As Mamadou Sakho nears a return to match action after a lengthy injury lay-off, Ben Twelves explains why the French international must become Brendan Rodgers’ number one central defender.
Sakho has endured a largely frustrating and unfulfilled time on Merseyside since arriving last summer from Paris Saint Germain.
The dominant French centre-back was viewed as exactly the sort of signing required as Liverpool looked to upgrade their defensive ranks, and it seemed after a promising start to his Anfield career that the £1 5million man would go on to establish himself as the club’s first choice central defender.
His imposing and dominating style seemed to fit perfectly with the defensive set-up that Brendan Rodgers wanted to introduce, but having been continually rotated as the Liverpool manager has been unsure over his best defensive paring and Sakho suffering from injuries, his Anfield tenure hasn’t elevated as expected.
— Mamadou Sakho (@mamadousakho) December 2, 2014
Starting this season as back up to Dejan Lovren and Martin Skrtel – something many voiced concern over – Sakho played only two full games in the Premier League and one in the Champions League before a thigh injury picked up in training intervened, but with the 24-year-old now closing in on game time again, having been named as a sub vs Basel, he must finally become the main man.
20 – Liverpool have made 20 errors leading directly to a goal or attempt in the PL this season, more than any other side. Blunder.
— OptaJoe (@OptaJoe) December 4, 2014
At a time when Liverpool must regroup and ‘go again’, they need to be able to count on strong individuals, especially at the back where there has been plenty of criticism following numerous woeful displays.
Lovren has made 5 defensive errors in the 2014/15 PL. Most by any outfielder in either of last 2 full seasons is 6 pic.twitter.com/KRwFebfJH2
— Andrew Beasley (@BassTunedToRed) November 24, 2014
Last season’s stats, via Squawka, show that Sakho made the joint least amount of defensive errors per 90 minutes of the three centre backs that remain at Anfield from last year with 0.11 – as well as boasting the best figures out of all four current Liverpool centre backs for errors leading directly to goals – zero.
The Frenchman also won more tackles than current first choice centre back Martin Skrtel – 1.39 per game compared to the Slovakian’s 1 – and Sakho registered a higher pass completion rate than any of the current four central defenders again – with 92% – despite the myth of his awkward style, something Jack Lusby expertly dispelled here.
The uncompromising style that the former PSG man has on the pitch lead to inaccurate perceptions, but the truth of the matter is the French defender is the most suited to Rodgers’ supposedly favoured method of strong, aggressive defending and football from the back.
Aside from his obvious comfort in possession contrary to popular belief, Sakho’s physical attributes also make him the leading candidate to be the man partnered in the Liverpool back four.
His strength and swarming style over opponents sees the French international step forwards to meet force with even more force – looking to stop the ball high up the pitch at source before any attacking threat can be developed by opposition – and his speed allows for a quick recovery and cover option should errors inevitably materialise.
Being naturally left sided, it made perfect sense and was even widely expected, that Rodgers would look to bring in a right-sided partner for the French centre back, who was widely regarded as the best centre half at Anfield, however instead, the Liverpool boss strangely looked to replace him with Lovren.
Often a heavy criticism of the Liverpool defensive line in recent times, this is possibly the area that Sakho lacks most as he’s rarely seen barking instruction to teammates, however it is something the man himself feels he can bring to an uncertain defence in his own way.
Speaking to the Liverpool Echo in November, Sakho said:
“For me leadership comes naturally. There are different kinds of leaders; technical leaders, dressing room leaders, psychological leaders.”
A player that chooses to lead through manner of performance, it could be that accompanied by a right-sided centre back with the personality of a vocal, experienced leader, Sakho could well thrive at the heart of the defence.
The experienced head of Kolo Toure alongside the 24-year-old could be the partnership to settle Liverpool’s uncomfortable defence, and despite being at Anfield for almost 18 months together, the pair have played alongside each other only once in a two man partnership.
Toure’s leadership through instruction – he can often be seen as the voice directing proceedings at the back – would allow for Sakho to settle back into the swing of things alongside a sound and performing influence in the Ivorian – who has yet to make a defensive error this season since returning to the XI.
At least we got a clean sheet with Kolo again, who was our best defender too. I can’t see why Lovren would play again at the mo to be honest
— Dan Shepherd (@TheCarteI) December 6, 2014
It should be that this partnership is afforded the opportunity to develop with Skrtel and Lovren both woefully out of form currently and both proving more of a hindrance than help to the team.
Skrtel. The one constant in Liverpool's ever-rotating, ever-fragile defence. How? Why?
— Matt Ladson (@mattladson) December 6, 2014
Fully fit and on form, there is little dispute that Sakho is the best central defender at the club and with him now on his way back to fitness, he must become the main man of the defensive line.
Sakho’s imminent return to full fitness should coincide with an arrival in the Liverpool back four alongside Toure, and if the dominant French defender can regain the performance level that lead to sections of the support calling for him to become the permanent fixture of the Reds back line, Rodgers could find his defensive issues somewhat lessened.