Despite sections of the Liverpool FC fanbase hoping to see the combination of Daniel Agger and Mamadou Sakho in central defence, Brendan Rodgers has never played the two of them together. Were he to eventually do so, here’s why it may not work.
Great defenders hunt in pairs, they say. In the 2013-14 season of the Premier League, it has meant that Arsenal have not lost in nearly two years, whenever the combination of Per Mertesacker and Laurent Koscielny have completed the full complement of 90 minutes on the field.
At Liverpool, however, it has meant that Daniel Agger and Mamadou Sakho – arguably two of the best individual defenders at the club, have never played together in central defence ever since the latter joined the Reds on Deadline Day in September 2013.
The major sticking point for manager Brendan Rodgers, here, is that both Agger and Sakho are left footed. It is not unusual for right footed centre backs to play together in defence; but left footed centre back pairings have been rare in modern times. Walter Samuel played with Marco Materazzi in central defence at Inter Milan a few years ago, but that was on rare occasions. Closer to home in the Premier League, Joleon Lescott was paired with (albeit makshift, but left footed nevertheless) Javi Garcia as Manchester City fell to a 3-2 defeat at Cardiff City back in August. There isn’t much history to back up the argument that Agger and Sakho will make a good pair in the centre of defence.
Individual ability means that both defenders merit regular inclusion in a Liverpool playing eleven, but Agger’s and Sakho’s individual traits coupled with Liverpool’s style of play under Brendan Rodgers mean that pairing them together will not work.
In ideal circumstances, if each centre half stuck to his job, an action heat map over the course of 90 minutes will look more like that of Daniel Agger’s against Hull City (left, based on Agger’s highest rating this season via whoscored.com) and less like Mamadou Sakho’s against West Ham (right, based on Sakho’s highest rating this season via whoscored.com). However, one must consider the fact that Liverpool’s dominance (in the literal sense of the word) provided Sakho with the opportunity to step forward more often.
As can be seen from the heat map shown above, both Agger or Sakho drift towards their stronger side – either as a natural tendency, or to deal with attacks coming down their flank. Despite the pedigree of both players, the tendency to drift to either side will not disappear when deployed as a right sided centre back. Hence, the presence of Agger and Sakho together in central defence will result in both drifting towards the same side. Given that Liverpool right back Glen Johnson is in a woeful run of form, leaving him exposed on the right flank is not a very good idea.
The only situation where the deployment of a left footed player as a right sided centre back is in dealing with inverted wingers drifting infield. This will give them the opportunity to use their stronger foot to tackle, as well as drift towards their stronger side. However, natural width is a desired attributed of most Premier League teams – hence a right footed centre back will be better placed than either Agger or Sakho in this situation.
In Rob Jones’ assessment of Jon Flanagan’s switch to the left, he talked about the difficulty in using one’s weaker side as a defender:
“People presume it must be a fairly easy transition as a full back to play on the right and the left but it’s not, it can be like doing things in reverse and as a right-footer you prefer to tackle with your right foot so the things you do naturally need a little bit of thought.”
Switching to the opposite side can be even more difficult for a centre half than for a fullback. Keep in mind that a bad tackle by a fullback will result in conceding free kicks in dangerous areas, but a bad tackle by a centre back will usually result in a penalty. That is not to say that right footed centre backs never concede penalties on their favoured side, but putting a left footed centre back (esp someone like Agger/Sakho who is uncomfortable on their right foot) makes things all the more uncomfortable.
Much has been made of Agger’s and Sakho’s traits complementing each other. However, the tendency of both to burst forward could wind up defensively exposing Liverpool. Daniel Agger tends to move forward with the ball in order to make it easier for himself to bring others into play. However, Sakho showed, within 4 minutes of his debut, his tendency to spot danger in midfield and step out – as a result, either coming in Lucas’ way, or leaving him out of position with the attacking player beyond him. He often gets sucked into certain situations, and playing with Agger (and, mind you, Liverpool’s fullbacks pushing forward on the flanks) will leave Simon Mignolet exposed.
In Brendan Rodgers’ Liverpool, a centre half is brought into play not only for defensive reasons, but also to aid in carrying out the ethos of playing out from the back. The two central defenders in a back four are first and obvious passing options for goalkeeper Simon Mignolet. In order to minimize risk, the centre half, in turn could do any one of the following three things – pass it back to Mignolet, lay it off to the fullback or winger on their own side, or thread a throughball straight ahead of them into midfield.
Doing so on a regular basis requires the use of one’s stronger foot. Were Agger and Sakho to be deployed together in central defence, it would not be a major problem for whoever plays on the left side of central defence. However, the speed of play in the Premier League will require the right sided centre back to use his weaker foot. Neither Agger or Sakho are strong enough on their right foot in order for either of them to play as a right sided centre half.
Shown below are passing graphs of Daniel Agger in the New Years’ Day Premier League fixture against Hull City (left, based on Agger’s highest rating via whoscored.com); and Mamadou Sakho at home against West Ham United (right, based on Sakho’s highest rating via whoscored.com).
