Old And New
With news emerging over the weekend that Liverpool have signed 18 year old Joe Gomez from Charlton for £3.5m and conflicting reports coming out about Martin Skrtel’s new contract, it seemed as good a time as any to have a look at Liverpool’s defence.
The suggestions emerging from the club seem to be that Gomez will be sent back out on loan no sooner than he’s arrived at Melwood, but is that really the best thing for either LFC or the youngster himself?
Skrtel is an interesting one as far as Liverpool’s defensive set-up is concerned. He’s been the mainstay of the backline since his arrival in 2008, and has been a reassuring presence ever since. He gives off the air of being rock solid, though most people would admit that he tends to have his moments – some even suggesting that he has one good season followed by one bad one.
Yet the stats paint a rather more alarming story. His loss percentage as an LFC player who has played more than 150 games is one of the worst of all Liverpool players during the Premier League era. He has lost 27% of all of the games he has played. Nearly one third of the games he’s played in, Liverpool have lost. The only players with a worse record are Glen Johnson, whose loss percentage is 28%, and Jamie Redknapp, who comes in at 28.2%.
So is Skrtel really the player Brendan Rodgers and his coaches should be depending on to help them keep clean sheets moving forward? The other options Rodgers has at his disposal are Dejan Lovren, Mamadou Sakho, Kolo Toure, the returning Andre Wisdom and Emre Can – not including the youth options.
Exploring The Options
Lovren has had – how shall we phrase it? – a bit of a rough start to his Liverpool career. He struggled to settled after his big money transfer from Southampton, and was more used to playing in a back four with a defensive midfielder offering him cover than in the wide open defence that Brendan Rodgers tends to employ. Yet that is only half the story, with the poor start to his time at Anfield contributing to a mental fragility that resulted in him making basic mistakes – such as missing headers of bouncing balls in the middle of the park. He’s not a clear replacement for Skrtel in any sense.
Mamadou Sakho is arguably Liverpool’s best defender, with the Frenchman winning tackles, having a tremendous pass completion ratio and generally being brilliant all round. Some people mistake his gangliness and long limbs for a lack of control, but a look at the stats will disprove that theory. Just because commentators have taken against him doesn’t mean he’s not a good player. That said, he’s best suited to playing on the left side of the defence, with Skrtel tending to favour the right. So Sakho would be a companion for Skrtel’s replacement rather than the replacement himself.
Kolo Toure is old. It’s not that he’s in his 60s or anything, but he is now 34 and he hasn’t played regularly during his whole time at Liverpool. Plus, even when he has started, he’s looked less than convincing: dodgy clearances, own goals and more. He’s not the player he once was, and it’s easy to imagine that he’s been given a contract extension more in order to offer some support to Liverpool’s younger and less experience players. He is not a replacement for Martin Skrtel.
Andre Wisdom could be the future of Liverpool’s defence. The 22 year old spent last season on loan at West Brom, gaining some solid experience under Alan Irvine but then missing out when Tony Pulis took over at The Hawthorns. Pulis tends to like big, tall defenders and Wisdom is more of an intelligent one that can control games and play defence in more of a style that Rodgers and Liverpool are accustomed too. Giving him a regular run out in the team next season might allow him to get the type of experience that he’d benefit from whilst also meaning that Liverpool won’t be too dependent on players that don’t offer as much as Rodgers would like.
Emre Can is, like Wisdom, a solid option for Liverpool moving forward, but he’s predominantly a midfielder that Rodgers used in the back line last season, and he’s likely to be employed in his favoured position in the middle of the park in the future. He isn’t a defender and, even though the manager might like to use him as one, he shouldn’t be considered one for the purposes of Liverpool’s options.
There are also players like Alberto Moreno and Javier Manquillo that Rodgers can call upon, with the former being used slightly more often than the latter. But neither of them are likely to be used in central defence any time soon. They are solid but unspectacular options that can be called upon when there are no other choices for Rodgers to consider.
With the likely arrival of Nathaniel Clyne in the coming days, Liverpool’s defence will receive a timely boost in the right back slot. He is a solid replacement for Glen Johnson, who could have left Anfield a year ago without anyone being too disappointed. He is intelligent, fast and attack minded, whilst still being solid enough at the back to reassure those that had panic attacks every time Johnson had to throw a tackle in.
That said, he is another player whose main position will be in the right back or right wing back slot, presumably being Rodgers’ first choice with Manquillo coming in when Clyne is injured or needs a rest. The gaffer was sometimes prone to playing Glen Johnson at left back if the occasion called for it, though whether he plans to do the same with Clyne remains to be seen.
