When Liverpool sent the best part of £50million 186 miles down the country to Southampton in the summer, the idea wasn’t to be two points and one place behind the Saints in mid-April.
The whys are wherefores of just why that is the case have been done to death, of course, but as the Reds face up to Newcastle on Monday night without the injured Adam Lallana and with Rickie Lambert in his reserved spot on the bench, there is at least some renewed hope for the third of that relocated trio.
He’s had some competition, but for many Dejan Lovren is the symbol of Liverpool’s wasted summer of excess.
Just like they did under Gerard Houllier in 2002 (El-Hadji Diouf, Salif Diao, Bruno Cheyrou) and Rafael Benitez in 2009 (Alberto Aquilani, Sotirios Kyrgiakos), the Reds have failed to build on a runners-up spot in the previous season by making questionable purchases, of which the £20m spent on Lovren looks to be the one with the most exclamation marks.
Touted as the man who’d plug the gaps which led to the concession of 50 league goals in 2013/14 (more than Crystal Palace, just three less than Hull and so costly in the title challenge), the Croatian has instead been cumbersome, almost comedicly so at times as he’s seemingly been beamed into Premier League football from another planet and not from a respectable eighth-place finish at St. Mary’s.
Was it all his fault though?
Liverpool’s problems ahead of him only seemed to magnify his limitations, which then all came to a head in the disastrous 3-0 defeat at Manchester United in mid-December. Brad Jones was behind him, too, and that only added to the sense of dizziness.
Liverpool v Newcastle - 10 Vital Statistics
Lovren was immediately dropped and started none of the next nine league games, only coming into the side as a substitute for the injured Steven Gerrard in the 3-2 win over Tottenham. A blow to Mamadou Sakho meant that he started the next three league matches – all wins including one at Southampton – but he’s now missed the last three.
You can throw the missed penalty in the Europa League shootout defeat to Besiktas into the mix to make this a pretty unhappy time for the centre-back, but a Red redemption might just be on the horizon.
Martin Skrtel serves the last of a three-match ban tonight, whilst another injury to Sakho has ruled the Frenchman out for the next three or four weeks. Emre Can returns, Kolo Toure is still very much Kolo Toure, but regardless of whether Brendan Rodgers names a three or a four-man defence for the forthcoming matches, Lovren simply has to play. There should be no getting away from that, and nor should there be.
Because if the Croatian plays like he did in last week’s gritty FA Cup quarter-final replay win at Blackburn Rovers, then neither he or Liverpool are going to have a problem.
Crucially protected by the defensive screen that is Lucas Leiva – a protection that Lovren was not afforded at the start of the season when the declining Gerrard was still pressed into service in front of the back four – he was commanding and authoritative at the back. So a £20m defender should be against a Championship club, of course, but we all need to start somewhere.
And this week could well be a kick-start for Lovren’s Liverpool career, with the meeting with a Newcastle side whose minds are on a beach somewhere followed by a trip to Wembley to take on Aston Villa – the reward for that solid display at Ewood Park.
An in-form Christian Benteke will provide him with possibly the biggest test of his Liverpool career under the national stadium’s arch, but if he can come through it and lead his side back to Wembley then we might well look back upon this week as a pivotal one for the centre-back.
Like plenty of Liverpool’s other summer signings, Lovren is not a bad player. Jamie Carragher was effusive in his praise for him in the summer, before such comment left pundits open to ridicule.
Will he ever win back the majority of hearts and minds? That remains to be seen, but as he enters a make-or-break period of his club’s season, you get the feeling that it is a crucial one for Lovren’s career as well.
Read more from Mark Jones