Brendan Rodgers has gone through several tactical phases during his time at the Liverpool helm. Having dogmatically stuck to his 4-3-3 possession-oriented approach during his first half season, Rodgers has since toyed with a strict 4-2-3-1, a 4-2-2-2/4-2-3-1 hybrid, and, finally, the 3-4-1-2 he’s used over the past six or so weeks this season.
Rodgers’s switch to a three-man central defence has been a double-edged sword. It has created a platform for the prolific partnership of Daniel Sturridge and Luis Suarez, but also loosened the deadbolts of Liverpool’s defence. Having kept clean sheets in Liverpool’s first three league fixtures with a four-man back line, the re-jiggered defensive setup has yet to post a shutout. With wide 4-3-3’s continuing to give the formation fits (the unimpressive performance against Arsenal a prime example), it may be time for a departure from the 3-4-1-2.
While I believe Suarez and Sturridge can be accommodated in the fluid 4-2-2-2/4-2-3-1 system we saw earlier in the year, and in the second half against Arsenal, a huge question is what should be Rodgers’s preferred center back partnership. Daniel Agger did little wrong before his injury, Kolo Toure has exceeded expectations since his free transfer from Manchester City, Martin Skrtel has been rejuvenated after a summer of uncertainty, and Mamadou Sakho has been improving week-on-week since his arrival from Paris Saint-Germain. It’s a headache for Rodgers, but one every manager would love to have.
Let’s compare Liverpool’s center backs and try to determine who would form the best two man partnership should Rodgers move away from the 3-4-1-2. As a quick note, considering how frequently Rodgers has changed formations and vacillated between styles of play, I tried to avoid using per-minute numbers and emphasized percentages.
Martin Skrtel’s last 30 months in Red have been a rather bizarre roller coaster. Having won Liverpool’s “Player of the Year” award for the 2011-2012 season, the Slovakian was dreadful in Rodgers’s first season at the club. Entering 2012-2013 as first-choice, a slew of mental errors and costly mistakes soon saw Skrtel replaced by Jamie Carragher for the remainder of the campaign. Rumors of an exit abounded over the summer, with serious noise rumbling from Rafa Benitez’s new-look Napoli, but Skrtel ended up staying put on Merseyside.
In a complete reversal from last year, Skrtel started the season as third-choice but was recalled to play alongside Daniel Agger in Liverpool’s 1-0 win over United. Skrtel was absolutely immense throughout, and has since been a permanent starter even following Rodgers’s switch to a 3-4-1-2.
His place in the side should be secure moving forward as he’s arguably been Liverpool’s most complete defender. The “Terminator” is winning ground duels and tackles at rates of 63% and 77%, respectively. In the air, Skrtel is winning 65% of his aerial duels, oftentimes directly matched up against the opposition’s lone striker.
Perhaps most impressively for a player who has struggled with concentration issues, Skrtel’s reading of the game seems to have dramatically improved and he is recording an interception at an impressive rate of once every 32 minutes.
On the ball meanwhile, Skrtel’s passing ability has long been underrated and his 91% completion rate deserves notice. While he is sending the ball forward just 35% of the time—lowest amongst Liverpool’s center backs—this is most likely a by-product of having little natural space in the center of a three-man defense.
The Dane will feel hard done to have lost his place since he departed through injury against Southampton back in September. Having been promoted to vice-captain following Carragher’s retirement, Agger played a full 90 minutes in each of the three consecutive 1-0 victories Liverpool posted to start the campaign.
Since the injury however, Agger has found playing time hard to come by—with no starts and just 23 minutes off the bench against Crystal Palace. Whether his grumbles to the Danish press were real or not, the well-respected Dane may find it hard to break back into the team unless he starts raising his game.
A ground 50-50 win rate of 58% and aerial duel win rate of 63% both come in just shades under Skrtel’s marks and are right around those of Sakho, however Agger’s tackle win rate of 57% is far and away the worst of the bunch. These struggles in challenges are compounded by an interception rate of once every 117 minutes—once again the poorest rate by a large margin.
