Forced to publicly apologise for fleeing Anfield early on Saturday afternoon, having failed to make Liverpool‘s match day squad as they took on Everton, it’s safe to say Mamadou Sakho hasn’t quite lived up to expectations since swapping PSG for Merseyside last summer.
Indeed, initially purchased for £18million, making him the most expensive signing of Brendan Rodgers’ tenure at the time, and labelled by Ian Ayre as the ‘marquee signing’ fans had demanded for several transfer windows prior, despite often showing great promise, the centre-back is yet to justify his transfer fee or the Liverpool director’s billing.
Critics are not hard to come by, perhaps the most prevalent being Jamie Carragher; the Liverpool legend whom Sakho essentially replaced upon his retirement in summer 2013. If there’s one way for a centre-back to guarantee the Anfield faithful turning against him, it’s unquestionably running afoul of the greatest defender in recent Liverpool history, the Reds’ predominant representative on Sky Sports, capable of making even Lionel Messi look like a League One player through the powers of the studio whiteboard.
I’m far more fond of the Frenchman than many of his contemporaries. Whilst Martin Skrtel remains a throwback to more rugged, thuggish Premier League years and Dejan Lovren boasts the anticipation, intelligence and quality in possession of a modern defender, Sakho compliments both through his robustness and athleticism.
His pace in particular should be a key asset for Liverpool, whom through their rip-roaring, breakneck attacking style, have inevitably become one of the Premier League’s most susceptible to counter-attacking football; both Aston Villa and West Ham have claimed wins over the Reds this season despite recording less than 40% possession.
Sakho’s ball-playing qualities are often criticised, yet I see the situation rather differently. Looking remarkably uncomfortable in possession is a recurring theme of the 24 year-old, but in terms of using the ball productively, he boasted a higher pass completion rate, 92%, more passes per match, 50.17, and more accurate forward passes per match, 38.78, than any of his centre-back partners last season.
The defender creates good angles to move the ball forward; whereas the rest of the defence appear content to shift the ball around the back four, he attempts direct, horizontal passes. Perhaps the legacy of occasional displays in defensive midfield for PSG.
These are Sakho’s predominant strengths that in my opinion, combined with his height and power, suggest all the makings of a top defender. It’s incredibly telling that he earned Didier Deschamps’ faith for the World Cup in Brazil, starting every fixture at centre-back in a France squad that included Rafael Varane, Eliaquim Mangala and Laurent Koscielny – hardly lightweights amongst world football’s centre-half elite.
That being said, Sakho hasn’t been able to influence Liverpool’s habitually pedestrian defending as much as expected since moving to Anfield just over twelve months ago.
Last season, a campaign which saw him make 18 appearances in the top flight, Liverpool conceded 50 times, giving them the second-worst defensive record in the Premier League’s top eight after Tottenham. Conclusively, just one of the Reds’ ten clean sheets last year were in Sakho’s presence. A 5-0 win over – no prizes for guessing – Tottenham.
The situation is paralleled this season, and exacerbated further by the departure of Luis Suarez, reducing Liverpool’s firepower considerably. Liverpool have already recorded three losses after just six fixtures, haemorrhaging on average 1.5 goals per match. Sakho was at the heart of both defeats to Aston Villa and West Ham, in the latter fixture directly contributing to a Hammers goal through an individual error.
And I’m sure we all remember, as Jamie Carragher was quick to point out post-match, the Frenchman’s role in Liverpool’s 3-3 draw with Crystal Palace in May that essentially cost the Merseysiders any chance of claiming the Premier League title on the final day of last season. Images of Sakho negatively shifting his body back towards his own goal, echoing the famous ‘back and to the left’ scene from JFK, still probably flicker on Carragher’s eye lids late at night.
Positioning and pressure could well be Sakho’s biggest weaknesses. A regular flaw of athletically-blessed centre-halves, the Liverpool defender often relies upon his physique, rather his intelligence or reading of the game, to rescue him from difficult situations. Likewise, although any player of PSG will be no stranger to the pressures of European football, nothing quite matches the consistent, relentless intensity of the English top flight.
Yet, these are recurring trends amongst Ligue 1 defenders. Laurent Koscielny for example initially bore the brunt of huge criticism when Arsenal snapped him up from Lorient in 2010, but after adapting his game to Premier League requisites, the 29 year-old is now considered to be one of the division’s top centre-backs. Similarly, it took well over twelve months for Mathieu Debuchy to reproduce the form from his Lille days at Newcastle, but, at least by Arsene Wenger’s reckoning, he’s now a £12million-rated No.2.
There’s no debate that Sakho is yet to justify his £18million price-tag. So far in his Liverpool career, the Frenchman has struggled to outweigh the good performances with the bad – a situation further amplified by his exclusion from the match-day squad and subsequent Anfield walk-out on Saturday afternoon.
We are talking about a 24 year-old defender however, who has currently registered just 21 Premier League appearances and amongst them, shown signs on slender occasions of better times ahead. Brendan Rodgers purchased Sakho with the next decade in mind; he certainly possesses the potential to remain in the Anfield first team for that long, but further performances to suggest this will have to come sooner rather than later.
With his professionalism and commitment now as questionable as his form in a Liverpool jersey, eyes will now be firmly on the French stopper.
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