By Seamus Leonard
On the back of three league victories and a brave but fruitless, Europa League win over Zenit St. Petersburg, there is a positive mood surrounding Liverpool at the moment.
Hope of silverware is gone but the recent form of Brendan Rodgers’ side has offered the prospect of better days to come. The goals have been free flowing of late, but arguably a more important aspect has been the improvement defensively, with the exception of Jamie Carragher’s lapse against Zenit.
It is strange that just as the rearguard seems to have sorted itself out, rumours abound that there will be widespread change in personnel.
One man who will definitely not be around for the 2013/14 season is the aforementioned Carragher, as the 35-year-old has declared his intention to retire at the end of the campaign.
So you’d think the central defensive partnership of Martin Skrtel and Daniel Agger, which was in place most of 2011/12, would be a comfort to Liverpool fans after they wave farewell to Carragher.
Yet i’s not a likely scenario, if recent reports are anything to go by.
Skrtel has been sidelined recently through injury, but prior to that he had been dropped by Rodgers. There’s no doubt that the Slovakian, who was the club’s player of the year last season, has not been as effective as he has been in the past. But that accusation can be levelled at virtually all of Liverpool’s defenders this season, and it appears that Skrtel has been singled out.
The 28-year-old feels aggrieved at the situation and made a rare appearance in the headlines when he came out to criticize Rodgers. You can often attribute outbursts to pettiness or attention seeking but Skrtel has no history of such behavior since signing from Zenit for £6.5 million in 2008.
While Skrtel’s decision to go to the press with his concerns was far from advisable, there has clearly been a breakdown in communication between the two. The defender’s comments were hardly history’s most incendiary, however, and it’s possible for the pair to mend fences if the will exists on both sides.
There have also been reports, albeit not from the most reliable of sources, that Barcelona has renewed interest in Daniel Agger. The club was sniffing around the Danish international last summer, but nothing came of it. However, the former Brondby man went on the record to say that life at the Nou Camp was the only thing that could tempt him to leave.
Like Skrtel, Agger has been far from his best this season, most notably against West Bromwich Albion when he was at fault for both Baggies’ goals. On the other hand, he appears to have put the injury problems that have plagued his Liverpool career behind him. The Dane has played in all but one of the Reds’ league games this season and set a new personal record for league appearances in one season, with 28. Although his sale would bring a massive transfer fee, his ball-playing abilities are suited to Rodgers’ philosophy and it would be folly to let him go when his peak years are ahead.
And, finally, there is the case of Sebastian Coates. The signing of the Uruguayan from Nacional in August 2011 was hailed as a coup as he had just been named the Best Young Player at Copa America. He showed enough in his debut season to suggest the £7 million paid for him would prove a wise investment. But with a paltry 10 appearances this season (seven in cup competitions) the giant center back has slipped down the pecking order at Anfield. There were efforts to move him during the January transfer window but nothing materialized. He remains out in the cold and it would take a major reversal of fortunes for the 22-year-old to convince Rodgers he has what it takes to succeed in the EPL.
There is no doubt Coates lacks pace, but at six feet five inches, he offers Liverpool what they have little of – height and physicality. That said, he’s more than just a physical presence. He possesses excellent technique, evident by his spectacular scissor kick goal against Queens Park Rangers last season.
But before Rodgers gives up on Coates, he should consider the experience of Lucas Leiva. The Brazilian endured a torrid time in his early days in a red shirt, with Liverpool’s support hugely critical of the former Gremio man. However, then manager Rafael Benitez persevered with Lucas, and by the time Roy Hodgson took over the Brazilian had grown into a lynchpin of the first team.
There were suggestions that Coates would go on loan in January, with Fiorentina mooted as a possible destination. Perhaps such an arrangement could be agreed for the first half of next season, as the defender needs games to develop.
Although Liverpool’s defensive record hasn’t been brilliant this season, injuries have played their part in the decline. While Agger has enjoyed a relatively injury-free campaign, Luis Enrique, Glen Johnson and Skrtel have all missed periods, while youngsters Martin Kelly (cruciate knee ligament) and Jon Flanagan (knee) will play no further part this season.
If Liverpool can get Kelly, in particular, back to his best and Andre Wisdom continues his improvement, then the future looks bright for Liverpool at the back. It may be that one of the three senior center backs leaves during the summer, but allowing two or all of them to depart would seem a dramatic development. Additional quality and cover is needed. Wholesale changes are not.
Follow Seamus Leonard on Twitter @seamusleonard