Everyone has had their say on Liverpool’s defence over the past week following last Monday’s 3-3 draw at Crystal Palace.
Shipping multiple goals in wins at Stoke, Cardiff and Norwich probably hinted that the worst was still to come; “they’ve had their warnings”, noted Gary Neville on Sky Sports after the Palace game. Neville and Jamie Carragher dissected the disastrous final ten minutes the Reds endured at Selhurst Park and lambasted the central defensive pairing of Martin Skrtel and Mamadou Sakho for a lack of leadership as the team dropped too deep and invited pressure.
As Brendan Rodgers persists with the combination, cries for the reintroduction of Daniel Agger have been widespread. When juxtaposed with the elegant Dane, Sakho can look incredibly cumbersome in possession, his hunched back supported by long gangly legs.
When players are not in the team, their worth is often exaggerated. It’s worth remembering that Agger had a poor season in 2012/13 summed up by a spell around January and February where virtually every goal Liverpool conceded could be traced back to his poor marking. Defendants of the Dane point to his poise on the ball but whilst he’s comfortable in possession, how much attacking contribution does he actually make for a ‘ball-playing defender’? He has also struggled in the past against physical strikers – Everton, led by Romelu Lukaku, scored three times when facing the Skrtel-Agger axis in November.
That Everton game is memorable in a different sense too. For all the talk of Liverpool being too gung-ho this season, it’s difficult to remember them conceding too many goals to direct one-on-ones as Barcelona, another possession-orientated attack-minded side, have been prone to over the last few years. Demba Ba’s opener in Chelsea’s recent win at Anfield is an obvious example of one such goal but its origin was in a Steven Gerrard slip whilst the captain was last man. Goals scored by Dwight Gayle on Monday and by Alvaro Negredo in December’s clash with Manchester City are the only other memorable examples of Rodgers’ side getting caught on the break. The notable thing from the Merseyside Derby that finished 3-3 was the amount of times Everton (usually through Gerard Deulofeu) broke clear of Liverpool’s high line only to find that Simon Mignolet is actually quite useful in one-on-ones.
So what’s the problem?
A lot of the goals the Reds have conceded this term have been consolation strikes when the game has already been won – see home games with West Brom, Cardiff, West Ham and Sunderland – and it is these that may yet prove crucial if City draw on Sundayand the Premier League title is decided on goal difference. Although stats show that the defence is tighter with Agger in place of Sakho, the problem may lie with the man who plays to their right.
Skrtel was on his way out of the club in the summer having been frozen out towards the end of last season. The Slovakian is a divisive figure who is generally seen in one of two ways – a grappling-obsessed disaster waiting to happen or lionhearted warrior prepared to put his tattooed body on the line for his club. Oddly, the truth is simultaneously both of and neither of these things. The #37 has had a really good season, scoring crucial goals against Arsenal, Cardiff and City since the turn of the year and has embodied the spirit shown by Rodgers’ side during their recent winning run.
His faults lie not in his performances but in his style of play. Although an imposing figure, Slovakia’s captain is actually much more at home in the covering role and is very much a back-foot defender, preferring to drop off and protect his goal rather proactively win the ball back. In a side that likes to press with purpose, this can cause problems: the gap between the defence and the rest of the team becomes too large, leaving massive spaces for the holding player to cover (and neither Gerrard nor Lucas have the legs to do so).
It seems cruel to say it on the back of a good season but in the manager’s preferred setup, it’s unlikely that a defender like Skrtel would feature. While Sakho may look a bit awkward, he’s far more comfortable with playing on the front foot and winning the ball ahead of the centre forward he’s marking. The former naturally assumes the role of leader in defence as he’s older and has spent longer at the club but that isn’t his personality -he isn’t an organiser. Sakho captained PSG at 17 and is more of an influential character. It’s difficult for a young defender to exhibit that in his first season in a foreign country but given time he should appear more at home if the defence is built around him. The Frenchman is also much more capable on the ball than it appears on first viewing – his pass completion is 92.5% with 77.4% of those being forward passes.
Having signed Tiago Ilori and Kolo Touré as well last summer, it looks likely that Fenway Sports Group (FSG) will need to fork out some more money to plug gaps in the leaky defence. While Agger and Skrtel have served Liverpool well during their time at the club, there’s a sense that this team is evolving away from their strengths and that another proactive defender is needed to partner Sakho.
Shopping for that man isn’t necessarily easy – ideally, he’s good in the air, quick, comfortable in possession, aggressive, strong and a leader.. not an easy player to unearth. Roma’s Medhi Benatia may be the most suitable candidate but the Moroccan is on the wishlist of every big club in Europe after a fantastic first season in Rome. Ilori may also prove to be that player and is currently enjoying a fruitful loan spell at Grenada, while Andre Wisdom will also come back from Derby County a more confident defender.
There are also issues at full back – Glen Johnson’s form has been remarkably inconsistent and whilst Jon Flanagan has improved a lot, there is always a sense that opposition teams can allow him the ball without fear of being hurt. Liverpool probably need new wide defenders too, and they have to be dangerous in attack and possess enough pace and intelligence to get into position when possession is lost. Wolfsburg’s Swiss left back Ricardo Rodriguez, perhaps?
Whatever the outcome is come Sunday evening, a huge summer lies ahead for Rodgers and FSG. His attack-minded nature will always expose his defence and Liverpool wouldn’t be where they are now without the ruthless offensive mindset the manager has instilled in the team. That said, getting the right type of defenders in the door during the summer could simultaneously halt the concession of needless goals and give the side more threat in attack.
David Kennedy, Pundit Arena.