Saturday’s narrow victory over Huddersfield was another triumph of defence for Liverpool, who kept pace with Premier League leaders Manchester City thanks to a sixth clean sheet in nine matches in the competition. Almost a quarter of the way through the season, the Reds’ goals conceded tally is a miserly three; they conceded that amount in their first league outing of 2017/18. Liverpool’s drastic defensive improvement has largely been put down to Virgil van Dijk, the Dutchman’s displays proving that it’s no coincidence that the Reds have been shipping far fewer goals since his January arrival. For most of this season’s matches, he has been ably partnered at centre-back by Joe Gomez, although with the England youngster moving to right-back in recent games, Dejan Lovren has been paired with van Dijk. The social media verdict among Liverpool’s fanbase is that Gomez is by far the superior player; with that in mind, we’ve conducted a tactical analysis comparing the England and Croatia defenders’ statistics across 10 key metrics so far this season. The table below gives a snapshot of some notable statistics for Premier League games, but we delve further into the numbers to make a more thorough comparison.
6 in 8 games with Gomez at CB, 2 in 3 games with Lovren at CB
Liverpool’s concession rate in all competitions is 0.75 per game with Gomez in a centre-back role, compared to 0.67 with Lovren in that position. The Croatian’s statistics are slightly more favourable and the two goals shipped with him on the field were both in the Carabao Cup defeat to Chelsea. He has helped the Reds to clean sheets against Manchester City and Huddersfield, with all of Liverpool’s three Premier League goals conceded occurring with Gomez at centre-back. The England youngster has three clean sheets to his name in that position and his domestic concession rate is just 0.5 per game, although that rises to 1.5 per game in the Champions League, with PSG and Napoli scoring as many goals against the Reds as their nine Premier League opponents combined.
Shots on target conceded
28 in 8 games with Gomez at CB, 10 in 3 games with Lovren at CB
Lovren slightly edges this statistic also, with Liverpool giving up 3.33 shots on target per game with him at centre-back compared to 3.5 with Gomez in the role. Indeed, the Reds faced only three shots on goal in two league games with the Croatian on the field, less than half of the seven that Chelsea achieved in their Carabao Cup win at Anfield (see graph above; yellow dots indicate goals). Of the 28 shots on target that teams managed against Liverpool with Gomez at centre-back, 10 came in the two Champions League matches (five per game), leaving him with a slightly better average of three shots per game in six Premier League outings alongside van Dijk. Gomez has faced most of Liverpool’s toughest opponents so far this season at centre-back, although Lovren helped to restrict Manchester City to only one effort on goal at Anfield two weeks ago.
75 in 8 games with Gomez at CB, 32 in 3 games with Lovren at CB
While Lovren has allowed fewer shots on target on average than Gomez, Liverpool have faced fewer shots on average with the Englishman at centre-back. Teams have managed an average of 9.37 shots per game with Gomez in the middle of defence and, with 23 of that 75 coming in Champions League games, his domestic ratio is 52 shots in six games, a match average of 8.67. With Lovren at centre-back, the Reds have allowed opponents an average of 10.67 shots per game. One of those came from Steve Mounie in the 81st minute at the John Smith’s Stadium on Saturday after an error from Lovren, who was reprieved when the Huddersfield striker blazed over their best chance of the game.
Gomez has 15 in 8 games at CB, Lovren has 11 in 3 games at CB
The greater physical presence of Lovren enables him to win this statistic comfortably. He has contested 3.67 aerial duels per game, compared to 1.87 with Gomez at centre-back. On Saturday, the Croatian won five aerial battles against Huddersfield, a third of the total that Gomez has managed in eight matches alongside van Dijk. Indeed, of the 15 aerial duels contested by the England youngster as a centre-back, just over half of those were in the 1-0 win over Brighton in August (see graph above), when he coped admirably with the challenging presence of Glenn Murray and latterly Pascal Gross up top.
