The key to Liverpool’s defensive revival?

daniel aggerCarragher-Kyrgiakos, Carragher-Agger, Carragher-Skrtel, Skrtel-Kyrgiakos, Agger-Kyrgiakos, need I go on? The number of defensive pairings that Liverpool have had this season is one of the main reasons for the Reds defensive frailties both in Europe and domestically. They have scored 29 goals in the Premier League this season but they have also conceded 20 in 13 league games. If you go to watch Liverpool these days, you are almost guaranteed to see them concede to the opposition. It belies Rafa Benitez’s footballing philosophy; he has always been a defensive minded manager, relying on counter-attacking plays for goals. Some in recent seasons have accused Benitez’s Liverpool of negativity but it has worked wonders in Europe where they have reached the latter stages of the Champions League in all but one occasion. Two Champions League finals, a semi-final and a quarter final in Benitez’s five year stay is no mean feat and it is testament to the side’s defensive stability.

So what has gone awry with the organisation at the back? There is no doubt that what has played an important role in this is the various injuries that have been suffered by defenders. There have been question marks over Jamie Carragher’s form in recent months and the abilities of both Insua and Johnson defensively; they maybe partial explanations for the defensive failings at Liverpool but I believe the fundamental problem is an inability to play the same back four in consecutive games. The various centre-back pairings have had little time to gel as one or the other has got injured. Both Martin Skrtel and Daniel Agger have been in and out with injuries, leaving new signing Kyrgiakos to pair with one of three options. Even last week against Manchester City, Daniel Agger had to go off with a head injury, just one in a long line of mishaps to befall Liverpool centre-backs this season. The lack of understanding as a consequence of such different pairings can, of course, lead to a lack of confidence at the back, especially from set pieces. A settled back line would not concede the number they have from set pieces even with a zonal marking system.

So what can Benitez do about the problem? Firstly he must pray that injuries at the back subside and he can play the same back four for at least a ten game stretch. The return of Fabio Aurelio to fitness may give the Spaniard the chance of replacing Insua at left back with a more experienced player, hopefully Johnson can stay fit for more than a few games as well, but the biggest priority for me is that Daniel Agger stays fit.

Out of the 4 central defenders, Agger has been the most assured both position wise and aerially, and he has enough pace to keep with the most speedy of strikers. He has had a nightmare with injuries since he came to Anfield, meaning he has had little chance to establish himself as first choice but it has seemed in recent weeks that if he is fit, Benitez has favoured him above Skrtel and Kyrgiakos. I think it is a very wise move; he is left footed and can keep a good balance with Carragher at the back. Both Skrtel and Kyrgiakos lack movement, shown very clearly in the equalising goal for Lyon in France in the Champions League a couple of weeks ago, and if Agger can stay 100% for the next few months, the defensive solidity which has been missing for six months may just return. Benitez certainly needs the stability to revive Liverpool fortunes this season, a solidity that has been a fundamental pillar of Benitez’s playbook since his first foray into management back in Spain, and it could be the platform that he needs to get the team moving forward to bigger and better things.

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