With Rodgers going out of his way to recruit technically proficient defenders, Agger’s noted ability on the ball (traditionally a bit overrated as his marauding runs forward catch extra attention) will not be enough to get him back in the team. Indeed, his 84% pass completion rate is on par with Toure and below those of Sakho and Skrtel.
Clearly, Agger holds serious influence. His arm-band posts with both club and country reflect a well-respected professional and there is something to be said for Agger playing part in Liverpool’s first three clean sheets.
Mamadou Sakho’s progression had dangerously stalled out in a crowded PSG defensive corps and, considering his contract had but one year to run, Liverpool’s decision to spend almost 20 million pounds on the Frenchman raised a few eyebrows. With his performances growing more assured each passing week, Sakho has already earned the nickname “Killer” by his new teammates and Liverpool’s investment is proving to be a wise one.
Let’s get the one negative out of the way and acknowledge Sakho’s ground 50-50 rate of 55% is lowest in the group, three points behind Agger. Beyond that, “Killer” has certainly lived up to his name. A remarkable 90% tackle success rate is the best of the bunch and his 63% aerial duel rate keeps him in the close company of Skrtel and Agger. Even more impressively, Sakho has quickly adjusted to the Premier League’s pace – leading the group with an interception every 30.5 minutes and having yet to commit an error.
From strength to strength, Sakho has been extraordinarily comfortable on the ball (sometimes to the point of seeming cavalier) and is sitting at a healthy 91% completion rate. This is a full seven points higher than Agger, though the Dane is sending 48% of his passes forward compared to Sakho’s 44%.
While Sakho seemed to get caught out of position a few times in his first appearances, he has become demonstrably more assured over the last few games. That he’s adjusted to a new league, new language, and a three-man defence only makes these stats more impressive.
Many viewed Kolo Toure’s free transfer from Manchester City as a solid depth acquisition who could provide veteran leadership following Carragher’s retirement. Over the course of the summer however, Rodgers repeatedly raved over the Ivorian’s performances in training and Toure entered the season as first choice along Agger. The former Gunner’s clear determination and exceptional quickness quickly won him respect amongst the Anfield faithful, and he has maintained his starting berth on the right side of the three-man unit.
Defensively, Toure has been excellent when attempting challenges on the ground. His 65% ground win rate is highest amongst the four defenders and his 86% tackle rate is second best only to Sakho. On the ball meanwhile, Toure has completed 84% of his passes—this despite being far and away the most adventurous passer of the bunch. He’s sending 58% of his passes forward, a full 10% more than the next closest in Agger.
Despite these positives, there are two main areas of weakness in Toure’s game. He is recording an interception just once every 74 minutes, which still bests Agger’s poor mark but pales in comparison to Sakho and Skrtel. The biggest issue however, is Toure’s tendency to get bullied in the air. Liverpool’s number four is noticeably short in stature for a center back and indeed, he’s winning just 43% of his aerial challenges—a full 20% lower than Sakho and Agger.
Toure has done an admirable job in exceeding expectations, but his weakness in the air means he would be best served exclusively playing as the right-most member of a three-man unit.
With Skrtel in the imperious form he displayed under Kenny Dalglish (the tutelage of Steve Clarke certainly deserves note too), the Slovakian should clearly remain a permanent fixture in front of Simon Mignolet. Based on his stature at the club, Agger will feel aggrieved to lose his place through injury, but he is being statistically outperformed by Sakho in all facets of the game. The Frenchman has long been tipped as a potential World-XI defender, and it seems he may be starting to realize his immense ability in a Liverpool kit.
Strictly based on numbers, it’s hard to arrive at any other conclusion than a Skrtel-Sakho pairing would be Liverpool’s best current option should Rodgers revert to a four man backline. Strong in the tackle, formidable in the air, and comfortable in possession, a pairing of Skrtel and Sakho would form a prototypical right-left partnership that may, in fact, become just as dominant as the Sturridge-Suarez connection at the other end of the pitch.