Sorting out Liverpool FC’s defence is something the supporters desperately wanted to see Brendan Rodgers do at the start of the current Premier League season, but the 3 clean sheets at the start of the season has proven to be nothing but a smokescreen for the kind of defending on show in Liverpool FC’s past two defeats to West Ham United and Manchester United.
The present situation
Giving credit where it is due, Liverpool FC made a smart decision over the summer to finally let go of Glen Johnson and shop at Southampton for a replacement. Nathaniel Clyne is by no means the best right back in the world, and the fact that he resembles the Glen Johnson of 2009-10 is an ominous foreshadowing of what is likely to happen when he gets older. However, given that fullbacks today are box-to-box players and are expected to provide support in attack from the wide areas, Nathaniel Clyne is the kind of player that fits what Liverpool FC have been trying to do since 2012. The problem for Liverpool FC is that he is the only one.
Where else to start then, than Dejan Lovren? The failure of too many signings under Brendan Rodgers has been blamed at the discord between the manager and the “Transfer Committee”, but if there is one signing that most definitely was wanted by both parties, it is Dejan Lovren. The Croatian’s form for Southampton is frequently to defend him and place the blame on the manager, but few have even considered that 6 months of good form while being protected by Morgan Schneiderlin and Victor Wanyama could be an anomaly rather than the basis on which Lovren gets a career making contract from Liverpool Football Club.
Lovren has somehow gotten a reputation for being classy on the ball, yet exhibits unnecessary bravado when in possession and frequently makes mistakes under no pressure when trying to back it up. For someone who was seen as a natural successor to Jamie Carragher in providing leadership in defence, his own positioning is erratic, either providing no protection whenever Alberto Moreno bombs forward on the left, or being more interested in doing a fellow defenders’ job than his own. Moreover, in a team where defenders are required to play out from the back and support fullbacks in providing width, Lovren being a right footed defender gives opponents that extra bit of time while he positions himself to make passes on the left flank. If a defender who costs A?20m is only going to put in a couple of good performances here and there, then maybe that A?20m was a waste of money and Liverpool FC should try to get back some of it while they still can.
While Lovren’s deficiencies make him easy target these days, Martin Skrtel is often equally culpable. Credit to the Slovakian captain where it is due, he was once a heroic performance against Manchester United away from departing Liverpool FC and has put in more good performances than any other centre half that has played for Liverpool FC under Brendan Rodgers. He may be Liverpool FC’s longest serving defender now, but his antics at set pieces cannot be coached out of him even by Jose Mourinho. For someone expected to play the role of the thug in Liverpool FC’s defence, he has been bullied by physically strong centre forwards on more than one occasion, and his lack of recovery pace in a system where he is expected to play out from the back means that the “blood and thunder” challenges that he makes while retreating towards his own goal are loaded with risk. Losing experienced players over the last 3 seasons is the argument that keeps Skrtel as Liverpool FC’s first choice defender, but if Brendan Rodgers is meant to lead Liverpool FC into a future that Fenway Sports Group are attempting to build, then a flawed defender who is at a stage in his career where he cannot improve should not be a part of it. And while supporters and managers always prefer experienced players over younger ones in defence, but Martin Skrtel’s experience of 300+ games in a Liverpool FC shirt is absolutely worthless if he barely speaks a word on the pitch.
Alberto Moreno is not entirely blameless either. Being part of a side that won the Europa League obviously convinced someone on Liverpool FC’s Transfer Committee (that Rodgers is part of) to part with A?12m for him, but his penchant for simply abandoning his defensive duties is not something that he would have developed only after moving to Merseyside. Liverpool FC went looking for that elusive defender who was productive in attack as well as sturdy in defence but ended up buying someone who was neither. Moreno has stood strong thanks to the goodwill earned by that cracking goal at White Hart Lane, but the fact that he has shown little in defence over the last 13 months is the reason why Joe Gomez, (who for his talent, is an 18 year old right footed centre half who has left back in his career) is starting for Liverpool FC ahead of him.
Protecting the present and the future
“Centre-halves are so hard to find. You look at some teams and they have ageing centre-halves because it is a struggle to get a really good one. We were fortunate in that two became available . . .”
“We had a chance to do that and protect the club for maybe the next ten years and that is what we have done.”
– Brendan Rodgers, talking up Tiago Ilori and Mamadou Sakho
Liverpool FC’s problems in defence predate Brendan Rodgers. There is a lingering belief that a Liverpool FC side with Jamie Carragher as centre half would surely have won the title, but Carragher was also part of a Liverpool FC side that inexplicably lost 6 games out of 7 on the bounce in the spring of 2012 – a winless run that resulted in Kenny Dalglish losing his job. Daniel Agger’s departure at the start of the 2013-14 season irks Liverpool FC supporters no end, but despite his undeniable quality, but his fitness record meant he would be available for less than 50% of Liverpool FC’s games, while his weakness in the air meant that physically strong forwards like Christian Benteke and Romelu Lukaku bullied him more than once. The departures of Carragher and Agger could not wholly be helped, but where Brendan Rodgers, the infamous “Transfer Committee”, the scouts as well as the masterplan of Fenway Sports Group (FSG) has collectively failed is in planning for the future should it come to pass.
