Season Review Series Part Two: The Defence.

The Achilles heel of the Reds’ unexpected title challenge has been the defence. From a start of three clean sheets in a row to the calamities of West Brom, Fulham and Crystal Palace (all away games), there have been serious questions raised over the personnel in the defence and the protection they have received from around the pitch. It is almost inconceivable that a team can score over 100 goals in a season and yet lose the title on goal difference; should City draw with West Ham on Sunday, Liverpool would need an improbable 13-goal margin over Newcastle in order to win the league for the 19th time. In defence of the defence, inconsistency has been caused by a combination of injuries to key players of differing styles, leading to confusion and uncertainty at the back. In a season of frustration, there have also been some success stories; Jon Flanagan has resurrected a faltering career at the club, and Martin Skrtel has been transformed into a far more cultured player than before. That said, it is highly likely that the defence is one area Liverpool will be looking to strengthen in summer.

Right-back

In a season of ups and downs, it is a little surprising to recall that Glen Johnson had a bright start to the new season. In need of a break after a gruelling end to the previous campaign which had seen his performances suffer, the English defender was back to his attacking best in the first couple of games, culminating in an excellent performance against United at Anfield. That game was to also see the crunching challenge by Patrice Evra which caused the injury Johnson would suffer with for the rest of the season. In the absence of a ready-made replacement, with Wisdom on loan to Derby and Flanagan not yet trusted, Johnson was forced to play through the pain barrier and was largely ineffectual as a result. With Aly Cissokho finding his feet on the opposite flank, Flanagan was able to move across for a short period and allow Johnson some much-needed rest. Since his return, Johnson has been a steady if unspectacular performer in both attack and defence, offering a useful outlet going forward and mostly dependable at the back. In the last few games of the season, however, the absence of Henderson has exposed some of the flaws in his game. With the less mobile Lucas alongside him, Johnson has been more hesitant in his attacking play and looked out-of-sorts as a result. His high wages and his age are likely to count against him in the search for a new contract, so it is possible that next season could well be his last in a Liverpool shirt. With the continued development of Flanagan and the return of Wisdom from loan, the club appear to be well-stocked in the right-back department. It seems unlikely they will delve into the market this summer, but will likely be preparing to act in January or the following year.

Rating:
Glen Johnson – 6.5/10

Centre-backs

The central defenders have come under a large amount of criticism this year for the porous nature of the Liverpool back line. Individual errors from all four players have been costly, whilst the late flurries from teams such as Sunderland, Norwich and Crystal Palace have been indicative of a lack of composure in the centre. This situation has been exacerbated all season by a run of injuries, starting with Touré against Notts County in the League cup and continuing throughout the year to both Agger and Sakho.

The once constant in central defence, Skrtel, has enjoyed a good season; he has been the club’s most consistent performer, but is still prone to lapses in judgement and position which have hurt the title bid. Skrtel’s strengths lie in defending the edge of his penalty area and in his aerial ability, and this year has seen an improved level of comfort on the ball as the season has progressed. However, he still has a tendency to drop too deep when under pressure or having conceded a goal, which can have disastrous results. Interestingly, when paired with the calm and collected Agger, these problems seem to be lessened somewhat. Given Agger’s continued struggle with fitness, it may have to fall to Sakho to take up the organisational role that Skrtel seems to thrive playing alongside. The big Slovakian has also been a threat from set-pieces, with a highly impressive return of seven goals this season – more than strikers such as Soldado and Torres! A long summer break should allow Skrtel the time to work on his positioning during games and a consistent partner next year would also be of benefit to his overall play. A good season from him, but it remains to be seen if he can follow it up with more positive performances next year.

Mamadou Sakho arrived from PSG with a large price tag and a reputation to match. Since then, he has bedded in relatively well to the Liverpool team, with the two-footed lunges that peppered his early couple of games thankfully a thing of the past. Despite appearing a little ungainly, the Frenchman is confident on the ball and adept at pushing defence into attack. He has been surprised a few times in the air, and could do with some work on his finishing, but overall his performances have been decent – especially in light of having to adjust to a number of different defensive systems over the course of the year. As a young man who seems determined to succeed at the club, his obvious talent should grow well at the team and he could well be a fixture of Liverpool sides for many years to come. His Champions League experience should also be useful over the next year. A steady first season then, with potential to improve yet further.

