Martin Skrtel: Defender’s Brilliance Key To Liverpool’s Top-Four Assault

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Liverpool’s resurgence in 2015 has been down to numerous factors, but the superb form of Martin Skrtel is one that perhaps isn’t highlighted enough, writes Henry Jackson.

LIVERPOOL, ENGLAND - Sunday, December 21, 2014: Liverpool's Martin Skrtel celebrates scoring the second goal against Arsenal during the Premier League match at Anfield. (Pic by David Rawcliffe/Propaganda)

While much has been made recently about the brilliance of Emre Can as a marauding right-sided centre-back, the assured presence of Mamadou Sakho, the ever-improving form of Joe Allen and the wizardry of Philippe Coutinho, Liverpool centre-back Martin Skrtel has been somewhat overlooked.

This rather sums up the Slovakian’s Liverpool career as a whole, since joining from Zenit St. Petersburg for £6.5 million in January 2008.

He has never been universally loved at Anfield, mainly due to his slightly erratic nature and inconsistent performances over the years, and praise has often been hard to come by.

There were the lofty heights of 2008/09, when he was generally preferred to Daniel Agger and Sami Hyypia alongside Jamie Carragher in Rafa Benitez’s formidable side, but also the depressing lows of being dropped for an ageing Carragher in 2013.

So far this year, however, Skrtel has been a revelation. There is an argument to say that, barring possibly Coutinho, he has been the Reds’ star man, and he is in the middle of possibly his finest spell in a Liverpool shirt.

 

Post-United improvement

LIVERPOOL, ENGLAND - Sunday, December 21, 2014: Arsenal's Mathieu Debuchy beats Liverpool's Martin Skrtel to a header to score the first equalising goal during the Premier League match at Anfield. (Pic by David Rawcliffe/Propaganda)

Although the 3-0 defeat to Manchester United in mid-December was another low point in a woeful first-half of the season for Liverpool, they actually played far better than the result suggests.

It was the first time Brendan Rodgers decided to opt for his thriving 3-4-3 formation, barring during the 1-0 defeat to Newcastle earlier in the campaign, and Skrtel’s performance was more secure despite the result.

On that day, it was the ailing Dejan Lovren and unpredictable Glen Johnson who played either side of him in the back-three, which perhaps suggests why three avoidable goals were conceded.

Injury soon struck both players, which turned out to be a blessing in disguise for Rodgers.

In the following Premier League game at home to Arsenal, Sakho started at the back along with Kolo Toure, and between the pair Skrtel looked far happier.

The 30-year-old produced a very fine all-round performance against Arsene Wenger’s side, winning more than half of his duels, making seven key defensive actions and enjoying a pass completion rate of 92 per cent.

To top it off, his last-gasp header in front of the Kop rescued a point for Rodgers’ men; a goal that may prove to be absolutely pivotal come May.

Since then, Skrtel has gone from strength to strength. With Can and Sakho alongside him in Liverpool’s first-choice back three, the Reds have been superb defensively, keeping six away clean sheets in a row in the league.

Although it is Can and Sakho who have received more accolades, mainly due to their class on the ball and seemingly more fashionable appeal, Skrtel has been just as formidable.

As Andy Kelly of the Liverpool Echo correctly stated a few weeks back:

While Can and Sakho have been rightly lauded for their roles in this new 3-4-2-1 formation, Skrtel is the man who holds it all together in the middle.

 

More suited to a back-three

LONDON, ENGLAND - Saturday, February 14, 2015: Liverpool's Emre Can, Martin Skrtel and Mamadou Sakho hold hands against Crystal Palace during the FA Cup 5th Round match at Selhurst Park. (Pic by David Rawcliffe/Propaganda)

Skrtel has looked a completely different player since Rodgers opted to play three at the back rather than four, and there are a number of reasons for this.

The 70-cap Slovakia international is very old-school in many ways—robust, physical and lacking guile—but his style of play actually works very well alongside Can and Sakho, who are much more capable of bringing the ball out from the back and starting moves either side of him.

It has taken the pressure off him to be something he is not, and allowed him to concentrate mainly on what he does best: defending.

https://twitter.com/Kolology/status/577598955799912448

When Rodgers paired him with Lovren earlier in the season the results were disastrous, with just two clean sheets kept in the 13 matches they started together.

Skrtel had four defensive errors to his name before the United game, and he, Lovren and Simon Mignolet were making the most average Premier League forwards look like Lionel Messi.

Compare that to the aforementioned away clean sheets Liverpool have kept since the Old Trafford disappointment and the contrast is startling.

Rodgers’ side are unbeaten in the 13 league games during that time too, and Skrtel doesn’t have a single defensive error to his name.

The back-three has worked perfectly for him, and has arguably kept his Liverpool career alive.

 

Swansea

Monday evening’s gritty 1-0 over Swansea was far from a classic Liverpool performance, but for all those who underperformed on the night, Skrtel was once again terrific.

While Can suffered an off-night and Sakho took time to get into the game following injury, Skrtel was the rock that held his side together.

He won an incredibly impressive 75 per cent of his duels, had a very healthy passing accuracy of 92 per cent and did a good job of mopping up danger time and time again. Without him, and the equally impressive Mignolet, the Reds would have been 2-0 down at half-time.

On top of that, Skrtel also outlined his improved confidence on the ball, bringing it out and finding Daniel Sturridge in the lead-up to Jordan Henderson‘s fortunate winning goal.

His passing ability is often something that has been ridiculed in the past, and although he’s far from the most naturally gifted in that area, there has been an undeniable improvement there since Rodgers took over in 2012.

It was another hugely impressive 90 minutes from the combative centre-back, as his season seemingly gets better by the game.

 

Vital Skrtel

LIVERPOOL, ENGLAND - Saturday, February 8, 2014: Liverpool's Martin Skrtel celebrates scoring the first goal against Arsenal during the Premiership match at Anfield. (Pic by David Rawcliffe/Propaganda)

Skrtel is a player who will never quite win over all of his detractors, but it’s impossible to deny that he has been a very fine servant for Liverpool in his seven years so far at Anfield.

There were certainly serious question marks against him earlier on in the season, and just when it seemed as though the exit door was nearing, he has roared back with numerous influential displays.

Is he the long-term answer in defence, both in terms of age and quality? Probably not.

But is he one of Liverpool’s most indispensable players right now? Absolutely.

His passion, experience and form will prove vital for the Reds in the final two months of the season, as they look to continue their relentless surge toward Champions League qualification.

Statistics provided by Squawka.

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Has Martin Skrtel secured his long-term future at Liverpool this season? Let us know in the comments below.

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