Towards the end of 2013/14, Liverpool’s Mamadou Sakho was labelled ‘clumsy’ in possession – a media rhetoric that fans have become to recycle. Jack Lusby dispels the myth.
Dragged out ad nauseam in post-match analysis towards the end of the 2013/14 season, Liverpool’s Mamadou Sakho seemed to become synonymous with the words ‘clumsy’ and ‘nervous’.
A quick search of Twitter goes to show the extent that an often unfounded idea can spread to the general populace:
Agger leaving would only make an already awful defence even worse. Rodgers should keep anyone who can keep Sakho and his clumsy feet out.
— Joe Riley (@riley_joe96) May 19, 2014
Sakho. I honestly hate him. He is so clumsy and hopeless. He does nothing right
— mitchell (@Mitchell_Haddow) May 5, 2014
Are these accusations accurate?
Far from it.
Making 18 league appearances for the Reds in 2013/14, Sakho struggled to establish himself within Rodgers’ defence and allow himself to flourish to the extent that he is capable, but to label the Frenchman clumsy, particularly in possession, is baffling.
These accusations of clumsiness are generally levelled in regards to the on-ball ability of Sakho, particularly as the Frenchman has proven himself as a strong defensive force this season.
However, as a passer the 24-year-old is one of the best centre-backs in Europe, as can be proven with statistical comparison (via Squawka).
The data, shown above, comparing the plethora of central defensive charges within Europe’s top five leagues—in England, France, Spain, Italy and Germany—show Sakho to be one of the most accurate passers of the ball.
A passing accuracy of 92 percent is highly commendable, and a genuinely clumsy player would not be able to boast such a statistic.
Of these players, only Giorgio Chiellini, Emiliano Moretti and Thiago Silva made more passes per 90 minutes than Sakho; this proves that the Frenchman is hugely adept on the ball, making more passes than most at a highly accurate rate.
In terms of the Premier League—which is often labelled the most physical, affording the least time on the ball—Sakho is only bested by Arsenal’s Laurent Koscielny and Per Mertesacker when it comes to passing accuracy, but Liverpool’s wall makes more passes per 90 minutes than the pair.
Furthermore, these aren’t all short passes between the back four.
Sahko’s average passing length of 20 metres is only ‘bettered’ by Torino’s Moretti and Kamil Glik, a surprisingly adept partnership, suggesting that Sakho is comfortable making passes both long and short.
Comparing, flatteringly, with Europe’s elite, these passing stats show Sakho to be anything but clumsy on when it comes to passing the ball.
Furthermore, if we are equating clumsiness to the conceding of opportunities to the opposition, and with regards to Sakho in competition with a likely departing Daniel Agger for the left centre-back position, defensive errors need to be considered.
As per Squawka, the Frenchman made two defensive errors in the 2013/14 season, neither of which led to a goal; this amounts to 0.12 defensive errors per 90 minutes.
Comparatively, Agger made three defensive errors last season, again neither leading to a goal, at a rate of 0.20 per 90.
The Dane, linked with a move away from Anfield this week, is generally considered the calming influence in the Reds’ defensive ranks, yet remains a statistically less trustworthy figure amongst the back four.
Sakho actually made the least defensive errors of any of the Liverpool centre-backs in 2013/14—Martin Skrtel made four, including two ‘assists’, whilst Kolo Toure made three, again with two leading to an opposition goal.
On the ball, the Frenchman is the most reliable, and technically the least clumsy; in a debut season within a firmly established Liverpool defence, Sakho has proved himself to the highest degree, belying his tarnishing.
@JimmyRiceWriter I'm a big Agger fan, but Sakho merely 'looks' clumsy. Because of his gait people think he plays like Djimi Traore
— Paul Tomkins (@paul_tomkins) May 8, 2014
The term ‘gait’ has become a focal point of the Liverpool fan’s lexicon this season, following Sir Alex Ferguson’s damning verdict of Jordan Henderson in his autobiography, released at the start of 2013/14.
Much of the criticism of Sakho’s playing style, as clumsy, derives from his movement on the ball; such is the Frenchman’s physicality and centre of gravity he often appears to be lumbering over the ball to the extent that it is out of his control.
However, this positioning more often than not allows the Frenchman to enforce power and precision into his passing—of Liverpool’s centre-backs, Sakho is the most likely to be seen guiding a probing pass from the defence into the feet of a midfielder such as Philippe Coutinho, for example.
Furthermore, as proven above, Sakho is an adept passer of the ball—most of these passes are sure to reach their target.
As Henderson has proven this season, a player’s specific gait has little bearing on his ability to play and, whilst Sakho’s movement may seem out of the ordinary, the 24-year-old is a hugely composed presence.
Style of Play
Moving from PSG last summer, Sakho has endured an injury-riddled first season at Liverpool, but has made the transition into Rodgers’ side comfortably.
As evidenced by the supreme passing qualities of the Paris club’s Brazilian centre-back partnership of Alex and Silva, Sakho arrived fresh from a side that preaches a similar pass-heavy philosophy to that of Liverpool’s manager.
This is something that could be seen as the Frenchman insisted, following the 2-0 loss at home to Chelsea, that the Reds must stick with their passing style to succeed, explaining:
“We have to remain calm and relaxed. That defeat is in the past. We now have to focus on what’s ahead of us, meaning the next two games. And we mustn’t change anything, we should remain true to ourselves and play our own game.”
These are the words of a defender hugely confident in his abilities within a passing system, and his performances have underlined this.
Future of Liverpool
At 24 years old, impressing in his first—injury hit—season at a title-challenging club in a vastly more competitive league, coming to terms with a language barrier and an inconsistent back-four, Sakho can only get better at Liverpool.
With Agger likely to leave the Reds this summer, and Sakho the club’s ‘marquee’ signing last summer, Anfield can get used to the sight of the Frenchman at the heart of Rodgers’ defence for years to come.
A settled 2014/15 season, hopefully within a consistent defensive unit, will disprove any accusations of clumsiness in Sakho’s game.
Do you agree with our analysis? Let us know in the comments below.