Martin Skrtel, Mamadou Sakho, Dejan Lovren, Kolo Toure, Tiago Ilori, Steven Caulker, Lucas Leiva – Liverpool have tried numerous options at centre-half so far this season, but many of the old problems remain. Fragile confidence, individual errors and an inability to defend set pieces mean that only seven teams have conceded more than the Reds in the league this season and clean sheets have been hard to come by in the cup competitions too.
With big changes expected in the summer as Jurgen Klopp gets the opportunity to bring in his own players, many would suggest that centre-half will be a position where he is looking for upgrades on the current Liverpool squad. The capture of Joel Matip on a free transfer from Schalke already gives the German an extra option, but Liverpool’s defensive fragilities and Matip’s versatility would suggest a further reinforcement may still be required. However, with all four central defenders impressing over the past week, is centre-back actually a priority for Klopp?
In short, yes. Whilst Sakho and Lovren have built up a solid central defensive partnership in recent weeks; culminating in their fantastic performance against Borussia Dortmund, both are undoubtedly error-prone and seem like accidents waiting to happen. On the previous week-end against Spurs, Sakho had a miserable opening 45 minutes, making numerous mistakes and only being rescued by his centre-back partner and Spurs’ surprising inefficiency in the final third.
Martin Skrtel and Kolo Toure are no better, meaning none of Liverpool’s current central defenders can by totally relied upon. Whilst Toure has done a solid job for Liverpool as 4th choice centre-back; most notably at the Bernabeu last season, few will be able to forget his numerous errors such as the comical own goal against Fulham the year before.
However, Skrtel has arguably been Liverpool’s least reliable defender so far this season. After blowing a two-goal lead at home to Sunderland and a 120th minute defeat to West Ham in the FA Cup, a combination of Sakho, Lovren, Toure and Lucas conceded just 3 goals in the next 795 minutes of action – a penalty against Manchester United in the Europa League, a Simon Mignolet error in the League Cup Final against Manchester City and a Joe Ledley strike following a corner (surprise, surprise) against Crystal Palace. The Reds were 2-0 up and cruising away to Southampton at half-time when Jurgen Klopp decided to reintroduce Martin Skrtel to his back four in the place of Dejan Lovren.
What followed was a capitulation of the highest order as Liverpool conceded three second-half goals to slump to defeat with the Slovakian largely to blame for two. Returning from injury as Skrtel was doing is never easy, but it could be the performance that finally brings his time on Merseyside to a close. In truth, the Sakho-Skrtel central defensive partnership has never worked for Liverpool. Their inability to defend as a duo was a major factor in Liverpool failing to claim the Premier League title in 2013-14. Whilst the title was blown with defeat at home to Chelsea, the iconic 3-3 draw at Selhurst Park in which Dwight Gayle eased through a Liverpool defence that parted like the Red Sea will be hard to forget. The lack of leadership on display was astounding as Liverpool’s defence invited pressure onto themselves by dropping deeper and deeper, despite both appearing to be vocal characters.
It is important that all four centre-backs at a club are able to play together in tandem. Skrtel and Sakho clearly cannot be trusted as a partnership so one would think that Klopp has to move one on in the summer. With the Frenchman doing more to convince in the past 12 months; and still at an age where improvement is all the more likely, it appears it may be the Slovakian who is let go. One of Liverpool’s major problems in recent seasons has been aerially, particularly from set-pieces. Matip will arrive with a reputation for being a strong physical presence and at 6ft 4in will be a major influence in both boxes.
Klopp’s big decision will be whether to bring in another centre-back in addition to the Schalke man, particularly with Lovren and Sakho having poor injury records. Mats Hummels has been linked with a reunion with his former manager, but seeing the World Cup winner join a side not in the Champions League seems unlikely. An added complication for Klopp is the dearth of top quality centre-backs currently available.
Therefore, as unlikely as it seemed a few months ago, it may be that the German decides to stick with what he’s got and put his faith in Lovren, Sakho, the incoming Matip, Toure and his training ground methods. With Wes Morgan and Robert Huth on the verge of taking Leicester to the title, it may not turn out to be Klopp’s worst choice.
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