For being Liverpool’s de facto centre-back it is perhaps surprising that Martin Skrtel has divided such opinion. Yet, with a penchant for pulling shirts and an unnervingly erratic relationship with tactical awareness, there is certainly ammunition for critics who declare that he is a liability who doesn’t consistently play with the maturity he should at 30 years old.
After a disappointing season punctuated by moments of utter despair Skrtel looked to be on his way out of the club having made over 200 appearances. With a total of 5 defensive errors (the second highest in the club and the league) there was an apparent lack of sympathy for the defender. Yet, after eventually turning his back on an offer from Inter Milan Martin Skrtel proclaimed his desire to stay in Merseyside and fight for his place.
Upon hearing this news some fans begrudgingly suggested that although he was not fit for starting in the side, he would work as a back up for Lovren, Sakho or any other potential centre-back options. Although this opinion may largely have come about after two successive defeats at the end of a poor season, this was a clear slight against the long time servant of the club if ever there was one.
At one point in history many Liverpool fans seemed to unanimously agree that Skrtel was one of our most outstanding players. Strong in the air and able to bully the most threatening of strikers he was a sure Anfield favourite. However, in more recent times detractors have been overeager to reiterate what many deem to be Martin Skrtel’s Achilles heel, positioning.
Paulo Maldini – “If I have to make a tackle then I have already made a mistake”
Now its surely not footballing heresy to suggest in the modern age that this is plainly ridiculous. When the likes of Sergio Aguero, Eden Hazard or Diego Costa are running at goal, defensive positioning will never be enough to contain such dynamic and explosive talent.
Maldini’s often repeated quote on the topic of defensive positioning is perhaps an indicator of why many believe Skrtel’s awareness is so negligible, with the central defender consistently being forced to make last ditch efforts to win the ball back. Yet, defensive positioning is a catchall term that is nebulous at best. There is of course no tangible metric for positioning, as it is a reactionary response to danger, not simply the requirement of upholding a defensive line or marking a single player.
Often Martin Skrtel is criticized for barking orders, pointing at players and failing to track runners having delegated just about all responsibility. But, in the same breath fans congratulate him on the ability to make last ditch tackles, clear the ball off the line and inspire bravery amongst panic. Such is the curse of the modern centre-back whose every decision is meticulously analysed.
More often than not these decisions must be made instantaneously. Against Arsenal in one memorable moment Skrtel was positioned perfectly to intercept a cross, turning the ball just past his own goal preventing Theo Walcott an easy tap in. Whether by luck or judgement Skrtel’s aggression and decisive action was just about the only way to prevent a certain goal. Yet, for all intents and purposes it still looked an act of desperation, signaling a defense that had lost control marginally saving themselves from capitulation. The point being that positioning is not as simple as remaining tight to an attacker or covering one specified location of the pitch, it is an attribute based on awareness and a health slice of luck.
As positioning is so instinctive the degree to which Skrtel’s mistakes have been analysed or reiterated is perhaps unfair. Moreover, positioning is also directly affected by other teammates performances. In this sense Skrtel’s defensive weaknesses may in actuality signal him as a victim of circumstance. In recent games although Skrtel has had to make such challenges, they have not be made by mistakes but by an excellent attack or good fortune. Indeed, a new-look defense containing a defensive midfielder, an improving centre-back partner and two excellent fullbacks may cast the Slovakian international in a far more positive light.
Nathaniel Clyne and Joe Gomez have been revelations in their own right, something I have been keen to point out before. And, with a more than healthy 89% pass success rate in the opening 3 matches it is clear that Brendan’s compact fullbacks have aided in the ability for Skrtel and Lovren to pick simple passes, preventing a turnover of possession. This has helped nurture confidence at the back, reducing the danger of needlessly clearing the ball, whilst allowing the fullbacks to more easily cover either central defender. This is perhaps the most important function of this new defense as pundits like Jamie Carragher have been quick to emphasize.
After scraping together a number of consecutive clean sheets, capped of by an immense performance against Arsenal, Skrtel aided by a new defense, has surely transitioned back from being one of Liverpool’s defensive scapegoats to a standout performer in just three games.
Few players of his ilk are error free, and certainly his share of concentration lapses and tactical awareness should not be swept aside, certainly I will never forget that backpass against Manchester City. Yet, for a while to come I am positive that a team with Martin Skrtel in it will be infinitely better off for his inclusion.
And, after playing the way he did at Arsenal, you cannot argue with Skrtel’s statement that:
“We showed we can compete with anyone in this league, whether it’s away or home. We just have to keep going and keep building on this run.”
Undoubtedly, for Liverpool’s fresh defensive line-up their performance against West Ham on Saturday will demonstrate if this stability proves permanent.
Regardless of this uncertainty, there is much reassurance to be found in a familiar, quite scary looking face planted firmly in the centre of our defensive ranks.
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