Ten months ago Martin Skrtel had just won Liverpool’s player of the season award for 2011/12, looked a prominent leader in the team, and seemed to be at the peak of his powers when he sent a bullet of a header past Joe Hart mercilessly at Anfield. However he went on to experience a rough second half to the 2012/13 season, being dropped after the FA Cup defeat to Oldham and only going on to play another 205 minutes (compared to the 1874 minutes he played up to that point). This has led to speculation about his future, after Jamie Carragher replaced him to go on and finish his career on a high. Carragher made a number of commanding performances alongside Daniel Agger to deny Skrtel a route back into the side, and force him to feature from the bench.
Since the set-back, Skrtel himself has come out and said he would be prepared to listen to offers elsewhere, with particularly weak suggestions that he could re-join Rafa Benitez at Napoli. However in recent weeks it seems he and his agent have held emergency talks with LFC, and the rumours of him leaving have consequently died down, while Brendan Rodgers also spoke up earlier in the year to make it clear that he is not for sale. With Carragher now retired, it would seem there are no immediate obstacles preventing Skrtel from fighting his way back into the team and making the starting spot his own, and there are some key factors that appear to be making this more and more likely as August approaches.
Many Liverpool fans would argue that perhaps Skrtel didn’t deserve to be dropped, he wasn’t performing particularly badly and was simply collateral damage from a number of poor team performances and perhaps the club’s sentimentality towards Carragher, rather than individual errors. Rodgers demonstrated at many times during the season that each starting line-up reflected the quality and work ethic within the squad. At the start of the season we saw the young players Andre Wisdom, Suso and Raheem Sterling given substantial playing time for the promise they had shown. At the same time, he wanted better quality from Enrique, Downing and Henderson, who were consequently limited to European appearances as a result, until their performances became too good to ignore. In the case of Skrtel there were several stand-out games which contributed to his demise, and if he is indeed to earn his spot back in the side, it is important to look at some of the key factors which caused him to lose out in the first place:
1) 3-1 defeat to Aston Villa at Anfield, in which Liverpool’s entire back line was embarrassed by the pace of Andreas Weimann and the strength of Christian Benteke. They were thoroughly outclassed as Villa played a 3-5-1-1, happy to sit back and absorb Liverpool’s pressure and possession, then spring counter-attacks at the first opportunity. Skrtel was Benteke’s key opponent and despite it being a great physical battle to watch, there were times when the Slovakian simply bounced off Benteke and endured a game to forget.
2) The 3-2 cup exit to Oldham saw Skrtel playing alongside the inexperienced Sebastien Coates at the back, in a ‘B team’ with Luis Suarez as captain. Likely to have sealed his place on the bench was the responsibility placed upon Skrtel for contolling the back line, for two centre-backs usually so capable in the air it was a terrible performance in which they were bullied all over the pitch by Matt Smith, Oldham’s tall centre forward who scored twice and brought their goals about through winning high balls into the box.
3) 3-1 defeat away at Southampton, which was Skrtel’s return to the side after Jamie Carragher got injured in the win against Spurs. The perfect opportunity for him to put in a solid performance and at least give Brendan Rodgers a selection headache for the next game. This was yet another game in which Liverpool should have scored four or five in the first half, playing by far the better football but failing to convert. In conceding three goals, they paid the price dearly and this was certainly a wasted chance to get back in the side for Skrtel.
4) Agger Preference
Finally there is the generally obvious factor that Rodgers has a preference for Daniel Agger in the centre-back pairing. This could be for any number of reasons, from Agger being more of a left sided player while both Skrtel and Carragher tend to occupy the right side of the field, to Agger by pure nature being the first defender to step out and make the challenge, which makes Skrtel or Carragher his ‘covering defender’. As the comparison shows, Agger is the player pushing in for more interceptions and 50-50’s, while Skrtel made more tackles per game (cleaning up) with a higher success rate (put simply there is far more risk to Agger’s game so it takes place higher up the pitch).
You can also see that Agger lost possession twice as frequently and three times more often than Skrtel, however aside from this, you can see below the two possess very similar capabilities, both are excellent on the ball and their styles truly complement each other.
Now a couple of reasons why returning him to the starting line-up for 2013/14 now seems like the most obvious step that Rodgers will now take:
The assumption at this point should be that until Liverpool have signed one of the many centre-backs who have been talked about (who are in a position to go straight into the 1st team), we can probably expect a Skrtel comeback in the coming season. There have been links to Toby Alderweireld, Kyriakos Papadopolous and Ashley Williams, however none of these look likely at all at the moment.
It could be argued that Rodgers recruiting of Kolo Toure is to replace Jamie Carragher maybe not as a player, but as a presence. He comes close to matching Carragher’s incredible mentality, while his strong head and vast experience will count for a lot in the dressing room of the youngest side in the league. It is extremely unlikely due to his lack of recent EPL games, growing age and slowing speed, that he would be a regular feature in Rodgers’ starting line-up, however he has challenged Toure to ‘fight for his place’.
Liverpool are also believed to be close to bringing in another centre back in Tiago Ilori, who is a 20 year old English-born Portugal youth international currently with Sporting Lisbon. His arrival would probably see Sebastian Coates leave the club, while Rodgers would look to mould Ilori over the coming years as a work in progress. None of these comings and goings are a genuine threat to Skrtel’s return to the side which has probably made him feel more comfortable at this moment in time.
Perhaps one of the most underrated factors a team can benefit from is the experience of playing together over a longer period of time. Many players take one, two and even three years to really adapt with a team and become comfortable with their role in the side to produce better results. In the starting line-up pictured above, you can see that the combination of these back seven players will now be going into their third full season together, with Jose Enrique joining in the 11/12 season. Aside from Enrique the others have all been playing together for five years now, which gives Rodgers a far easier solution than bringing in more reinforcements who will then go on to take another two or three years to familiarise themselves with the EPL.
It is getting to the stage now for Liverpool where they are playing attractive football, scoring plenty of goals with 71 last season (Spurs 66, City 71, Arsenal 72, Chelsea 75, United 86), have a solid and focused philosophy which is continuing to develop, they are financially stable for the moment despite many goings-on behind the scenes at the moment. So the smaller details will now count for far much more, things like consistency, partnerships and continuing development will play an important role now, and it is certainly not unlikely that one of these small details (Skrtel) will be given another chance to prove himself this season as the reds push for a top four finish.
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