Briefly, I thought I'd revisit a graphic from almost exactly a year ago.
At this point last season, Liverpool had used 22 different starting defenses through 40 matches. No back-line had started more than five matches together. Six weeks into his reign, in the wake of Hodgson's havoc, Dalglish was experimenting with every possible defensive combination, hands tied by injuries and a lack of fullbacks, including notable three-at-the-back wins over Chelsea and Stoke.
This season has been a bit different. Through 34 matches, Liverpool has used just 14 defensive combinations. The Johnson-Skrtel-Agger-Enrique quartet is clearly first choice, having started 15 of 34 matches. No other group has started more than three. Of the nine defenses to start just one match, six came in the cups, where the squad is almost always rotated to give second-choice players a run out and/or to rest the first-choice players. Comparatively, Johnson-Skrtel-Agger-Enrique has started just one cup match, the second leg semifinal against Manchester City, arguably the most important cup match of the season to date. I expect that foursome will make its second cup appearance in Sunday's Carling Cup final.
Through last season's 40 matches, Liverpool conceded 39 goals, an average of 0.975 per game. This season, through 34 matches over the same time frame, the side's conceded 31, an average of 0.912 per game. Liverpool actually kept more clean sheets through this point last season – 17 compared to 12 – but seven of those 17 came in the Europa League. Plus, six more matches played, etc.
While Liverpool haven't kept as many clean sheets as expected or hoped for, the back-line has been the side's strongest feature this season. Consistency plays a large role in that; it's no coincidence that despite Benitez's well-known fondness for rotation, he changed his back four (especially the central pairing) as little as possible. Liverpool have been relatively lucky with injuries (knocking feverishly on wood) this season, Skrtel and Agger are having career years, and Enrique has turned out to be one of Liverpool's best recent signings. Dalglish and Clarke's first task when steadying the ship was to sort out the defense, and on the whole, they've been successful. Through 25 league games, Liverpool have conceded just 23 goals, fewer than the 26 conceded in 2010-11 or the 31 conceded in 2009-10.
Now, if only it were so easy to sort out Liverpool's attack.