Loss of possession
Gomez 5 times in 8 games at CB, Lovren 3 times in 3 games at CB
One of the biggest criticisms of Lovren during his time at Liverpool is his tendency for clumsiness and he has coughed up possession on average once per game so far this season, doing so twice in the defeat to Chelsea. Gomez has a considerably better average of 0.62 per game, proving that he is far more composed on the ball than his older defensive colleague. With Jurgen Klopp valuing composure in possession so highly, it’s little surprise that Gomez has been trusted in almost every game in recent weeks.
Gomez has 17 in 8 games at CB, Lovren has 13 in 3 games at CB
The art of tackling is a key skill for any centre-back to have and it is Lovren who has fared better in this regard. Despite playing less than half as many matches as Gomez, the Croatian’s tackling total is only slightly below his English colleague. Of Lovren’s 13 tackles, seven were made in the goalless draw against Manchester City (see graph above) on an afternoon when he helped to shackle the champions, raising his average to 4.33 per game. Four days previously, Gomez did not put in a single tackle on a Napoli player on a night when Liverpool gave their worst performance of the season so far. It was the only time recently where the 21-year-old looked shaky, though, and some would argue that his far lower tackling average of 2.12 per game indicates that Liverpool are less likely to require this commodity with Gomez on the field.
Gomez has 11 in 8 games at CB, Lovren has 0 in 3 games at CB
This one is no contest. Despite his tender years, Gomez is an astute reader of the play and averages 1.37 interceptions per game, showing excellent anticipation to snuff out opposition attacks. Indeed, he made three crucial interceptions in both the hard-fought win at Leicester and the 1-1 draw at Chelsea. Lovren, by contrast, has not managed any interceptions in his three matches this term. He might be the superior tackler, but Gomez is proving far more adept at asphyxiating opposition attacks in a more subtle way.
Gomez has 5 in 8 games at CB, Lovren has 1 in 3 games at CB
Lovren might make far more tackles than his younger colleague, but does that make him more likely to give free kicks away? Statistically, the answer is no. In his last three matches, Lovren has only conceded one foul, an average of 0.33 per game. Gomez has committed five fouls in his eight matches at centre-back (0.62 per game), although he finished five of those games without transgressing the rules – and that includes matches against Tottenham, PSG and Chelsea. Even when faced with world-class opponents, Gomez has shown that he can handle them without needing to resort to destructive tactics. For the record, neither player has been booked so far this season.
Gomez has 31 in 8 games at CB, Lovren has 17 in 3 games at CB
Lovren fares better for defensive clearances, managing 5.67 per game compared to 3.87 for Gomez. The Croatian’s average for this figure almost doubled on Saturday, having had three per game prior to the win over Huddersfield, during which he relieved pressure on his team on no fewer than 11 occasions (see graph above). Of the 31 clearances recorded by Gomez at centre-back this season, seven came in the defeat to Napoli, without which his average is 3.43 per game. While it’s worth noting that the clearance statistics include headers, where Lovren has an advantage, the more experienced defender is generally more adept at clearing the ball and easing pressure on his defensive colleagues.
Gomez has 7 in 8 games at CB, Lovren has 2 in 3 games at CB
Similar to the interception statistics, Gomez is more likely to put in a vital last-ditch block to snuff out opponents, averaging 0.87 per game compared to 0.67 for Lovren. This again attests to his superior pace and magnificent reading of the play, getting himself in the right place at the right time to thwart the opposition.
Those who believe that Lovren is unfairly maligned at Liverpool will feel vindicated that, out of the 10 metrics analysed above, the Croatian scores better than Gomez for six of them, including fewer goals conceded per game and fewer fouls per game. The England youngster still comes out on top, though, in key areas such as a better tendency to retain possession and a greater aptitude for interceptions. Also, he is by far the more versatile player; it’s impossible to visualise Lovren being trusted to fill in at right-back in the absence of Trent Alexander-Arnold. Perhaps we’ve been too hard on the Croatian centre-back given the statistics above, but I still feel for now that Gomez partnering van Dijk with Alexander-Arnold to the right is preferable to Gomez on the right with Lovren alongside the Dutchman.