IN the illustrious history of Liverpool Football Club there have been many polarising figures.
Those lads who were heroes to one fella and top of the ‘get rid of him’ list of the fella sat behind him. In recent history the likes of Dirk Kuyt, Lucas Leiva and Mighty Red have been either completely useless or absolutely vital depending on who you ask.
Debates rage in and around Anfield, in town, in the ale houses, up and down the land, on the internet, across the world wherever Reds are inhabiting about the merits of these players, their value to the team and essentially, how good they are at the game of football. I used to argue myself hoarse about how effective Kuyt was, how necessary Lucas was/is, and how Mighty Red… erm… err… hmm.
Now the most irksome fight I have been having to fight for the best part of 18 months has been trying to convince an alarming number of people that Mamadou Sakho is a good defender, a very good defender, a potentially world class defender.
It’s not that I expected my high opinion of the Frenchman to be matched by all and sundry, I appreciate that opinions on the qualities of any player can be wide-ranging, even in the mind of one person. I have simultaneously believed Martin Skrtel to be awful and tremendous at times, but with Sakho, I don’t get annoyed with people who don’t rate him. I get annoyed with people who don’t rate him for entirely incorrect and inaccurate reasons.
A very young Sakho was given his professional debut by Paul Le Guen at Paris St Germain just one day after his 17th birthday, keeping a clean sheet in his 85 minutes on the pitch in Athens against AEK in the UEFA Cup. He would go on to force his way into the first team setup the following season, even being handed the captain’s armband four months before he turned 18. He was the youngest player to captain a team in Ligue 1 history (still is I believe).
Injuries and the odd inevitable drop in form of a youngster meant that he was often in and out of the side, but was still being relied on heavily as a teenager by a PSG team trying to get to the top of the French league. After the Qatar Investment Authority bought the club, the assumption was that Sakho and several of his teammates would soon become surplus to requirements as they bought in a star-studded squad to compete at the very top of the game, and largely that’s what happened.
However, Sakho would not take it lying down and kept his place in the team, with the captaincy under new boss Carlo Ancelotti. However, once the Brazilian trio of Alex, Thiago Silva and Marquinhos arrived in the French capital, the writing was on the wall and Sakho was allowed to find a new club.
Thankfully, that club was Liverpool.
His availability had been rumoured, and there were stories from all around Europe about how Chelsea wanted him, how Arsenal had stolen a march on them, how Barcelona wanted him in to partner Gerard Pique, Bayern were linked too, but Liverpool never really entered the equation, until they signed him. The club’s transfer dealings and methods have been questioned heavily in the last couple of years, not least by me, but Sakho appeared to be an astute signing, though questions were asked about why the club had spent £18million on a centre back when they apparently still needed a striker and why was a left sided defender being brought in when they already had Daniel Agger (that’s the perennially injured Daniel Agger)?
In his first full season there were some shaky moments, but he formed a decent partnership with Skrtel and adapted when Kolo Toure came in, but all the same was part of a Liverpool defence whose leakiness played a big part in preventing them from winning the title. He was largely blamed for the side’s capitulation at Crystal Palace, in spite of the fact that, of the back four that day, Sakho was the one player you could argue wasn’t individually at fault for any of the goals.
For all his tackles, for all his successful passes and for all his physical domination of strikers, something Sakho just couldn’t get away from was the incessant comparisons to Djimi Traore, from the media and his own fans. No offence to the Champions League winner, but that comparison has never been intended as a compliment.
The comparison was clearly based on the facts that they’re both defenders, both French with an African background and both left-footed, but for me that was where the similarities ended, with an absolute full stop. In terms of football ability, it was like comparing Javier Mascherano with Christian Poulsen.
On the international stage, Sakho’s talent was recognised by the then France boss Laurent Blanc, who gave him his debut in a 2-1 win at Wembley against England at the age of 20. Even with plenty of fierce competition for places, Sakho remains a key member of Les Bleus, starting ahead of the likes of Laurent Koscielny and Eliaquim Mangala at last summer’s World Cup, keeping a number of clean sheets with Real Madrid’s Raphael Varane to his right.
