The performance of Mamadou Sakho inspired Liverpool to a vital clean sheet in their 0-0 draw with Tottenham Hotspur on Saturday afternoon.
A goalless draw may not have been the most invigorating of results for Jurgen Klopp‘s first outing as Liverpool manager, but the German will be content with taking a point away from Spurs at White Hart Lane.
“You have to feel stability,” he told reporters before the game, and though Spurs troubled the Liverpool goal throughout, a clean sheet is clear evidence of some stability.
The standout performance of Sakho was a crucial factor within this result.
With Klopp reverting to a four-man back line, Sakho started the game slowly, committing a host of positional errors and misjudged passes in the opening stages, but he soon found his stride.
Deployed alongside Martin Skrtel as Liverpool’s left-sided centre-back, Sakho was tasked with confronting a striker reaching top form once again in Harry Kane.
However, while the Reds’s forward thrust dropped off from the half-hour mark and Kane, Christian Eriksen and the rest of the Spurs attack applied pressure in the final third, Sakho grew in dominance.
Practising defensive rigidity with a series of strong tackles, headed interceptions and no-nonsense clearances, Sakho was most impressive in dealing with Spurs’ many long-ball efforts, regularly chesting the ball down and moving forward into midfield.
The Frenchman completed 89.4 percent of his attempted passes, more than any other Liverpool player to start at White Hart Lane.
He was, of course, aided by the performances of those around him.
Lucas Leiva and Emre Can both excelled in the centre of midfield, with the former breaking up play efficiently—completing 83 percent of his attempted tackles—while the latter looked to move the ball forward away from harm, after Klopp restored him to his natural position.
The less said about the performance of James Milner alongside them the better, however.
Klopp’s de facto first-choice goalkeeper, Simon Mignolet, kept the Reds in the game with a host of sublime saves, with his first-half stop from a Clinton Njie effort setting the tone for the afternoon.
Sakho stood out among them, however, and there is a worrying reality in that the Frenchman was papering over the cracks somewhat.
Papering Over the Cracks
Skrtel is Klopp’s undisputed first-choice centre-back alongside Sakho at present, but with a dearth of top-quality options to choose from this is not a comforting situation for Liverpool supporters.
At White Hart Lane, Skrtel turned in a performance of sheer ineptitude.
The 30-year-old was tormented by Kane throughout, with his tendency to back away from danger into the penalty area not becoming of a top-level defender.
Furthermore, several lapses in positional sense saw Skrtel caught out by the likes of Kane and Njie, gifting Spurs dangerous opportunities in the attacking third; his slip-up towards the end of the first half, allowing Kane an effort on goal, was a prime example.
Kane drove a powerful strike low towards goal, but Mignolet made a fine stop before Sakho blocked Dele Alli’s resulting effort. It was a moment that encapsulated Skrtel’s performance.
Sakho towered over Skrtel throughout, and the disparity in quality between the pair is alarming.
Moreover, while Mignolet’s shot-stopping heroics played an equal part in securing Liverpool a clean sheet at White Hart Lane, the Belgian’s unsuitability within Klopp’s system is a major cause for concern.
This is not an unfamiliar issue, either: Mignolet contributed to the Reds’ defensive troubles with a showing of dismal distribution.
Inaccurate with his long-range passing and a poor judge of when and where to pass the ball short, Mignolet has a lot of work to do if he is to transition into a long-term role as Klopp’s No. 1.
The 27-year-old completed just 33.3 percent of his attempted passes.
A failure to release the ball quickly to prompt counter attacks should be a big warning sign for the German; Mignolet is just too timid to seemingly function as a competent, all-round modern goalkeeper.
The respective deficiencies of Skrtel and Mignolet, and the power of Sakho, should have given Klopp food for thought as he applauded his side off the field at full-time.
Ultimately, Liverpool should be pleased with a clean sheet and a point from their first outing under Klopp, but as the German plots to move him team forward in the long term, he will likely have noted some key issues within his defence.
Starting with a positive, the colossal display of Sakho should earmark the Frenchman as one of his key players, and the centre-back that must be built around to maintain stability.
Growing into the game, Sakho vindicated the club’s decision to extend his terms this summer—seemingly against the wishes of the Dejan Lovren-favouring Brendan Rodgers.
This was a captain’s display, putting the meagre contribution of Milner to shame.
With Sakho installed as his defensive lynchpin, and both Clyne and Moreno likely cementing their positions as Klopp’s full-backs, there is only one long-term change that must be implemented for the German’s system to thrive on Merseyside.
Skrtel must be replaced with a competent top-level centre-back in January.
The sooner he addresses Skrtel’s role in the Liverpool squad the better, as the Slovak’s endurance through seven years and five managerial reigns at Anfield a mystery.
He is a useful squad option, but nothing more.
Furthermore, if Mignolet fails to adapt to the demands of Klopp’s high-intensity, counter-attacking game, he could also find himself upgraded in the near future.
But with Liverpool having kept a clean sheet against Mauricio Pochettino’s side on Saturday afternoon, the focus should be on Sakho, who produced an understated performance of composure and defensive fortitude.
The 25-year-old is here to stay under Klopp.