A largely injury-free campaign for Agger last year raised hopes that the vice-captain would be similarly resilient this time around. Sadly, the opposite has been true and the Dane has been dogged by persistent doubts over his fitness throughout the year. He remains a valuable part of the squad, and the best organiser of the back line currently at the club. His quality and composure on the ball is also highly rated, but the doubts over his physicality resurfaced again this year. On a number of occasions he has lost out in important aerial duels and his ability to compete physically with a player such as Lukaku or Bony is questionable. Given his evident love for the club and his attributes as a leader, it is hard to imagine him leaving any time soon, but he must be able to play for an entire season without injury if he wishes to retain his automatic place in the starting line-up.

The final member of the central-defensive quartet is a perfect metaphor for the defence’s season as a whole. Kolo Touré’s great start to his Liverpool career was cut short by a cruel injury in the League cup. Since then he has struggled for form, even though there have been a number of appearances in the starting line-up. A calming and mature presence in the squad (witness his comforting of Luis Suarez against Palace), Touré has nonetheless been capable of some tremendous howlers over the course of the season. He may be a cult hero and a likeable character, but at 33 years old his career is beginning to wind down and it would be no great surprise to see him feature only intermittently next season.

Ratings:
Martin Skrtel – 8/10
Mamadou Sakho – 7/10
Daniel Agger – 7/10
Kolo Touré – 6.5/10

Left-back

The long-term injury suffered by José Enriqué was a huge blow to Liverpool’s defensive season. Whilst the Spaniard, on occasion, plays like he is on a pitch only he can see, he is a solid presence when defending and offers a powerful if wildly unpredictable outlet in attack. His replacements for the year had mixed fortunes. Aly Cissokho started ignominiously with an injury in his first game and was comically poor on his return. Since then a consistent improvement saw him a regular starter, only to drop to the bench again once Glen Johnson returned to fitness. Sympathy for the Frenchman is a natural reaction given his immensely positive persona, but he does not appear to have the requisite quality to make his loan move permanent.

Jon Flanagan, on the other hand, may have saved the club a large amount of money with his exceptional improvement over the season. For a player that many had written off his performances have been little short of incredible, starting with an assured showing in one of the best Merseyside derbies in recent years. Highlights of the campaign since then include a memorable first goal against Tottenham and comparisons to Brazilian great Cafu following on from his neat skill against Juan Mata at Old Trafford. Whilst he is unlikely to continue at left-back following reinforcements in the summer, Flanagan has shown his willingness to learn and work hard can make him an invaluable challenger to Glen Johnson and a highly adaptable member of the squad. Never a world-class player, perhaps, but with the perfect attitude to take his talent as far as it can possibly go.

Ratings:
Aly Cissokho – 6/10
Jon Flanagan – 8/10

Conclusion

Simply put, the defence this year has not performed well enough. Mitigating circumstances aside, there has been a worrying lack of coherence and concentration in some of Liverpool’s defensive play this year, a facet which will have to be ironed out if the good work from this season is to be built on. The radical shift in number of goals scored also goes some way to explaining the problem; the club has adopted a gung-ho attitude in many games which has left the back line exposed, but the overall problems have been individual rather than systemic. The arrival of a new full-back (most likely on the left) and welcome returns for Wisdom and the increasingly promising Ilori show that the wealth of defensive talent at the club indicates a bright future for the Reds. Likewise, depth in defensive midfield with both Gerrard and Lucas capable of playing the position, the acquisition of another high-pressing central-midfielder and a more settled goalkeeper will all have a positive effect on the defence. If individual errors can be eradicated and a consistent back line decided upon, next year should be a far happier one for those players charged with keeping the ball out of Mignolet’s net.


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Season Review Series Part Two: The Defence.
Glen Johnson6.5
Martin Skrtel8
Mamadou Sakho7
Daniel Agger7
Kolo Touré6.5
Jon Flanagan8
7.2Overall Score

About The Author

Toby Podmore

is a Liverpool-supporting cuckoo from a rugby-mad South African nest in north London, Toby Podmore was brought to Liverpool football club through a soft spot for Michael Owen. With that well and truly gone, his love for the club has remained with him from France to the UK and back again. He now spends his time reading, writing and watching the club from Belfast.

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