The above featured quotes now ring incredibly hollow given that the defenders are either being benched in favour of Dejan Lovren or are being ignored even at Aston Villa. Even at clubs lower down in the table, supporters prefer a young defender learning his trade at another club rather than at their own, amid the belief that young defenders will cost more points than older. Most managers’ actions are dictated by their fear of losing their job and hence do not want to blood in a defender who will perform well for another manager; while the tendency to blame a young defender’s mistakes on lack of experience is more from unintelligent analysis from former players in a Sky Sports studio.
Take Joe Gomez for example. Yes, there was no need to bring down Ander Herrera so close to the byline when he was going absolutely nowhere, and hence the penalty conceded for the second goal scored by Manchester United was squarely his fault. But there are plenty of experienced defenders that make the same kind of errors that Gomez made on Saturday, so the danger for Joe Gomez is that his age and lack of experience will be used as an excuse to punish him for his mistakes.
Liverpool FC have lost experienced players in each of the last 3 seasons, and have thrown in younger players further forward over the last few seasons too. The preferred option is to have younger players make mistakes on someone else’s payroll, but if more experienced defenders continue to churn out inconsistent performances, then the club is better off planning for the future, grooming a pair of centre halves who could eventually serve Liverpool FC for a decade if not more.
Liverpool FC have simply gone out for an endless search for a bargain, ever since the club thought it wise to pony up A?7m for Sebastian Coates 4 years ago. But what the club have done with Ilori, for instance, is simply waste the young defender’s time, loaning him out to clubs (that would not play him) in leagues that do not prepare him for life on Merseyside. Ilori, for example, would have been better off not joining Liverpool FC in the first place, staying at Sporting Lisbon (where he actually broke into the first team) and gaining the experience that he needed for a long career at the highest level. The problem here is that Liverpool FC is a club willing to buy young defenders but not willing to give them a chance.
Charlton Athletic supporters were not comparing Joe Gomez to a young Rio Ferdinand for no reason, and Tiago Ilori was once a hot prospect among young centre halves in Europe, so if Liverpool FC at any point believe neither of them are good enough, the better thing to do is to not waste their time, and not buy them in the first place. Ilori has already admitted that moving to Villa was a last minute deal, so there clearly was no coherent plan for Ilori to eventually make it to the first team. This does not mean every young defender that does not get a chance at Liverpool FC will eventually become Mikel San Jose or Gabriel Paletta, but if Liverpool FC are buying defenders that are not good enough, the scouts need to be held accountable.
Taking a leaf out of Louis van Gaal’s book and making bold decisions
Louis van Gaal’s talks a lot about balance just as Rodgers gushes over technicians, and his goal of having balance within the team in actual practice has dictated his choice of central defenders in Manchester United starting lineup this season. The key in Van Gaal’s philosophy of playing out from the back is that there needs to be a left footed centre half and a left footed full back on the left in order to create the natural width that is needed to pass the ball around. Chris Smalling was often played on the left since both he and Phil Jones were right footed, and he would exhibit a nervousness on the ball that was not so visible whenever he played on the right.
Hence, on deciding that Chris Smalling was ahead of Phil Jones in the pecking order at United, his choice of Daley Blind was dictated by the fact that he needed someone who would complement Smalling as a “defence first” defender on the left side. The fact that Daley Blind is capable of bringing the ball forward out of defence is what put him ahead of Marcos Rojo as Manchester United’s first choice left sided defender. Daley Blind may not even have been a centre half before joining Manchester United, and his lack of recovery pace will make him vulnerable against the very best. But Blind at central defence will do his job right within a well defined system, and given that Van Gaal once succeeded at converting Bastian Schweinsteiger from an inconsistent left winger to a dominant central midfielder, it will be no surprise if Blind is also a long term success in his new position.
If experience was the deciding factor, then Jonny Evans’ medal haul would have kept him at Manchester United until he was eligible for a testimonial. Manchester United look vulnerable at times, but the fact is that only one team has a better defensive record in the League since Louis Van Gaal joined the club last year.
More experienced defenders putting in one error-strewn performance after another should be reason enough for Liverpool FC to change course and thrown younger defenders who can learn from their mistakes while the rest of the squad is also still learning. First off, how bad Sakho really is in training is a mystery, but if Joe Gomez’s role in the side is that of a babysitter for Dejan Lovren, then Liverpool FC are better off not playing Lovren in the first place. If Brendan Rodgers still does not fancy Mamadou Sakho, then it would be better for him to throw Joe Gomez in there because Gomez will at least learn from his mistakes. Liverpool FC have decided to keep Kolo Toure at the club too, so if his experience is going to be put to any use, then he is exactly the type of personality that should be guiding Gomez at this time.
There is no point in deifying Tiago Ilori on the back of a track record that does not exist, but there is no chance of him making it at Liverpool FC if you loan him to Villa 6 hours after they also buy Joleon Lescott. He is still young, has experience playing in 3 other countries at a young age and can still learn, but if there is no intention to recall him from Villa, Liverpool FC cannot afford to make the same kind of mistakes with Joe Gomez. Liverpool FC enter the Europa League this Thursday, and the blame for the club having to forgo 4 places in the squad due to not having any club trained players (according to UEFA’s rules) should rest with the club. These rules will extend to the Champions League and even to the Premier League in future. Young players are human beings and need the right guidance at the right time, so if Joe Gomez is handled right, Liverpool FC will at least have one club trained defender who can form the mainstay of a Liverpool FC defence for a future that FSG is apparently building for.