Dejan Lovren hasn't always been popular at Liverpool but he's slowly winning the fans back
Having caused a stir over the summer by describing himself as "one of the best defenders in the world," Dejan Lovren doubled down on his claim last week in an entertaining interview with "Fifa & Chill" while also insisting that he makes far fewer mistakes than Sergio Ramos, the man regarded by many as the top centre-back in world football.
In fairness to Lovren, he's only repeating what Jurgen Klopp has been drumming into him yet when his name was absent from Liverpool's team sheet at Arsenal on Saturday, the news was met with a collective shrug from supporters. It's not exactly the reaction one might expect when one of the world's best in his position is ruled out of a game though injury. The truth is, though, that most fans wouldn't have picked him even if he had been fit.
This might be a strange way to view "one of the best in the world" but Lovren's relationship with the Anfield crowd has always been fairly complex.
Klopp had continually preached to the Croatia international about how good he would be if he only believed in himself more and after a strong run of performances that saw the defender reach the Champions League Final with Liverpool and then the World Cup Final with his country soon after, Lovren felt empowered enough to hit back at his army of critics. It initially prompted him to declare that he was one of the best and despite the amusement his comments caused in some quarters, he was not wrong then and he isn't wrong now either. Well, not completely wrong.
One of the best in the world? Yeah, fair enough. Top five? Hmmmm, bit of a stretch but ok... Better than Ramos? Whoah slow down there, cowboy.
Perhaps his close friendship with Mohamed Salah played a part in his needling of Ramos but he probably believes every word he said and that's actually a good thing. Not everybody believes in Lovren, so it's vital now more than ever that he believes in himself.
Self-belief hasn't always been something Lovren possessed since he moved to Anfield. It wasn't just the fans who felt he wasn't good enough for the club, either; Lovren himself has even admitted there were times he felt the same. It's admirable that he has the mental strength to overcome the poor start he made to life at Anfield and now, here he is, talking himself up as one of the best around. It's been quite the transformation.
Some supporters still don't fully believe in Lovren but at least now there isn't a feeling of impending doom any time he is named in the starting XI. He deserved his spot in the side last season and earned the trust of his manager and (most) supporters with consistent displays over a long period of time. He may not be better than Ramos but it's great if he believes that he is; furthermore, it's refreshing that he isn't afraid to say so in an era when footballers rarely deviate away from bland quotes that reveal little to nothing about their personality.
There was actually some sound logic in his argument, too. Ramos has been sent off an astonishing 24 times for Real Madrid; one could spin that to say that on 24 occasions, he left his team a man short through his ill-discipline. It is an appalling record, regardless of how good a player he is, and therefore it's easy to see why other defenders at clubs who have it a lot tougher than Real Madrid do might be somewhat resentful of all the plaudits that Ramos receives. After all, staying on the pitch is an important part of being a top defender, surely?
Liverpool legend and current ESPN FC analyst Steve Nicol has long been outspoken about how overrated he believes Ramos is and clearly it's a view shared by Lovren, who believes Raphael Varane -- the man alongside Ramos at Madrid -- deserves the title as the best in the business. Lovren also singled out his teammate Virgil Van Dijk and PSG's Thiago Silva, but insists that he belongs in that elite tier based on his performances over the past year.
There will be those who find his claim to be ridiculous -- even his own teammates have had some fun yanking his chain over it -- but it really isn't that outlandish a statement, not when solely judged on the past 12 months. Since his infamous performance at Wembley against Tottenham last September, Lovren's form has been top drawer, especially since the arrival of Van Dijk in January.
All of Liverpool's defenders have benefitted from the classy Dutchman's presence, especially Lovren, but Van Dijk wasn't partnering him for Croatia in the World Cup when he performed to a high level, so it's doing Lovren a dis-service to solely credit Van Dijk for his turnaround in form.
Despite his much improved displays, Lovren hasn't won over all of his critics and he never will. Sometimes supporters take an entrenched view and won't budge from it -- see also the bizarre criticism directed online towards Jordan Henderson -- but Lovren has, for the most part at least, earned a degree of trust now from supporters. Seeing his name on the teamsheet no longer induces feelings of dread but equally, when he's not there few are concerned about his absence. Indifference represents significant progress from where he was though.
Whether he is or isn't one of the five top defenders in the world makes for an entertaining discussion but isn't important. Being in the top two at his own club is the main thing and right now, he probably isn't. That's not a reflection on Lovren, who has played well when called upon this season. It's more of a testament to how special Joe Gomez has looked. The young Englishman has been a revelation alongside undisputed top dog Van Dijk, and the pair were impressive once again in Liverpool's 1-1 draw at the Emirates last weekend.
With "one of the best in the world" not being sure of his place, and such an accomplished player as Joel Matip being fourth in the centre-back pecking order, shows just how strong the Reds suddenly are in a position that was regarded as their biggest weakness this time last year.