Mark Lawrenson: How Liverpool rise is built on defence

Match of the Day 2 analysis

Former Liverpool defender Mark Lawrenson expands on his TV analysis of how the Reds' improvement at the back is behind their rise up the Premier League table after they beat Southampton on Sunday to continue their push for a top-four place.

People have spent a large part of this season waiting for Liverpool's new-look attack to click but it is their defence that has played a big part in the Reds' return to form.

The 3-4-2-1 formation that manager Brendan Rodgers has adopted since the end of last year suits their fast attacking players but has given them solidity at the back too.

Liverpool's starting XI vs Southampton

Liverpool have not become a defensive-minded team but that has given them a different way of winning games, compared to last season when their tactic was 'attack or bust' and they would concede goals but just look to outscore the opposition.

They showed it against Southampton on Sunday in a game where they were not free-flowing going forward - they only had one shot at goal in the first 70 minutes - and came under a lot of pressure.

They rode their luck a bit at St Mary's, especially with some of the decisions that went in their favour because Saints could have had at least one penalty.

But their 2-0 win was their sixth clean sheet in a 10-game unbeaten run in the Premier League, and it is clear Rodgers can rely on his defence to win him points now too.

Three at the back doing better than four

Sometimes in football you stumble on to something that is successful.

After paying £20m for centre-back Dejan Lovren in the summer, Liverpool clearly wanted and expected him to come in and be a ready-made rock.

That did not happen.

Rodgers was looking to play four at the back when he signed Lovren but it did not work - he would not have tried a three-man defence if it had.

Liverpool's average formation vs Southampton
Liverpool's average formation vs Southampton

He probably did not plan to play Emre Can at the back either, although he had played in that position before.

But he has been brilliant as part of that back three, and is able to play either side of Martin Skrtel - he has been on the right in the last few matches but operated on the left against Southampton.

The thing about Can is that he can use the ball and his passing ability from that position has made a big difference to the team.

Emre Can's touches vs Southampton
Emre Can's touches vs Southampton

Something else that has helped goalkeeper Simon Mignolet in particular is having a settled line-up at the back too.

It was the same during my career - when you play alongside people regularly in defence you start to appreciate what each of them can do.

Lovren came back in for Mamadou Sakho against Saints but that was their first change at the back for seven matches.

They were a bit shaky at the back at first, but got better and better as the game went on.

Ibe gives Reds a boost down the right

The real bonus has been the emergence of Jordon Ibe - not just in terms of what he offers going forward but defensively too.

He really understands what the wing-back role is all about and he has got such fantastic pace that, even if he does make a mistake, he has got a chance of recovering.

Jordon Ibe's touches vs Southampton
Jordon Ibe's touches vs Southampton

Slowly but surely, Rodgers is finding players he can rely on in every position and even better he has got competition for places too.

At left wing-back he has alternated between a winger Lazar Markovic and a left-back Alberto Moreno, who is so attacking that it really suits his game.

Rodgers has shoehorned his attack-minded and quick players into his team to try to recreate the pace he had going forward last season.

It has taken him a while but he has managed it and found a system that allows them all to fit.

Liverpool hitting form at the right time

Even without playing well on Sunday, Liverpool have beaten one of their major rivals for a top-four finish.

It was a huge win anyway, but with Manchester United losing and Tottenham also dropping points it was a very good week for the Reds.

Who will make it into the Champions League spots? Well I don't think Southampton can and I don't think Tottenham will.

The race for Europe

With Chelsea and Manchester City contesting the title, that leaves two places between three sides - Arsenal, Manchester United and Liverpool.

Three months ago, when they lost to Crystal Palace and dropped to 12th in the table it did not look like Liverpool would be in the mix but all of a sudden they have taken off.