The graphs shown above indicate the natural tendency of either defender’s passes on days that they have performed well. Agger is arguably the better passer, yet the majority of failed passes in the game against Hull City were across the breadth of the field to his right. Elegance on the ball does no equal accuracy, and deploying Agger as a right sided centre half will compound the problem he faced at Hull City. Sakho, on the other hand, could further improve over time. However, at present, he looks uncomfortable whenever he is in an unfamiliar position with the ball. Deploying him as a right sided centre half will only compound the problem.
Given that emulating Barcelona’s ethos of “building from the back” has been the flavour of the month for many a month now, many teams in the Barclays Premier League have been actively pressing high up the pitch in order to not allow centre backs time on the ball. Placing a left footed centre back on the right side of defence would cause a two-fold problem:
(a) The tendency to resort to using one’s left foot provides that extra time for opposing players to press higher up, rendering him an easy target.
(b) Having to use one’s left foot will often restrict passing options to the left wing and the centre of the pitch. This leaves lesser space for opposing forwards and midfielders to close down, and puts more pressure on those who ultimately receive the ball.
Hence, deploying two left sided defenders in centre of defence might result in Liverpool having to lay lesser emphasis in playing the ball out from the back. However, the lack of height in midfield (at least, without Gerrard) might result in Liverpool losing possession.
When Agger and Sakho might work
The only feasible way to accommodate both Agger and Sakho together in central defence, however, is in a back three. That would most likely mean Agger playing the role of a left sided centre back while Sakho is stationed in the centre of a three man defence. Brendan Rodgers has tried out a 3-4-1-2 with decent (neither spectacular nor disastrous) results. Martin Skrtel’s form in the early stages of the season coupled with Kolo Toure’s experience meant that Agger was benched, but if Liverpool play with three at the back at some point this season, chances are there might be one way Agger and Sakho together in central defence will work.
Why Skrtel-Toure does not work either
It is more common for right sided centre backs to be paired together. However, flipping the argument on its head would imply that right sided centre backs will not work either, at least at Liverpool, given the individual traits of defenders currently in the squad at Anfield.
So far, Martin Skrtel and Kolo Toure have twice played together in central defence this season, not counting the occasions when Liverpool went 3-5-2. Liverpool first lost 3-1 at Hull City on one occasion, and squeaked home 5-3 at a windy and rain-soaked Stoke City this past Sunday. Liverpool did not defend too well as a team on either occasion, but one must pay attention to the difficulties associated with passing from the back (to a lesser extent, not to the degree associated with left sided centre backs), as well as positional confusion that took place during either game.
The difficulties associated with passing from the back translate to a right footed centre back playing on the left, albeit to a lesser degree. Passing across the pitch can prove to be dangerous, yet Martin Skrtel completed a disproportionate amount of passes at Hull City towards the right flank, as he naturally would. It must be noted that is was not as harmful as the poor defending that day. On the other hand, Kolo Toure also looked uncomfortable playing on the left at Stoke, at least with the ball. He didn’t show too much confidence in Aly Cissokho at times; and on other occasions, the lack of options in midfield resulted in him deciding to pass backwards to Simon Mignolet. The additional time (however little) taken to use his stronger foot to pass coupled Stoke City’s pressing high up the pitch put Mignolet under pressure on more than one occasion – including the lead-up to Charlie Adam’s equalizer.
Martin Skrtel’s positioning during the horror show at Hull City, as depicted by the graph shown above, is an indication of lack of discipline. There were instances where he had no choice but to cross over the right side of defence in order to cover for Kolo Toure – notably while deflecting Tom Huddlestone’s shot to score the own goal that made it 3-1. However, there were occasions when he would constantly drift towards his right. It must be mentioned that Liverpool do not play in a system that divides areas of the defensive half into zones. But Skrtel’s indiscipline often left Jon Flanagan a tad vulnerable.
So, what would work at Liverpool?
Most teams prefer to pick centre halves that complement each other – one of them would be a key component in ‘building from the back’, while the other would play the role of the “thug”. Considering that fullbacks are required provide the natural width for Liverpool, Liverpool’s expansive style of play would require symmetry of defenders’ stronger feet. Hence, it is necessary for manager Brendan Rodgers to deploy a left footed centre half on the left side of defence and a right sided centre half on the right.
The results of doing so provide enough evidence that this works. Despite Liverpool accumulating only 6 clean sheets throughout the season thus far, they have only suffered 5 defeats. One of them was against Southampton during the ill-fated experiment of sending out 4 centre backs, while 3 other defeats were away at Arsenal, Manchester City and Chelsea. Playing a left-right combination in central defence does no guarantee 3 points, but all said and done, it is a ploy that would consistently work over time as long as effort is put in to eliminate individual mistakes that threaten to undermine what could become Liverpool’s best season in 5 years.