DEJAN Lovren. Two words that have spread fear throughout the Liverpool fanbase like no other.
When Mamadou Sakho crumpled to the floor as he landed awkwardly contesting a header against Crystal Palace, Anfield drew a deep breath. The lanky Frenchman has had a chequered injury record in his two-year spell at the club, but this was different.
This was no muscular injury that he is so susceptible to. The more innocuous an injury looks, the worse its prognosis. Sakho showed the fortitude and attitude that has quickly made him a fan favourite this autumn, as he hobbled back onto the pitch to continue, as if he too had realised what, or who, was coming next.
“Sakho, Sakho” – the chants rained down from a sodden Anfield. But it was clear he could barely walk, that this warrior of a centre-half had been let down by his fragile body yet again.
The love that has grown for Sakho in recent months is not merely an appreciation of his skill — the Reds have plenty of ballers who don’t get a song — but his attitude on and off the pitch. The 25-year-old former PSG star is a character and a leader, so expressive when he plays, while his community and charity work can only be lauded.
A sense that he was unfairly treated by Brendan Rodgers prevailed, too. A siege mentality of sorts, railing against the popular belief that this was a clumsy liability, an accident waiting to happen as he flails his long arms and legs at the football.
But also because the Reds support know what the alternative is. Promised a leader and panacea for the wretched defending that had, arguably, cost them the title in 2013-14, they were given Dejan Lovren and the defence deteriorated to new levels of incompetence. Not all of it entirely the Croatian’s making, but he was often an accessory to the crime, always at the scene — or sometimes 20 yards away from the scene after another hair-brained gallivant upfield.
Every time Sakho breaks down the reaction feels disproportionate, as if any hopes for the season have been extinguished in one fell swoop. Daniel Sturridge provokes panic whenever he hits the turf, but Liverpool can get by without their star striker.
At centre-back it feels either boom or bust. Early predictions of a season-ending knee ligament injury to Sakho brought a sense of impending doom. The news that he will miss *only* eight weeks felt celebratory.
*Only* eight weeks of Lovren. It feels unfair to caricature the Croatian as this accident-prone neanderthal; a charlatan masquerading as a footballer. But he’s done precious little in the 15 months since his debut to disprove this. It perhaps says it all that the quiet competence of his last two games is so lauded.
There was hope at the beginning of the season. Renewed faith from Rodgers, three clean sheets, steady performances and no sign of the naivety and brainlessness that saw his form plummet in the opening weeks of last season.
But Lovren, being Lovren, could not be content with steady, unremarkable performances. It’s one thing doing the job, another to be seen doing the job. Lovren always wants to be seen doing the job. Because of this character flaw, West Ham happened.
Because of this he refused to put the ball out for a throw-in and cede territory. Like he was controlling himself on FIFA he decided to swish the C stick, try and beat the lad with skill while penned into a corner, and retain possession. He always thinks he has the answer to an impossible situation.
When I previewed Lovren’s second season at Anfield in August, I predicted we’d be stuck with him more than we would like:
“How this season pans out for Liverpool rests in part on the role of Dejan Lovren. Bound to feature in a minority of supporters’ preferred starting elevens, he will inevitably feature more than people want. The cynical would cite political reasons, because Rodgers wants his £20m signing to prove his worth. But the simple fact is that Mamadou Sakho, much like Daniel Sturridge, can not be relied upon over a season.
“Sakho should be the starting left-sided centre-back, and he may well be after Rodgers’ careful management of him over pre-season — if a player has a history of muscle injuries, don’t over-play him on a 30,000 mile three-week tour. It is important to keep Lovren playing, to build his understanding with Martin Skrtel, Simon Mignolet and the rest of the back line, simply because he will play in the bulk of the club’s fixtures this season.”
A change of manager has led to a change in selection. Rarely did you feel Sakho was Rodgers’ No 1 choice, only during the days of the back three when Lovren’s mistakes built so high that he became simply unselectable.
Jürgen Klopp immediately installed the Frenchman as his first-choice partner for Skrtel. The German has shown himself to be far more canny defensive operator than Rodgers ever could. Those defensive issues never really did go away under the previous manager. Incremental improvements would mask the overarching feeling that a mistake and subsequent self-destruction never felt far away.
Remnants of that ram-shackle operation still persist now, but the longer Klopp works with them on the training field the more the structural problems are ironed out. For all his individual drawbacks, positional ill-discipline, failure to do the basics with the ball at his feet, he was never helped by a midfield shape that was so easily overrun and made the defence so vulnerable.
Under the new boss there’s been little sign of the structural issues that so undermined Lovren under Rodgers. As ever under a new manager there is hope, but the sheer volume of individual errors, basic mistakes, stray passes and mistimed tackles can not be so easily forgotten, or forgiven. Not yet, not now.
The desperation to prove himself, the constant desire to be first to the ball, to be winning his individual battles are traits that will stay with the Croat during his playing career. Lovren has never been far from a fall and after a win as convincing as the one at Manchester City, his confidence will be up, and the fear that he will slip up again grows, despite more sixes out of 10 following since.
Klopp worked wonders at Borussia Dortmund; the most obvious manifestation was in the individual improvements he made in talented footballers who appeared to have obvious ceilings. If Lovren persists, he could prove his Sistine Chapel, but is he worth the hassle? £20million is a vast amount to consign to the history books, and his run in the first-team between now and January will surely dictate which direction his Liverpool career takes from here.
Lovren needs to show now that he has learnt his lessons at Liverpool. The chance to prove himself as a first-team regular has surely gone now, but by finding consistency he can prove himself a dependable second-choice as he sits in the last-chance saloon at top-level club football.
Depending on Dejan, though, is fraught with danger.
Pics: David Rawcliffe-Propaganda Photo