However, in spite of his acceptable first season, and an impressive World Cup, Brendan Rodgers felt the need to invest £20million in Dejan Lovren, a left-sided centre back. You couldn’t help but feel like that was a metaphorical megaphone from the manager, screaming “You’re not good enough Mamadou!”
Sure enough, Sakho started the season on the bench, watching the Reds stumble through the opening months of the campaign, only being handed cameos here and there when Lovren or Skrtel needed a rest, including in the 3-0 demolition of Tottenham. Both he and Lovren had played very well, but their performances were only remembered for one moment where they both went for a ball and both missed, allowing Nacer Chadli to nearly score. He then came on to play on the left of a back three against West Ham, and he and Lovren clashed again, literally this time as they collided heads jumping for the same ball.
The final straw for Sakho came when he was left out of the squad for the Merseyside derby. He left the stadium without permission. By all accounts, and understandably, Rodgers was furious. Sakho then picked up a conveniently timed injury, but even when he returned, he continued to be a spectator while Lovren continued to start, and continued to struggle.
Eventually, fate intervened and after Lovren picked up an injury in the 3-1 League Cup win at Bournemouth, Sakho came on to play the second half, and didn’t look back. Since then he has cemented his place on the left side of a back three, showing composure, inventiveness and shepherding anything out of play that can be shepherded out of play. He’d make a great shepherd.
Slowly, Sakho appears to be winning over the doubters, including Rodgers. It’s pretty clear that Rodgers wasn’t as impressed with the 24-year old as I was after his first 12 months at Anfield, but the form of Sakho and the way the goals against column has dried up since his introduction to the team suggests that perhaps he too is starting to see the ability that led someone at the club to say “Yeah, he’s worth £18m easy. Get it done.”
Via Martin Tyler: Of players that have attempted >500 passes in 2014/15, the player that has misplaced the fewest is Mamadou Sakho (58/525)
— Andrew Beasley (@BassTunedToRed) January 22, 2015
According to the excellent Andrew Beasley on Twitter, Liverpool have conceded a goal on average every 113 minutes with Sakho in the team, as opposed to every 60 minutes without him. You can use stats to prove anything, but that one is pretty clear cut.
As alluded to earlier, its not that I think Sakho is the perfect centre back, he still has much to learn and he can still be criticised about certain things.
My biggest gripe is that he’s widely criticised for his passing and his composure, when in reality, they are his two biggest strengths, apart from shepherding. Good Lord he loves to shepherd, almost as much as Jose Enrique.
What’s most disconcerting though is that this isn’t your typical fan misconceptions, this is a widely held belief among, I would venture to say, most in the media. Not a single game goes by without a commentator mentioning how ‘awkward’ Sakho looks in possession. At the World Cup, Martin Keown mentioned it on three separate occasions in one game.
For that game Sakho achieved well over 90% success rate with his passing. Yes, he looks awkward on the ball, in the same way Peter Crouch did (and still does). That of course, doesn’t matter, because he is not awkward on the ball. In fact he is more in control than most others, just look at his stats.
His pass completion percentage this season is a respectable 89.6%, slightly reduced on last season when it was 92.5%, but he is averaging almost 60 passes a game now, opposed to just over 50 last season (from WhoScored.com).Some defenders can skew these stats by playing an incessant number of balls back to their keeper or under no pressure passing to their fellow centre back, but when you watch Sakho, what makes his passing stats all the more impressive are the sheer number of forward passes he makes, many attempting to get through an entire midfield.
One of Liverpool’s most potent weapons in their recent setup has been Sakho’s ball down the outside into Coutinho. It opens up the entire left side, and always seems to find the mark, and of course because it’s ‘only Sakho’, it is very rarely anticipated by the opposition.
He is also improving all the time without the ball (did I mention shepherding?). He doesn’t seem to foul people very often, or not by mistiming tackles anyway. He throws himself into tackles in a way that, like his passing, gives the illusion of being out of control and reckless, but he always seems to take the ball.
