By 90Min
September 18, 2018

If you had told Dejan Lovren a year ago that over the next 12 months he would play in a Champions League final and a World Cup final, the Croatian defender probably wouldn't have believed you.

If you had told Dejan Lovren that he would do both of those things and still not be rated by a large number of Liverpool supporters... well, that's pretty unbelievable too.

But that's the reality for Lovren, who is defined, as defenders so often are, by his mistakes more than his triumphs. Even after a year in which he has played in the two biggest matches football has to offer, the perception is still that Liverpool and Croatia achieved these feats despite Lovren, not because of him.

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Liverpool's trip to Tottenham on Saturday provided a timely reminder that it is only 11 months since arguably the worst performance of Lovren's Anfield career. Given the run-around by the speed and skill of Spurs' attacking players, he was hauled off after 31 minutes of Liverpool's 4-1 defeat at Wembley last year.

This weekend, Liverpool returned to the national stadium with a defence different in every way from the one that played in that chastening defeat last year. The only survivor was Joe Gomez, now deployed at centre back alongside Virgil van Dijk rather than the right back role he struggled with previously.

Liverpool deservedly avenged last year's defeat, and not for the first time this season Gomez was among their best players. Except for two lapses of concentration at the start of the second half, he didn't put a foot wrong. Having never played at centre back in the Premier League until last month, he is now being tipped to keep his place after Lovren returns to fitness.

Not so fast though. Lovren has come a long way since his Wembley nightmare last October. He captained Liverpool when they ended Manchester City's unbeaten run in January, nullified City's attacking threat in the Champions League in April, and was exceptional against Real Madrid on that fateful May evening in Kiev.

So on the one hand you have a young player who deserves to be rewarded for his performances, and on the other you have a more experienced player in the best form of his life. Either way, Jurgen Klopp must make a ruthless decision.

Based on Klopp's track record at Liverpool, you would expect Gomez to keep his place. The German has always been a manager who rewards consistency, even at the expense of an injured player. Alberto Moreno hasn't had a sniff of first team action since November last year because Andy Robertson was so excellent in his absence.

Gomez looks like a different man this season, but it's important to remember that he is still the same player who was vulnerable at right back last year, and that naivety doesn't fade away in a single summer. Is he just more suited to a central role, or is it because he has Van Dijk alongside him?

In the case of Lovren, the media are in no doubt that his form last season was Van Dijk's doing. Any praise for the Croatian is inevitably prefixed with the phrase: "Since Van Dijk arrived..." Gomez escapes the same scrutiny because he has never played in the centre with anyone but Van Dijk.

It's a bizarre caveat anyway. Of course a defender will look better with a competent partner, that's what teammates are for. It's a reciprocal relationship. Gomez came to Van Dijk's aid with a crucial block against Leicester; Van Dijk repaid the favour after a rare Gomez error on Saturday.

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The perception that Liverpool's defensive woes last season persisted until Van Dijk arrived in January isn't even true. It was actually the Tottenham match which proved to be the turning point. Liverpool conceded just four goals in their next nine Premier League games after that, six of which Lovren started.

Lovren might still be a better defender than Gomez, and would be the safer option for Klopp right now. He is more proven, his big-game experience will be vital to a title challenge, and he has shown his mental strength by emerging stronger from previous criticism.

However, Klopp chooses players not just on individual ability, but on how well they fit into the team. Gomez seems much more comfortable with passing the ball out from the back, a key aspect of Klopp's football philosophy, and one with which Lovren struggles. Klopp may feel that he can more easily mould Gomez into the player he wants him to be.

Robbie Jay Barratt - AMA/GettyImages

One possible answer to "Lovren or Gomez?" is "Lovren and Gomez". With the fixtures coming thick and fast in multiple competitions, Liverpool will need to rotate their squad. Maintaining a consistent defensive pairing is important, but so is fitness. Gomez could continue to start in the Premier League while Lovren gets the nod in Europe.

That's a dangerous line to tread though. Klopp's indecisiveness over who to choose as his first-choice goalkeeper last season dragged on for way too long and didn't do either candidate any favours. Loris Karius' best run of the season came after Klopp had finally appointed him permanent first choice. Competition is healthy, but stability is the backbone of a successful side.

With Lovren set to be sidelined for another month yet, there is plenty of time to make a decision. If Gomez emerges unscathed from matches against Paris Saint-Germain, Chelsea and Manchester City in the coming weeks, it will be very hard to drop him. Even for a World Cup finalist.

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