Before Sunday, Martin Skrtel’s last first team appearance for Liverpool came in a 3-0 defeat at Watford in December.
His comeback in last week’s under-21 defeat to West Ham ended in his sending off, and his 45 minute appearance at Southampton on Sunday resulted in the concession of a penalty and three more goals.
While it would be slightly unfair to blame Skrtel completely for Liverpool’s capitulation after surging into a commanding 2-0 lead – though the defence did noticeably lose its way following Dejan Lovren’s withdrawal at half time – his plight is symptomatic of the challenge facing Liverpool manager Jürgen Klopp ahead of the squad overhaul this summer.
The Slovakian international can surely expect to be shown the door at the end of the season along with the out-of-contract Kolo Touré. The impending arrival of Joël Matip and the return of youngster Joe Gomez have rendered the two popular but limited centre backs surplus to requirements. Lovren and Mamadou Sakho, to their credit, have looked like a strong unit under Klopp – far more than they ever did under Brendan Rodgers – and have almost certainly secured their place in the squad (if possibly not the first eleven) for next season.
Responding to rumours recently that Jordan Henderson would be the subject of a £25million bid from Tottenham in the summer, Klopp gave a surprisingly ambiguous answer. It was hardly the “hands off” warning that many might have been expecting:
“I am pretty sure it is only a rumour but if not and if a player — let’s not say Hendo but any player — comes to me and says he doesn’t feel comfortable and wants to leave, style of play, more money, then you always have to start thinking.
“Everything is OK in this moment but nobody in the world, maybe only Messi, is unsellable.”
Klopp’s indication that he would sell anyone who is not 100% committed to the cause – and that includes the captain if need be – indicate the level of ruthlessness he must maintain. He went through enough instances at Dortmund of his players being poached by vultures to understand the futility of trying to reason with a player whose commitment has dropped.
It is, however, a degree of ruthlessness that he must also apply when deciding that certain players do not fit in to his style of play or are simply not good enough to play at the level he wants the club to compete at.
It was never something he had a problem with at Borussia Dortmund – fifteen players departed the Westfalenstadion over the course of his first two summers at the club – and he must show no mercy when it comes to wielding the axe this summer.
The issue is it not necessarily with commitment, rather with reliability. Martin Skrtel was the main culprit today but that is just one example of a wider problem. Individual mistakes are causing heads to drop too readily within this team, partly because the lack of trust that exists between them means that they expect each other to mess up in some way. One personal error can be poisonous to the team’s performance.
Christian Benteke is not a reliable striker, nor is Simon Mignolet a dependable goalkeeper. Other players in that squad are more than capable of having bad days at the office but, at the risk of scapegoating, there are matches that have been lost or drawn that can actually be traced back to mistakes by the Belgian pair. They can be improved upon, and one suspects that they will be.
Benteke among those who’ll be made available in summer. Mignolet not guaranteed No 1. #LFC still interested in Götze, Udinese’s Zielinski
— Ben Smith (@BSmith) March 20, 2016
And they won’t be the only ones. Outside of the likes of Roberto Firmino, Philippe Coutinho and Emre Can, almost every member of the squad would do well to be looking nervously over their shoulder.
The two legs against Man United, the demolitions of Chelsea and Man City with such reckless abandon – this is the Liverpool that Klopp is seemingly constantly on the verge of unleashing before something goes awry. They always somehow find a way to undo the good thing they had been building towards – it must be incredibly frustrating for the manager, and it certainly is for the fans.
A lot of this squad are playing for their Liverpool futures, but there is every chance that Klopp has already made up his mind about the majority of them.
The fans will back the manager to the hilt when it comes to player departures – their disbelief that a manager of Klopp’s calibre even considered them given the fact that he could probably have his pick of jobs is still very much prevalent – if he feels that a certain player needs to be sold, the supporters will fully support it.
The signs of progress with within the team’s performances are evident (despite the setbacks) as the weeks go on. The system is gradually falling into place – now it just needs the necessary upgrades.