If you can find a video of the Villa game, just look at the tackle he makes on Agbonlahor in the 32nd minute. It epitomised his style and his ability when it comes to tackling. Very few centre backs, if any, defend in the way he does and it can make him an unpredictable hurdle for strikers to approach.
There are of course still things he can improve on. For a man who was a leader from a young age in Paris, his communication with his fellow defenders could be better, especially when Lovren plays. They seem to have a great desire to challenge every ball, at the same time. There are moments when he leaves his man to attack the player with the ball before Skrtel is aware that he needs to cover, leaving space in behind.
However, he has stated in an interview how he feels his English is improving and that we will see a more vocal Sakho once he feels more confident in that area. He could also be more of a danger in the opposition box from set pieces, a crucial aspect of a centre backs arsenal in today’s game.
I decided I was going to write this piece earlier this week, so was relieved to see him have another dominant performance against Chelsea. He blunted Willian and helped Skrtel and Emre Can keep Diego Costa as quiet as he’s been since he arrived in England.
A month or so ago I wrote a piece for this website on Dejan Lovren, stating at the end how Liverpool needed him to step up and re-discover his Southampton form. I was wrong. Liverpool just needed to get Sakho on the pitch and let him be Sakho. Now that Rodgers has done that, he can’t stop Sakho-ing all over the place.
Remember last season when Liverpool were mad? An unconventional band of mentalists inexplicably weaving their way to a title challenge? Well I’ve missed that. Not just the exciting attacking play, the goals or the points, just the way they played football that made everyone sit up and say “Are these good or just giving the illusion of being good?”
Then we’d score before they could figure it out. Watching them was like ‘The Turn’ in the film ‘The Prestige’, and for me, that’s exactly what Sakho is like.
People criticize his unconventional ways, but it could be that this is the very reason why he’s so effective. Players take him on thinking “It’s only Sakho”, and he floors them. They stand off him thinking “It’s only Sakho” and he passes through them. Sooner or later they might figure it all out and instead think “Oh balls, it’s Sakho”, and more than likely, he’ll floor them, then pass through them.
His awkward style attracts criticism, but that really says more about the insecurity of the person making the criticism. “Unless you play football in the conventional way I’m familiar with, then you must be rubbish.” It is cock of the poppiest kind.
Shite at heading though.
Great post – already one of the best 5 CB’s in the league, will be one of the best 5 in the world in a couple of years. Different league to Lovren.
Lovern will come good too.
Costa was constantly giving lip and aggro to are players on Tuesday. But during the second half after a foul he stood up and Sakho was there in front of him, didn’t say a word couldn’t even look him in the eye bottle went Costa shit himself. That’s why I like sakho. (and he is a very good player also)
I think he got a lot of stick for the Gerrard slip as it was from his heavy pass (which Gerrard still should of controlled) which let Ba in. I always felt with Sahko that he needed to be trusted and given a run in the team. Now we are seeing a top class defender and at the moment its working very well having two ball playing CBs on each side of Skrtel. If the team can grow together the future will be bright for Liverpool.
totally agree, sakho’s body language when in possession somewhat masks the fact that he’s actually great on the ball. but watching him regularly and still thinking he’s not? that is pure laziness.
interesting about his passing stats. I wonder how they compare with Lovrens?
What annoyed me most when Lovren was in the side (heading the ball into his own net, jumping into teammates, horribly mistimed tackles and a real lack of pace aside) was his inability to make basic passes into feet.
By contrast Sahko seems to do this really well. He really fires them into feet, particularly to Coutinho, who has excellent control.
I’m happy he’s doing well. I always thought he had the potential to be a very good defender.
The only thing I can’t get my around with this lad is the way he always has at least one completely mad/what the fuck are you doing/JUST CLEAR THE FUCKING BALL!! moment in him every game…at least one…every single game. That being said, as of yet, not many of those moments have led to us conceding a goal. Whereas when Kolo or Lovren do something mad, it almost always leads to a goal. Other than that, he’s a very solid defender with bags of potential…just reign in the madness Mamadou!
