One player may have escaped the attentions of most at Anfield this season; someone who was a member of Roy Hodgson’s Euro 2012 squad and has yet to feature more than four times in the league for Liverpool this season. His name is Martin Kelly and he could just be the future of Brendan Rodgers back four if handed the necessary time to find his fitness and given a sustained run in the side in his preferred position.
In a campaign that’s been full of contradictions across the board, the perceived wisdom of the vast majority of the club’s supporters is that major surgery is required to the back four, particularly at centre-back, in the summer for the side to stand any chance of challenging the top four in the future. Of course, that this very same back four has kept 13 clean sheets this season, the second best record in the league and only two behind runaway league leaders Manchester United has been largely ignored.
When approached from an individual perspective, though, perhaps only Glen Johnson has done better under Rodgers this term than he did under Kenny Dalglish last year. Jose Enrique has been as inconsistent as ever and could feasibly be replaced at the end of the season if the budget allows the room to, but with Jamie Carragher set to retire, doubts persisting over Sebastien Coates’ quality and Martin Skrtel edging towards the exit door, a spot looks to be opening next to Daniel Agger at the heart of the back four, one Kelly has more than enough talent to fill.
The 22-year-old has been sidelined nearly all season after rupturing his anterior cruciate ligament during the home defeat to Manchester United back in September. It was a cruel blow to both the player and the new manager, with Johnson at the time covering well at left-back and it’s more than likely that Andre Wisdom wouldn’t have broken through at all this season had Kelly managed to stay fit. There’s also the fact that Johnson has performed so well this term, that Kelly – who has always appeared to have a great engine but lacking a little on the technical side – would be little more than a back-up player confined to games of little importance.
With the club’s net debt rising by a third from £65.4m in July 2011 to £87.2m in May 2012, there’s a worry that after Rodgers forked out £20m on Daniel Sturridge and Philippe Coutinho in January, that unless he raises funds, with the club set to miss out on European football next year, that he may not have the largest operating budget in recent memory. This could hand players such as Andy Carroll and Jay Spearing, both out on loan at the moment, a potential olive branch, but it also means the manager has to find options already within his existing squad.
It’s difficult to fully gauge quite how highly Rodgers rates Kelly, but he did hand the versatile defender a new ‘long-term’ contract back in February with the following kind words : “Martin has shown a commitment to our vision here. He is a young player who really impressed me when I came in. He was exceptionally good in the games he played earlier in the season.”
It’s worth noting that Kelly started four of the club’s five league games this term, with two of those coming against Manchester City and United, not to mention Rodgers first league game in charge of the side away at West Brom. It’s likely he would have played upwards of 20 games in the top flight this year had he been fit, not to mention plenty more in the various cup competitions, with the squad lacking strength in depth across the board.
Rodgers revealed that he’s still hoping to convince Carragher to stay for one more year on Goals on Sunday last weekend: “Carra’s been fantastic and I do believe he could play next season. He and I communicate a lot and he’s obviously got something in his mind. We will sit down between now and the end of the season anyway and we’ll see where it goes. If he does go, I will certainly miss him because he’s been brilliant for me. He’s shown great respect and really helped me and the other guys. The thing for now is to keep performing the way he is until the end of the season and between then and now he and we will chat.”
Should Kelly be moved inside now that Wisdom is there to provide ample cover for Johnson, it could mean Rodgers has to buy just one centre-back in the summer instead of two. Skrtel has failed to adapt to the more possession-based game the former Swansea manager has tried to implement and has featured just five times since the turn of the year, seemingly being blamed for the FA Cup exit at the hands of Oldham.
Meanwhile, Coates, a giant, slow lump that can’t win a header is caught in a catch-22 situation – it’s tricky to definitively say he’s not good enough to play for the club, but every game he plays is a gamble given he hasn’t yet looked anywhere near up to the pace required at this level. He could perhaps do with a loan spell away next year in the top flight to fully see what he’s made of, at the risk of avoiding another Gabriel Paletta situation. The Uruguayan has started just four games all season, only one of which came in the league and like Skrtel, he hasn’t featured since the shock loss to Oldham.
The major factors in Kelly’s favour at the moment is that time has made the heart grow fonder, with no of his rivals in the pecking order impressing despite his long absence from the first-team picture. A defensive shake-up is required, with Carragher still a decent squad member to be relied upon if he is convinced to give Liverpool and Rodgers one more season, but in a cost-saving measure, despite links to bigger names such as Dede and Toby Alderweireld of late, the answer to the club’s woes at the back could already be a lot closer to home.
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