensive situations were in the previous two title-races.
Now heading into the 2021/22 season and it is Klopp who has responded, bolstering his options with the £36m signing of Ibrahima Konate to ensure his side won’t suffer a repeat of last year’s defensive crisis.
The German is of course no stranger to spending big to improve his defence, having parted with £75m to sign Van Dijk for the Reds in January 2018, while Guardiola spent £57m on Laporte the same month to bolster his own options.
Manchester United also strengthened their backline with the £34m signing of World Cup winner Raphael Varane from Real Madrid a definite statement of intent, with the Frenchman forming a £114m centre-back partnership with Red Devils captain Harry Maguire.
With Klopp, Guardiola and now Ole Gunnar Solskjaer taking such action to strengthen their defences, it is clear they all know the truth in Ferguson’s famous words.
United’s first-choice duo is clear as a result, while Laporte has managed to wrestle back a starting berth from Stones this season.
On the other hand, Gomez and Konate have been forced to wait patiently for opportunities with Matip and Van Dijk firmly established as the first-choice centre-back partnership, the latter arguably in worse form than the former.
Yet boasting the sturdiest defence isn’t always the be all and end all when it comes to lifting the title in May since Klopp took over as Liverpool manager in 2015.
Last season Ederson won the Golden Glove award with 19 clean sheets as City conceded a division-low total of 32 goals on their way to being crowned champions, but that has rarely been the case in recent seasons.
Liverpool conceded 33 goals in 2019/20 when winning the title, two fewer than second-placed City, but it was Ederson again who won the Golden Glove with 16 of Pep Guardiola’s side’s 17 clean sheets.
Yet in 2018/19, when the Reds missed out on the title by a solitary point to City, they conceded just 22 goals compared to the champions’ 23 with Alisson taking home the Golden Glove award as he kept 21 shut-outs - one more than compatriot Ederson.
In 2017/18 Manchester United finished runners-up to City, conceding one goal more than their 27, but it was David De Gea who won the Golden Glove as he kept 18 of United's 19 Premier League clean sheets.
Meanwhile in 2016/17, it was Chelsea who emerged as champions as Thibaut Courtois took home the Golden Glove with 16 clean sheets. Yet second-placed Tottenham Hotspur and third-placed Manchester United kept more clean sheets in total (17), with Spurs conceding the division low total of 26 goals.
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And in 2015/16, third-placed Tottenham and fifth-placed Manchester United conceded 35 goals, one less than top two Leicester City and Arsenal, with the Red Devils and the Gunners both keeping 18 clean sheets but Petr Cech taking home the Golden Glove after keeping 16 himself - one more than De Gea.
Therefore it’s clear the best defence won’t automatically guarantee any side the title, but you very much need to be at the top of the clean sheet charts if you want to stand a chance of being crowned champions.
With last season’s top three now all boasting big-money centre-back partnerships, it would be a surprise if Man City, Liverpool and Manchester United weren’t leading the pack when it comes to clean sheets next season.
And having only kept 12 shut-outs, the Reds know exactly what it is they have to improve if they want to stand a chance of reclaiming their title from Pep Guardiola’s men.
After all, it’s all very well having Mohamed Salah challenging for the Golden Boot at the other end of the field to win Liverpool matches, but it’ll very much be the contributions of Alisson, Van Dijk and Matip that can help decide if Klopp’s men finish the season boasting a second Premier League title.