In his first season at Liverpool, in fact in his first few games, Dejan Lovren developed a bit of a reputation and seemed quickly written off as not a Liverpool-worthy centre-back. With it looking increasingly likely that he will be partnering Skrtel in Brendan Rodgers’ first-choice CB pairing, this reputation has reared its head. Lovren wasn’t helped by the fact that he was injured as the team removed Steven Gerrard from a defensive midfield role and switched to a 3-4-3 last year, tightening their defence, adding more circumstantial weight to the belief that he wasn’t good enough. This reputation, though, is slightly unfair.
At the start of the season, it’s certainly true that Lovren wasn’t great. He had positional problems – not that he was all over the place, but there were just too many moments when he was slightly out of place. He also had a tendency to get too tight to opposition forwards, either getting turned easily or leaving space behind him. Despite some lax spots again (but then all defenders have these), his awareness of what was around him was usually good. A tendency for a nervous, sliced clearance, or a poor pass didn’t help the public’s perception of him, or his nerves.
There were times when Mignolet or Rodgers would give him a ‘calm down’ gesture, not because he was charging around all fired up in a Rooney or Barton mould, but because he looked on edge. He was noticeably calmer at some times than others, generally towards the end of the season, and games in which he would visibly settle down after 10-20 minutes. He also seemed calmer beside Sakho or Can in a partnership than he did beside Martin Skrtel for much of the season, which is curious.
Confidence has also been highlighted as an issue at his previous clubs, Lyon and Southampton. His Lyon experience could be said to have similarities to his Liverpool life, making high profile costly mistakes that got the fans on his back, struggling to break out of a run of poor form. At Southampton he settled in quickly and endeared himself to supportive fans, which reads like a stark opposite to his first season on Merseyside.
His particular type of nervousness may be more of a problem for a defender in a team like Liverpool, with their lofty ambitions, media scrutiny, and particularly vocal fans, than it was at Southampton. Hopefully, for everyone involved, the time he’s spent at Anfield so far will mean he is calmer this coming season. His recent statement in which he said that it was the team, and not just him, defending badly adds to the sense of a nervous player, painfully aware of the scrutiny placed on him. Many of his worst clearances, and aspects of his poor passing and decision making can be put down to this, and many of these did leave him eventually as the season went on.
Looking at games from the end of last season, and some pre-season friendlies, his positioning is more consistent, and his awareness remained good and even improved slightly. There was one particular moment in the game against Chelsea in May when Mourinho’s men were counter-attacking which captures what Liverpool’s scouts probably saw in him. Loic Remy was pulling in all directions just behind Lovren, like a good striker should, but Lovren knew where he was the entire time. It’s that kind of spatial awareness, and subtle positioning changes to match it, that marks a good central defender, even underneath all of the nerves.
It should also be remembered that Skrtel and Sakho also have their flaws, and it isn’t helpful in evaluating (or supporting) Lovren to gloss over their mistakes while highlighting his. With Liverpool as a club where they are at the moment, Lovren is of a good enough standard to play for them. There is an occasional laxness in his game that will prevent him from moving much further up the career ladder, but the same is true of Skrtel and, to a lesser extent, Sakho. The worry is that as the 2015/16 season gets underway, the pressurised scrutiny will return and bring the nerves with it.