Liverpool Football Club have not had a great season so far. Not their worst, but far worse than last season. The club have plenty of time, and a top 4 finish is a reasonable hope if the Reds can work out some of the kinks. Liverpool’s toothless attack is one of the biggest issues right now, but a deeper and deadlier problem is the defense. All season (similar to the previous one), the Reds have been a comedic shambles at the back. Brendan Rodgers has been rotating all four spots and the lack of rapport amongst the players is horrible. Liverpool’s defense needs some grounding, leadership, and organization.
Martin Skrtel. Skrtel has been with the club since the Rafael Benitez years, and has enjoyed many solid seasons at the heart of the club’s defense. Nearly frozen out early in Rodgers’ reign, the big Slovakian center-back worked his way back into team and has been reliable ever since. Some fans may have wished for his exit rather than Daniel Agger’s, but many appreciate the hard work he’s put in over the years. Skrtel is a goal threat (though occasionally at both ends), is good in the air, and has a knack for the shirt pulling that sets opposition fans and journalists alight with anger. Those same shirt pulling techniques, however, can be one of the player’s biggest weaknesses when the referee chooses to punish him. The stats show that he won nearly 70% of aerial duels last season in the Premier League (he played every single match for the Reds), but his interceptions and ground tackling were quite average. Skrtel tends to find himself out of position, and finds himself between in the wrong position during one-on-one situations.
The New Guy:
Dejan Lovren. The Croatian center-back came over from Southampton last summer with a high reputation and matching price tag. His overall defensive score per 90 minutes was substantially higher than Martin Skrtel’s last season, and his interceptions and tackles won metrics (per 90 minutes) were around 50% higher than Skrtel’s. He played a huge part in Southampton’s epic run last season, even scoring a winning goal against Liverpool early in the season. But all the hype quickly faded once the season started for Lovren at Liverpool, and while he leads the team in a number of defensive stats, he’s made an average of .36 defensive errors per 90 minutes in his 11 starts thus far. Last season, this stat was .03 over 31 matches. An incredible leap, which can at least (in part) go down to the growing pains of a new team. Lovren’s overall defensive score has been the highest amongst Liverpool’s center backs this season, and his tackles and interceptions on the ground have been relatively solid. He hasn’t been exceptional in the air and this is clearly one of his weak points.
The New-ish Guy:
Mamadou Sakho. Sakho is a strange case for Liverpool fans, because we really don’t get the sense that we’ve seen what he can do yet. A highly regarded defender for French giant PSG, Sakho was a fan favorite and captained the side at the ripe age of 21. Fans will have seen those performances, as well as his important role in the French national team, and wonder when they will see that when he’s wearing a red shirt. In the 20 Premier League matches he played in last season, Sakho’s stats are woefully average, falling below Martin Skrtel in a number of them. Sakho isn’t particularly great at any specific defensive trait, but the few performances he’s had this season have shown glimpses of his vision, leadership, and eye for a pass. If there’s something that Liverpool’s center backs are particularly bad at, it’s passing out of defense, so fostering Sakho’s skill in that area of the game would be huge for the club’s mindset. But Sakho’s biggest problem is that it’s those “almost” qualities that most fans see in him. He doesn’t seem like he should be a starter for the club, but it’s kind of obvious that he has more potential than the others. Rodgers needs to stop treating the player like a child, and start figuring out how to unlock Sakho’s potential.
The Old, Old Guy:
Kolo Toure. Few players live in the limbo that Kolo Toure has created for himself. After kicking off last season with some stellar performances that instantly earned him cult status with the fans, Toure made a number of massive errors that technically cost Liverpool the title. I say technically, because the points tally was so close, but there were lots of mistakes made and surely another player would have found a way to screw it up. But Toure is a very experienced player with a number of trophies to his name, and a number of his performances have been inspiring and solid. There’s a constant harping on about the back four needing leadership and experience after Jamie Carragher retired, and Toure was indeed brought in for that purpose. Sure, he’s made a number of mistakes, but performances like that at Real Madrid show that he can still excel in a number of areas. He’s no longer the best in the air, though he’s fairly solid and an imposing figure that defends set pieces quite well. Toure reads the game as well as ever, and his interception statistics show him as one of the best at the club in that area. What Toure obviously needs is a quick defender that’s good in the air that communicates well with him and the rest of the back four.
So which players should be partnered at the heart of Liverpool’s defense?
Soccer doesn’t have a perfect way of rating players, as no stat perfectly captures how “good” a player is, and personal observation has no concrete basis to it. But both sides help, and stats are a great place to start. So if we look purely at the important defensive stats (defensive score, tackles won, interceptions, defensive errors, all per/90 mins) over the last 18 months or so, we can get an idea of who should be the best defenders at Liverpool. Last season, Lovren led in total defense, interceptions and least defensive errors. Skrtel led the club in aerial duels won, while Toure led in tackles won. This season’s stats are more or less the same, over 11 Premier League matches and four Champions League fixtures. And so looking at stats, the two best central defenders at Liverpool are Skrtel and Lovren. This may be precisely why Brendan Rodgers persists with their partnership: both have the ability to be solid, reliable defenders. But the stats leave a lot to be desired and reading between the lines might be the key to unlocking the right combo here.
In terms of the intangibles mentioned above, Kolo Toure and Mamadou Sakho have a much better “feel” to their game than the other two. But both have made mistakes in their few appearances this season (and last), and Sakho specifically has had injuries and other off-pitch problems. But when I look at the stats and combine that with my own observation of the players’ play and their intangibles, I think the best combo is Toure and Lovren. Out of these four players, Toure and Lovren theoretically complement each other the most. Lovren wins the tackles on the ground and is able to come out of defense to pass and clean up a little more, leaving Toure to marshal him and the fullbacks. Both of these defenders make mistakes when forced to play their weak traits, but they could make up for each other’s weaknesses when played together. Both are solid leaders, but Toure’s experience and presence surely makes him the leader at the back. Neither are extremely good in the air, but both are fairly solid and Lovren is at least above average. In the end, the goal is to have a central defensive partnership that plays well together and complements each other. I think these two do that and would be the best for this season. Skrtel is great for backup and can be called in when playing against particularly tall strikers. Sakho should get playing time on occasion and Rodgers should figure out how to groom him into the talent he can become in the next few seasons. He has the potential to be a better version of Kolo Toure in the future and the club must preserve and nurture that.
All stats from Squawka.com.
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