But we love
“According to the excellent Andrew Beasley on Twitter”
You’re far too kind mate! I don’t have up to date figures handy but I did some research re Sakho’s passing last season and it’s even better than the basic pass accuracy suggests.
(This is from a blog post) “What I hadn’t realised until digging a little deeper is how few passes the French international sends backwards: just four percent of his total. To give that some context, Liverpool’s other centre-backs averaged 5% (Agger), 7% (Toure) and 8% (Skrtel).
This means that whilst they obviously played different amounts of time and passes in 2013/14, Sakho only passed backwards thirty-seven times, whilst Skrtel did so on 141 occasions.
Now considering that the only player behind them is probably Simon Mignolet, whose strong point is certainly not considered to be his distribution, which centre-back would you rather have in possession of the ball?”
Is that a rhetorical question or what?! Sakho, every time!
His passing accuracy in the opposition half is much better than the other CBs too. Last season his passing accuracy in opposition half was 86.6% this season it is currently 86.1% compare that to Anger last year 75.6% Skrtel 76.7% last year and 73% Lovren this year (obviously) 73% and Kolo this year 76%. So essentially he is at least 10% more accurate this and last year than any other CB at passing forward and I am not sure but it seems to me he does it more often too.
Skrtel & Sakho both faced Costa in internationals recently and they both kept him very quiet. As David mentions Sakho still has one of those turnovers in your own 3rd every game but maybe that’s just a consequence of his ambition on the ball and inevitably when you’re trying those difficult passes, some won’t come off.
Couldn’t agree more yet the manager’s behaviour towards him is, on the surface, churlish and unhelpful: has he ever publicly praised him? I’ll happily withdraw this comment if I’m wrong, but I can’t recall him offering the type of encouragement he offered Lovren, Skrtl, Coutinho et al. Let’s hope that changes soon, because he’s our best pure defender and still has bags of potential. Does make one very poor pass a game though!
This is precisely what worries me the most. I have a bad feeling BR is just waiting for an excuse, any excuse, to drop him. People who think he’s a bit shit for the reasons mentioned in the article I simply can’t take seriously in regards to footballing matters. In fact, it makes for a great filtering question when getting to know people. “What do you think of Sakho?” Answer with a negative overtone and we won’t be discussing much football.
As usual fully agree Paul, just waiting for something so BR can bomb him out and sell him come the summer along with Lucas.
Love the Mamadook though, love him
You what!! What’s all this criticizing the manager for the sake of it about. Sakho has been injured several times since his arrival and hasn’t been able to get a proper run in the team. LFC haven’t had a proper squad for nearly 20 years now, that been the problem. Good teams have good players sitting on their benches, that’s why the win. Fans can’t start dictating who plays & who doesn’t. And when he gets injured again, as he will, we will need Lovern to step up to the plate & perform as should be expected.
Great article. Agree with everything. Glad to see he’s in the team. It’s a shame 20£ was wasted on Lovren.
I think Sakho is bleedin’ marvellous.
Any centre back who is prepared to try the most ungainly Cruyff-esque turns you’ll ever see, 25yds from goal, is fine by me.
Shows confidence that has been sorely lacking at the back.
I had been crying out for Sakho to be played regularly from the start of the season. I was baffled as to why w had spent £20mil on another left sided central defender when we had Sakho available.
He’s big, strong, deceptively quick, dominant, excellent passer and the one thing I was worried about him was his penchant for a rash tackle but recently he seems to have curbed considerably making some fantastic tackles.
My problem, and I hope I’m wrong, is that I don’t think Rodgers fancies him. The only reason he’s been put back into the team was because Lovren got injured but now with Sakho putting in exceptional performances and our defence becoming much tighter hopefully Rodgers will have changed his mind.
