Liverpool are out to prove that defence is the best form of attack this season. Opening the WSL new campaign with back-to-back wins is as good as it’s been since the 2017 Spring Series under Scott Rogers, where the Reds repeated the same feat and ended with a top-four finish.
This time around, it’s Matt Beard at the helm, and his insistence on defensive stability is demonstrative of Liverpool’s evolution this term.
Last year the Reds ended the campaign with a goal difference of negative 15 – that says as much about their lack of firepower as it does about their defensive shortcomings, but the 39 they did concede averages at over 1.6 goals per game.
“We have ambitions to break into the top five,” Beard said after triumphing 2-0 over Aston Villa on Sunday, to back up last week’s 1-0 Arsenal success. 180 minutes of football – which actually equates to 200 if you include lengthy stoppage-time periods and two clean sheets.
Clearly, tidying up a gaping backline was top of Beard’s grand plan as he attempts to transform Liverpool from a middling team into one that keeps pace at the top end.
Beard’s expectation was tapered in the sentence that followed at Prenton Park. “We need to keep our feet on the ground,” he added, after calling his side’s start “fantastic”. In fairness, it couldn’t have gone much better for Liverpool, who have blunted two of the divisions’ most devastating attacking units in successive shutouts.
The difference has been largely in personnel. Beard stuck with the same formation as was deployed for the majority of last season, a back three with marauding wing-backs, but the summer signings of Grace Fisk from West Ham and Jenna Clark from Glasgow City have changed the complexion of their resistance.
Gemma Bonner is the only central defender to retain her place, and she’s been equally impressive, but really the jewels in Beard’s defensive crown have been Fisk and in particular Clark.
The last meeting between Liverpool and Villa in late May ended 3-3 – this most recent bout, however, was far less frantic, controlled by the steadiness of Liverpool’s rearguard and Clark’s ability to supervise and chaperone Rachel Daly.
Only once, in the 16th minute of the game, did Villa forward Daly get between Bonner and Clark to glance a header at goal, but even then the pair did enough to unsettle the England international, who rarely misses the target from such an accommodating range.
Beyond the solid and stout protection of Rachael Laws’ goal, Clark and Fisk jointly had the confidence to step out of defence, using wingback pairing Taylor Hinds and Emma Koivisto to launch sustained waves of attack.
Both goals came from lightning-quick breaks, where the ball was swept from back to front with pace and efficiency, before being dispatched by summer recruits Marie Hobinger and latterly Natasha Flint.
The work was tireless and diligent, allowing Hinds and Koivisto to roam upfield and out wide, safe in the knowledge things were taken care of behind them.
“What we wanted to do with the recruitment was create competition for places,” Beard also commented on Sunday. “We wanted squad depth. You have to earn the right to play.”
And it’s that appetite to compete that is driving this Liverpool side’s early impetus.
Clark described her new home on Merseyside as a “family unit” at the weekend, which is usual player rhetoric, but she also spoke of the “special connections” this tight-knit group have away from the pitch.
Culture is key to success in the WSL because slip-ups are so costly in a 22-game season – the duration is short and unforgiving.
There are of course a contingent of campaigners, Chelsea manager Emma Hayes among them, that are beginning to champion an expansion of the league to include more teams, but that favours the more established clubs and while the WSL operates in its current form, Liverpool have a real chance of disturbing the hierarchy.
They are a team of limited means and experience, who in their second season of returning to WSL football are actually becoming more elusive, not less. Perhaps, with the benefit of hindsight, results over Arsenal and Villa won’t be viewed as upsets at all.
It’s taken the Liverpool institution a few years to acknowledge the merit and value of Beard’s side, but with the women’s team now training at elite facilities at Melwood Training Centre – giving them a rock-steady foundation – a clear togetherness, and a manager who ties it all together, the Reds might fancy themselves as more than this season’s surprise package.
It’s taken the Liverpool institution a few years to accommodate and facilitate the women’s arm of the club. But now with Beard’s team training at Melwood Training Centre, rather than previously at Tranmere’s Wirral campus, it gives them a rock-steady foundation.
Alongside a clear togetherness, and a manager who ties it all together, the Reds might fancy themselves as more than this season’s surprise package.
Watch Liverpool take on Everton at Anfield, live on Sky Sports Football, on Sunday from 4pm; kick off 4.30pm