Liverpool’s 2-1 home win over Newcastle on Sunday summed up their season perfectly.
Martin Skrtel’s own goal, his fourth this season, put the visitors ahead, while confirming that not only is his future in the team questionable, but also that the club have a lot of work to do in order to rectify the problems that derailed their title charge.
Going against the grain, it is difficult to pick out one moment of Liverpool’s season that confirmed they wouldn’t win the Premier League title. Some will point to the back-to-back disappointments of the loss and draw against Chelsea and Crystal Palace, but these defensive problems have existed throughout the campaign. It was odd that the club went in so strongly for Yevhen Konoplyanka in January, a winger who would have only added weight to the notion that Liverpool were out to win a competition of who brought the bigger artillery.
Lucas Leiva’s injury layout midway through the campaign forced many to urge Brendan Rodgers to add depth and quality at defensive midfield. Though Steven Gerrard’s reinvention to that role was impressive, it doesn’t address the issue long-term, with the Liverpool skipper turning 34 at the end of the month.
What is alarming is the focus on defensive acquisitions last summer. Mamadou Sakho was brought in for £16 million, Tiago Ilori for £7 million, and Kolo Toure on a free – and that’s just in the centre of defence. Yet even combined with the existing members of the squad, Rodgers has been unable to land on a winning combination. There are faults to Glen Johnson at right-back, but there is no leadership from the two individuals selected at the heart of the back four.
Liverpool have a very good attack that obviously needs improving. There’s nothing wrong with it, but we’ve seen in the past where teams have struggled after failing to improve on what they have. Additions need to be made, regardless of Luis Suarez’s future, but the defence needs an overhaul.
All three of Sakho, Skrtel and Daniel Agger could leave this summer and Liverpool wouldn’t feel a pinch. Financially, maybe. But the club can and must do much better. None have been able to establish themselves as top-class centre-halves over the course of the season, and if the pairing of Sakho and Skrtel managed to ship three goals in less than 10 minutes to Crystal Palace, the damage will be much worse in European competition.
Sakho’s purchase last summer looked to be a good statement ahead of this past season. The Frenchman had a good reputation in his homeland and captained PSG from an early age. The signs were positive. Financially the signs were positive, too. The club were clearly willing to back Rodgers with a signing close to £20 million. That it hasn’t worked out – at least based on one season – shouldn’t act as a deterrent for the club’s owners.
The other problem with the options available to Rodgers is that they don’t complement the style of football he’s brought to Anfied. Sakho isn’t a ball-playing centre-back; he neither has the skill nor the courage to bring the ball out from the back and launch an attack. Daniel Agger does have that ability, but he’s evidently fallen out of favour with the manager. Own goals and general poor quality have been the theme of Liverpool’s centre-back criticisms, but the oft-overlooked issue is their unsuitability for those roles in Rodgers’ all-action system.
The easy thing to do would be to sell and replace. It’s probably the sensible thing to do too considering the general lack of upside brought to the team by those three individuals. Liverpool must of course buy well in attack – Konoplyanka, Kevin Volland and Iker Muniain would all be good additions – but much of the focus must be in revamping the defence and adding to the holding midfield position.
Liverpool have set their marker for where they intend to be in the Premier League for the foreseeable future. They must address those defensive problems this summer if this past season is to be more than just a flash in the pan.