I’m stating to think we should try and sell Lovren in the summer and then use the £12mil or whatever to buy another central defender who can step up. We also need to stop buying young inexperienced central defenders because we are not the sort of club that can afford to give them a run of games to become experienced while making massive mistakes along the way. Although Can, albeit not really a central defender, seems to be doing alright. We arnt gonna be buying defenders at their peak so probably best to buy them at about 22/23 after they’ve had a season or two elsewhere as a central defender. Think of Coates, Ilori, Antwi, Barragan, Ayala, San Jose etc. that have not worked out.
The thing that amazes me about Sakho is his touch, you rarely see him take more than two touches. Receive and go. The man’s a monster and so what if he looks a bit ungainly when he’s running with the ball it’s not a beauty contest. The man gets the job done
At last! Somebody who understands.
He looks very awkward but it doesn’t matter what he looks like. It’s the effects of his awkward actions that matter. Aggressive tackling, aggressive, accurate forward passing and comfortable in tight spaces. He’s been a revelation.
The sole reason I watched Ligue 1 for years. Love the man on and off the pitch and couldn’t believe it when we signed him, then subsequently underutilized him.
To build on the impressive passing numbers, his long pass accuracy in the PL is 74.2%. I haven’t checked every CB in the league, but he is miles ahead of all the big team central defenders (i.e. Kompany, Vertonghen, Koscielny, Terry, Cahill, Jagielka, Demichelis, Alderweireld etc) who typically range from 50-65%. This is of course made all the more impressive by the fact that our side is fairly diminutive, demanding higher accuracy and making hoofs utterly fruitless.
The world needs more Sakho love. He is fantastic.
Was lucky enough to attend a King Kenny golf day last year. Was full of ex-LFC legends and a top day and night all round. Showering with Gillespie & Whelan and brushing my teeth next to the King himself was odd, but that aside we got talking to Hansen at the end of the night. I brought up how I thought Sakho was our best CB and he just wasn’t having it. To be fair he’d had a few shandies (the karaoke was interesting) but he slaughtered me in front of those listening – he wasn’t having it. But I stood my ground – have loved Sakho since he joined and just hope he continues in the team for the remainder of the season. We didn’t need Lovren, we have Sakho. That said, I also think Lovren will come good eventually, but the point is we didn’t need him in the first place… First touch, first pass, vertical pass, little back heel (once a game minimum), presence, strength, tackle, awareness, passing, haircut, he’s got it all.
Shout out for TAW podcasts, they make my weekend. I’ve got this dog that needs a walk every day – my job at the weekend, but I now look forward to it; dog runs free, earphones on, an hour of listening to nothing other than people talking about everything Liverpool. Get in… Want me to walk the dog darling?
Again, Sakho has had several injuries since his arrival. So what, we play kids when he’s not available. When Lovern eventually comes good and all the “I told you so” gang emerge we will finally realize that we may finally be putting a “squad” together. No absolute superstars that the world will end if they are not available but a squad of talent.
Sakho is hard and ambitious. Watching that montage above, I love the variety of passes he offers us.
Lets face it most of our fans are total cunts to some players
So im happy and disgusted at the same time …….they did the same with hendo/lucas/sakho and still with balotelli.
Glad I saw the potential when so many dimwits didn’t….for you who are in this bracket….fuck you.
For those who defended him…….heres to you my friends!
Another player who was short-shrifted was Downing, who was just about as shrinking a violet as I’ve ever seen in a LFC shirt but who never had a chance with us. As a former orthodox winger myself (dash to the by-line and pump it across) I always saw him as an unlikely winger and wasn’t surprised that he found his best position in mid-field. You have to have enormous self-belief (like Lucas) to rise above crowd antipathy.
Having said that, I am
Not a fan of Rodgers and would include myself in the Rodgers out! rank, but if he has the sense to leave well enough alone with the defence I would be happy to change my tune.
Agree with this, it needs saying more. Sakho is by far our best defender. One of the first names on the teamsheet for me, every week.
Made up this has been posted. Clearly Liverpool’s best defender by a fair distance. Strong in tackle, clears headers without manhandling the opponent and giving away cheap free-kicks, simple passes out of defence but happy to hoof it when needed, crazy flicks to keep us entertained and all round solid.