Gomez has played at right back for Charlton as well as in the more central position in defence, so the question moving forward is whether he’ll be allowed to gain experience from being Clyne’s deputy – in place of Manquillo – whilst also covering the central defensive spots, or whether he’ll just be sent out on loan like so many other young defenders that Liverpool have brought in over the years.
Remember Tiago Ilori? The Portuguese defender came in from Sporting Lisbon in 2013 after impressing against Liverpool in the NextGen series, only to head straight back out on loan. He hasn’t been given a fair crack of the whip at Anfield and rumours persist that he will be sold this summer.
Another defender that might question why he ever signed for the Reds is Sebastian Coates. The tall Uruguayan arrived from Nacional in August 2011 and was touted as one of the most promising young defenders in the world. He made a few appearances for Liverpool, notably scoring a stunning overhead goal in a game against Queens Park Rangers at Loftus Road, only to be yet another player that didn’t quite make the grade.
Apparently Jamie Carragher said of Coates that he lacked the drive and personal motivation to be the sort of player that would knock on the manager’s door and ask why he wasn’t being picked, and Liverpool need leaders in the defensive part of the pitch, not players who wilt under pressure. So it looks likely that, having spent last season on loan with the Black Cats, Coates will be sold to them this summer.
Moving Forward From The Back
The recent release of the Premier League fixtures for next season could, in a strange way, have an impact on the choices Rodgers makes when he sets his defensive stall up during the pre-season period.
Liverpool’s first seven away games are against Stoke, Arsenal, Manchester United, Everton, Tottenham, Chelsea and Manchester City. With his job well and truly under pressure after a disappointing season that culminated in a 6-1 loss away at Stoke, Brendan Rodgers really can’t afford to take any chances at the start of next season.
So even if Gomez isn’t sent on loan immediately, expect him to play a small part, if he plays any part at all, at the start of the 2015-2016 season. In fact, the players that Rodgers will likely pick the most will depend entirely on which formation the Northern Irishmen plans to employ moving forward.
Liverpool’s most successful season under the former Swansea manager came when he was using a 4-4-2 (diamond) formation, with Steven Gerrard sitting at the base of midfield offer the defence some cover. But last season the Reds seemed to convert to 3/5 at the back for the period of games when they went unbeaten and equalled a club record for consecutive away clean sheets.
That said, Rodgers seemed to abandon the 3/5 at the back as soon as Liverpool lost a game and the formation was called into question, so perhaps it won’t be the one he turns to long term. Indeed, noises from the club suggested that most of Liverpool’s purchases in the summer between the 2013-2014 season and the 2014-2015 season were bought with the 4-4-2 (diamond) formation in mind, only for Rodgers to need to adjust his thinking when Daniel Sturridge spent so long on the treatment table.
With Liverpool reportedly in the market for at least one more striker this summer – with Sturridge, Origi and Ings already in the squad and Balotelli, Lambert and Borini yet to leave – it could be fair to assume that Rodgers doesn’t want to be in a position were he has to abandon his plans due to injury again.
On top of that, Lovren is not a player that suits playing on the right side of a back three, which is why Emre Can was employed there so often last season instead of the Croatian. It is easy to imagine that Lovren will be used mainly as cover for Sakho and Skrtel next season rather than as the first choice central defender – unless, of course, he has the best pre-season of any player ever.
So expect Liverpool’s defence to line up in a back four at the start of next season, with Skrtel partnering Sakho – presuming the Frenchman’s injury issues don’t rear their ugly head again – and Nathaniel Clyne in the right back spot and Alberto Moreno on the left.
That would leave a combination of Wisdom, Flanagan (when fit), Manquillo, Toure and Lovren to cover them should they pick up injuries or need a rest. If Joe Gomez stays at the club then he will likely also be amongst those players, getting a run out in the likes of the League Cup and Europa League.
Whatever the combination of players Rodgers opts to use most often next season, the truth is that Liverpool’s defensive unit still isn’t as good as it should be. One injury to Sakho and the whole thing seems to fall apart – that’s how important he is to the back four or five. Skrtel may well be Liverpool’s best option right now, but he isn’t the sort of player that can be counted upon should backs be against the wall.
Pre-season will be an interesting time for Liverpool fans, as they’ll get the opportunity to suss out what options Brendan Rodgers will think about before the season begins. If the defence has the same rough start to the season as they did last year then don’t be surprised to see Rodgers ringing the changes – before the noose tightens around his managerial neck.