By Tim Treacy
To those of us that watched Liverpool’s preseason games this year it was apparent what aspect of the team worried us the most, defending. Liverpool’s defensive frailty has carried over into the regular season and has seen it concede nine goals in just seven regular season games this year – allowing goals in every game this season except for the game at Arsenal, which Liverpool won, 2-0.
There are many reasons a team leaks goals like Liverpool has so far this season. One of those reason is certainly down to the number of new faces in the team. New arrivals take time to settle into any side in any division in any league. Of all of Liverpool’s new arrivals this year, Stewart Downing, Charlie Adam, and Jose Enrique have settled into life in the starting 11 significantly better than Andy Carroll and Jordan Henderson. Luis Suarez looks like he has been playing for the Reds for years – a sign of a true superstar. But a lack of pace in central defense is the main reason Liverpool has shipped so many goals this season. Yes it’s September. Yes it is early in the season. But it is certainly naive to think it is too early to point our the reasons for Liverpool’s defensive mishaps so far.
Many managers have said down the years that you should only take note of the league table come mid-November. If Liverpool wait until then to address defensive matters, it may kiss 4th place or better this season goodbye. The team does have pace down the defensive flanks, Jose Enrique and Glen Johnson have bundles of it, but the spine of Liverpool’s defense does not, and it’s a big problem.
When fit, Daniel Agger is considered by many to be arguably Liverpool’s best and definitely quickest central defender, but he is also the most injury prone. Following another injury to Agger at White Heart Lane last Sunday, one which will see him out for “a few weeks,” according to the manager, he has spent a grand total of 22 months on the sidelines since his arrival at the club in January of 2006. In that time, Agger has played an average of just 25 games per season, featured in just 44.5 percent of regular season games and averaged nearly 3.1 months a year on the sidelines. As great as Agger is when he is fit, and while he is no Owen Hargreaves, no manager can be expected to build a team around a defender with such a bad injury record.
Dalglish was always part of Liverpool teams where success was built from the back. Built on strong, reliable defensive partnerships and this was true both when he was manager and when we was a player.
The main question on every supporters’ mind coming into this season regarding Agger was, could he stay fit and string a run of games together? Can Liverpool rely on him? Here we are in September with the answer: No. I have hoped many times to be wrong about Agger. Hoping his latest injury will prove to be his last major setback and that he might finally play a whole season for Liverpool, missing out on only a game here and there. Sadly, I think my hopes are in vain and the realization is that Agger is not the long term solution to Liverpool’s defensive problems. You cannot build a team around a player that is rarely fit. It’s that simple.
Martin Skrtel was ever present last season and although he is not a bad player, he will never be a great player, and Liverpool know it can do better. His biggest setback is his lacks pace, although he is not alone in that regard in the middle, but his concentration and reading of the game is suspect at times and his form has been shown to vary greatly. In 2008, Skrtel was probably the first name on the team sheet with eye-catching displays against, Chelsea, Arsenal, Manchester United, and Everton. In 2009 he was just as consistent and ever present, although his overall form dipped slightly. But in 2010, following his first major injury at Liverpool to his metatarsal, he has never regained that form from seasons past. Just look back to his dismal display in games from November through May of last season, and then to his games this season. Yes he was played out of position for a portion of the Bolton game, and got sent off at right back against Spurs, but a 2008/09 Martin Skrtel would have fared far better than his 2011 shadow. In this past year, he has easily been the team’s 3rd choice center back. Unless he improves, Skrtel will continue to warm the bench at best for the Reds.
Now, no one will ever say a bad word about Jamie Carragher, nor should they, and I certainly won’t. I have at least four jerseys with his name on the back of them. For many of us, he is our favorite player, a Liverpool legend and his attitude and commitment to the club has been astounding and beyond compare. He even beats Gerrard in the overall Mr. Liverpool category. But facts are facts and the reality is that Carragher will turn 34 this January and he is not getting any faster or younger. He was visibly a step slower last season, and he seems to be winding down further this season. At this age, Carragher is not the long term solution to Liverpool’s defensive problems and in all reality, he will play less and less as the months tick by on his astonishing career.
So, what is the answer? Well from what I have seen and studied of Sebastián Coates, briefly at Liverpool, but mostly from his games for Uruguay at the Copa America, he seems to have the ability at least to play the ball with poise from the defense into midfield. He seems composed and assured in the air, but at 6′ 6″ you would expect that from a towering defender such as Coates. He does however lack real pace, although he is a lot faster than Carragher and even Skrtel. He relies more on his ability to read the game and get into good positions rather than out running opponents. He is similar in this way to Sami Hyypia – although he is no Hyypia yet and may never be. Liverpool can only hope his potential is fulfilled and all the promise and hype surrounding this 20-year-old Uruguayan holds true. Afterall, Dalglish didn’t buy him for the reserves.
For all the lack of pace in central defense, there is an answer to the problem – a Scouser born and bred in Winston Liverpool, 21-year-old Martin Kelly. Kelly is a center back in the making who for the past 18 months has been just biding his time, and learning his trade on the right side of Liverpool’s defense. Standing at 6′ 3″, a whole 4 inches taller than Carragher, Kelly has all the attributes to fill Mr. Liverpool’s legendary boots. Kelly surprised a lot of fans with his pace and strength, and like Coates, is still a student of the game. Both players are young and confident, and hungry for the chance of success. They just need the opportunity to prove what they can do together and it could be coming their way very soon.
With Skrtel’s lack of consistency and form, Agger’s lack of fitness and availability, and Carragher nearing closer to retirement with every game he plays, Liverpool’s answer may be in a young center back pairing of Kelly and Coates. Kelly was just three weeks old last time Liverpool won the title and Coates wasn’t even born. In that time Liverpool has had countless central defenders and countless defensive pairings and no league titles. Dalglish knows how to lay the foundation for success, there is no one with a better knowledge of how to build success and what it takes. He has proven he knows this time and time again with the teams he put out for Liverpool 20 plus years ago, the Blackburn, and Celtic, all successes of which were based on consistent solid defenses. He now faces a real challenge at Liverpool and sooner rather than later, Dalgish will have a tough decision to make about the center of Liverpool’s defense. When he does, let’s hope Kelly and Coates are up for the challenge and that their partnership can prove to be the foundation for years of silverware to come.