Football is a matter of opinions but many fans are now seeing what has been obvious from the start – you build your back four around Sakho….it’s no coincidence that him, Can and Lucas coming into the team and getting regular games together has led to a more stable defence – and Skrtl and Mignolet have benefitted from that consistency.
Agree. I’ve thought for a long time he is the best centre back at the club. Even when Danny Agger was there. He seemed to not be given a chance by many because he wasn’t Agger. Agger was a great loyal servant, but in Sahko we have a powerful, commanding (and potential leader) centre half who could be at the centre of our defence for many years to come. Viva La Mamadou!
Sakho may split some people between the observant and the ignorant, but I’d say the current prize for polarization has to go to Joe Allen. I can’t begin to count the arguments that have broke out over the “Welsh Xavi” (you can see the poor lad wither the moment that leaves Brendan’s mouth).
He doesn’t score goals, he doesn’t make crunching tackles, and he doesn’t make Hollywood diagonal passes. In some people’s estimation, that makes him pointless. These people are dumb.
Sakho and Allen have become not exactly cult heroes in my mind, just two players that I feel reflexively defensive about. Part of the reason I feel a (somewhat one-sided) simpatico with TAW is a general appreciation of these two players.
very good post and acute observations. I certainly think Sakho is a very good CB who is criticized for no reason. the chelsea game is an apt example of why we dont lovren or any other cb for that matter. let the team play as is
It’s annoyed me for ages that people moan about his passing and him giving it away, the reason he does so sometimes is he tries the passes our other defenders don’t. You won’t see Skrtel or any of the others firing a ball through the opponents midfield to Coutinho to do his work and some of those passes are bound to not come off.
Great article. Thoroughly agree.
I love Big Sak, to my mind he is a talented footballer who just happens to play at the back due to his physical attributes, could play in midfield, one game recently had 2 players pressing him hard, he didn’t panic, did not pass back, just dropped his shoulder and slotted ball between them, another time instead of firing it in, he just cushioned it a few yards with back spin to Lucas, exactly what was required.
Early this season and even last, the way played out from the back was if deep lying MF was covered would pass out to touchline especially right with Glen who has the ability to control and get forward, but opposition suss this and press, Glen injured and Migs kicking gets worse plus defenders were not mobile enough and lacked vision/ confidence to play angled pass to available MF….
But all that’s history! we now have Sak And Emre, who have the vision, confidence and skill to play the passes, 1,2’s or bring it out themselves especially Emre turning defence to attack!
Migs must be happier relieves that tension on him from the crowd as the ball is passed back much less now.
Credit has to go to the scouting dept, Sakho and Can are great signings who are already worth more and will turn out to be Coutinhoesque bargains.
Yeah add me to the Sakho fan club – I’m just glad we’ve got him especially with how impressive he looked at the World Cup. I think perception can be reality with a lot of people and to be fair, the one time he gives it away every few games does seem to stick out in the memory more for some reason – maybe because he looks for the risky pass? There’s definite room for improvement with his heading if he’s to develop into our Sami Hyypia with pace over the next couple of years; That sitter of a header at 0-0 in the 3-3 at Palace was mad.
Just on Lovren, I thought as a right footer was coming in to play beside Sakho so that shows how much I know. Don’t understand why we spent so much money on him when we already made a decent outlay for a more highly rated centre half the summer before. That £20m plus wages is all money that could have been spent enticing Sanchez to get someone to drive him down to do his shopping in London and play for us.
Excellent article – and I’ve never needed any convincing. I think he’s a class act.
Loved him from the minute he walked onto the pitch in red. He looks a bit goofy, but he is exhibit one in terms of looks can be deceiving.
I remember watching France v Spain earlier this season (when Marmaduke WASN’T being picked for Liverpool); Costa – who was easily kept under wraps by Sakho and Varane – tried his ‘I’m a tough troll so you’d better be scared of me’ routine on Sakho, who gave him such a look of steely contempt that Costa just slunk away.
If I was the manager I’d tell him to make sure his English was up to scratch next season so I could make him vice-captain under Henderson.