Centre-back has been a problem area for Liverpool for quite a while now. Since the retirement of Jamie Carragher, and perhaps even as far back as the days of Sami Hyypia, the Reds have lacked a solid and settled centre-back partnership. Martin Skrtel has been a regular fixture in the side for a long time, but despite racking up over 300 appearances for the club, the Slovakian remains inconsistent with a tendency to make rash, poorly-judged decisions in defence. Daniel Agger was sold to Brondby in the summer of 2014 after falling out of favour with Brendan Rodgers. The Dane was a fan favorite and one of the Premier League’s most accomplished ball-playing defenders, with Barcelona registering their interest.
Despite the expensive acquisitions of Mamadou Sakho for £17 million from PSG in 2013, and Dejan Lovren for £20 million from Southampton in 2014, neither defender managed to prove their credentials after arriving on Merseyside. Sakho was a committee signing and was often left out of the side by Rodgers, and although clearly a talented player, his risky passing and tendency to overplay in dangerous situations earned him a reputation as an unreliable defender. Lovren’s first season at Liverpool was considerably more disastrous, to the point where his future career at the club looked virtually untenable following a calamitous, error-strewn debut season during which he looked like a total write-off, unrecognizable from his dominant performances at Southampton.
Liverpool began the 2015/16 season with Lovren and Skrtel as the first choice partnership selected by Rodgers, with the Northern Irishman continuing to overlook Sakho despite his impressive performances throughout the latter half of the 2014/15 campaign. However, a succession of injuries to Skrtel has led to the duo of Lovren and Sakho being paired together on a regular basis, especially since the arrival of Jurgen Klopp in October. Throughout the first half of the season, Liverpool were leaking goals against all kinds of opposition, unable to build any kind of defensive stability. The inability to keep clean sheets, not helped by the erratic form of Simon Mignolet, compounded Liverpool’s blunt attacking performances. Problems at both ends of the pitch set the tone for a difficult start to the Jurgen Klopp era, with the centre-back position looking in serious need of urgent attention in the January transfer window and in the summer of 2016.
Following an injury crisis which led to all four senior centre-backs being sidelined, Klopp was forced to select the likes of Tiago Ilori and Lucas Leiva at the heart of defence, with a then-34-year-old Kolo Toure becoming a regular starter. The situation was far from ideal, as Klopp drafted in Steven Caulker on an emergency loan deal until the end of the season to provide some short-term cover. In fact, all but one of Caulker’s appearances to date have come as a late substitute playing as an emergency centre-forward, rather than in defence. Despite murmurs of a potential January deal for Bundesliga defenders Neven Subotic and Joel Matip, neither came to fruition, leaving Klopp’s options looking threadbare.
After returning from injury post-Christmas, the form of Mamadou Sakho took an alarming dip, as the Frenchman returned to his early Liverpool days of rash and reckless defending. A point was reached whereby Lucas Leiva actually appeared to be Liverpool’s most reliable and competent centre-back option- a far from ideal scenario given the amount of money invested in centre-backs in recent seasons, to see a 28-year-old holding midfielder as the most viable option. In fairness, the veteran Kolo Toure, who turns 35 today (Happy Birthday, Kolo!) never let the side down when called upon. But Klopp needed to establish a solid centre-back pairing sooner rather than later in order to tighten up the backline and provide a solid foundation for his more attacking players to build upon.
On Thursday night, Liverpool eliminated Man United from the Europa League following a 1-1 draw (3-1 aggregate victory) at Old Trafford. Before the game, ex-United midfielder Paul Scholes, working as a pundit for BT Sport, said he fancied United’s chances on the night as he felt Liverpool had two centre-backs who could be exploited. At the end of 90 minutes, as it turned out, Sakho and Lovren were arguably the two best players on the pitch. In fact, the performance of Sakho in particular was outstanding- one of the finest individual defensive displays by a Liverpool player for several years. The Frenchman was first to every loose ball, constantly winning 50-50 duels and timing his sliding tackles to perfection. Lovren and Sakho formed a formidable barrier which United simply could not break down, aside from the first-half penalty conceded by a clumsy challenge from Nathaniel Clyne.
This was not a one-off performance by the two defenders. The partnership between Lovren and Sakho has blossomed in recent weeks, with both players developing an excellent understanding of one another. Liverpool have conceded just 3 goals in their last 8 games in all competitions (pre-Southampton), keeping 5 clean sheets in the process. While Sakho remains the classier player in possession, capable of pulling off ambitious passes from the back, Lovren has transformed into a dependable, no-nonsense defender who executes the basics superbly. Klopp has clearly given Lovren a huge boost in confidence, unlocking the Croatian’s true ability. Lovren has admitted this himself, claiming that although he underperformed last season, a good player does not simply lose his ability over the course of one season. Lovren is a player transformed, brimming with confidence and authority. It’s fair to say he’s now looking every bit a £20 million defender and has finally begun to prove his credentials, resurrecting his Liverpool career.
Ahead of next season, it seems likely that Toure will be allowed to leave on a free transfer following the expiry of his contract in the summer. It is difficult to see where Martin Skrtel fits into Klopp’s future plans, and from a personal point of view I would look to try to offload Skrtel in the summer. I’d expect there to be plenty of potential suitors. It is also difficult to see Tiago Ilori breaking into the first team on a regular basis, with the Portuguese defender still way down the pecking order. The arrival of Joel Matip from Schalke on a free transfer represents an excellent piece of business, as Matip will significantly strengthen Klopp’s first choice options. It is worth remembering that Joe Gomez will return from his ACL injury, with centre-back his natural position. The young defender looked superb at full-back before being ruled out for the remainder of the season, and he will surely have a role to play next season and beyond. While Lovren and Sakho have formed a formidable partnership, it would seem likely that Matip will eventually be a starter. This healthy competition will only drive the others to fight for their places. In Sakho, Lovren, Matip and Gomez, Liverpool have four solid first-team centre-back options for next season and it looks as though further investment could be used to bolster positions elsewhere in the squad. What was a real weak spot in this Liverpool squad has become an area of real strength and depth.