The last twelve months have been really hard on Mamadou Sakho. Few other footballers can compete with Sakho in terms of misfortune over the last twelve months. Danny Ings or Bastian Schweinsteiger perhaps but Sakho has seen misfortune from every professional aspect in the last one year.
On April 23 last year, Liverpool received communication from UEFA about Sakho’s assumed doping violation. The club dropped him from the side and did not select him for any of the remaining games. He missed a Europa League final, the road to which had been paved by his goal against Borussia Dortmund at Anfield. Then he had to sit out of the European Championship, which was hosted by his home country and where France reached the final.
By the start of this season, although his name was almost cleared of the doping violation, he found himself frozen out of the Liverpool’s US tour in the summer and then the senior squad because of a disciplinary incident. An incident that Jurgen Klopp considered important enough for him to not pick Sakho in any of his teams. The Frenchman did not play another game in a Klopp team.
Fortunately for him, Liverpool loaned him out to Crystal Palace at the end of the January transfer window. He decided to put his miserable season behind him and put in some great performances for Palace (more on them later), but then he got injured and now faces the possibility of missing out on their remaining games. In the meanwhile, UEFA announced that the whole doping violation saga was a mistake on WADA’s part. Finally, Liverpool fans, who were almost always supportive of him also got enraged when he celebrated Christian Benteke’s winner against his parent club at Anfield.
Even for a grounded personality like Sakho, this doling out of misfortune with extra-large servings must feel awful. He missed two European finals, witnessed his parent side regularly concede goals from the left wing and then was getting thrashed by fans for celebrating one such goal from the opponent’s camp, where he found himself due to all the unfortunate events of the last twelve months. He must be fuming with rage.
But this also means that when he returns from his knee injury, he will be hungry to prove a point to Klopp, Liverpool fans, and all his detractors. I feel that Liverpool should use this hunger to their benefit next season and instead of splashing unnecessary cash in the transfer market for a centre-back, use the one they currently possess.
The Player and Form
Liverpool already know the amount of talent that Sakho brings to the team. He was one of their better centre-backs over the last three seasons. In fact, before his disciplinary issues trashed those plans, I feel that Klopp got Joel Matip to Liverpool to partner with Sakho as his first-choice defensive partnership. So, it is not his talent that Klopp needs to be convinced about. The second thing is form.
Though he has not got too many opportunities this season but in the few that he has got he has made a material difference to Crystal Palace’s chances of survival in the Premier League. Before they got Sakho at the end of January, they had won five times in the league in 22 matches. After they got him, they have won six and drawn one out of 13 matches. In fact, since he first appeared for them on 25th February, Palace have lost only one match where Sakho played full 90 minutes for the Eagles. In terms of player ratings, WhoScored rates him as the fifth-best Crystal Palace player this season and their best defender this season.
In terms of stats, he does not lead any charts for defensive stats (per game) – clearances, blocks, interceptions or tackles. In fact, he does not feature in the top ten for any of these. But for Palace, the his interceptions, blocks and tackles, albeit fewer than their other defenders, have been key. After he was sidelined with injury, Palace have conceded three goals in 123 minutes – two of them at home to Burnley who are the worst travellers in the league. With Sakho playing full 90 minutes, they conceded six goals in 630 minutes. The other way of looking at it is Crystal Palace in their season have conceded 1.7 goals per 90 minutes, but when they had Sakho playing they conceded only 0.8 goals per 90 minutes.
So, if the Eagles stay up this season, which is looking quite likely, Sakho’s form in those seven matches would have played a very crucial role for them. It is the kind of form that will put defenders on scouts’ radars and Liverpool should be paying attention because if they lose out on Champions League football next time, it will be because of their defensive problems.
Liverpool and their Defensive Frailties
Liverpool’s leaky defence has cost them quite a bit this season, although the cost is partially papered over by a highly talented attack. That their left wing is the weak point in their gameplay is now common knowledge and perhaps has been since the Europa League final last May.
If a reminder was required, it came in the form of Crystal Palace’s equalizer at Anfield last month, where a Palace attack down Liverpool’s left resulted in a cross to Benteke for him to score in front of the Kop. They have missed a left footed central defender throughout this season and Sakho, especially in his current form, could be the player they are missing.
Disciplinary problems should be dealt with and even punished but I feel that freezing out a player for more than six months is punishment enough. Even if Sakho had been found guilty of a drug violation, he would only have received a six-months ban. Liverpool have also tolerated Suarez’s disciplinary issues in the past to achieve a better outcome for the club. If Brendan Rodgers had frozen out the Uruguayan after his bite in the Chelsea (2012-13) game, the amazing season of 2013-14 would not have transpired. Punishment for disciplinary problems might be in order but complete excommunication may not be required or even desired.
As a Liverpool fan, I would hope that the team can plug its leaky defence next season. But I think that breaking transfer records over defenders is Chelsea and PSG’s way of working. The Reds should not be paying exorbitantly for Virgil van Dijk. They should be saving that money by keeping Sakho and playing him. If they want, they can splash that cash for a world-class striker who can assure them 20-30 goals per season.
The good thing is that Jurgen Klopp has not completely ruled out this possibility of keeping Sakho. Earlier this year he guarded but sounded positive about Sakho’s Liverpool future. Let us hope he meant it when he said that the Liverpool door is not completely closed on Sakho. Otherwise, Liverpool will face Sakho in the opponents’ ranks next time and the supporters will not even be able to criticise him for a goal he might score or applaud, while their defence might cost a lot of goals or lots of money.