Liverpool: Mamadou Sakho And The Centre-Half Debate | The Anfield Wrap

LONDON, ENGLAND - Saturday, October 17, 2015: Liverpool's manager Jürgen Klopp and Mamadou Sakho after the goal-less draw with Tottenham Hotspur during the Premier League match at White Hart Lane. (Pic by David Rawcliffe/Kloppaganda)

THE news Liverpool are potentially seeking a loan move for Mamadou Sakho has caused much debate, particularly on social media. It opens up questions about the centre-half position, and the other options we have in the squad.

The Centre-Half Debate

At the end of last season we did a transfer committee show, in which I said improving the centre-backs and goalkeeper would be my main focus. They are both positions which are undervalued and give the most potential for a “Moneyball” situation, something that is central to FSG’s strategy.

To use Liverpool as an example, you only have to look at some of our most successful centre-halves in recent years, and the amount we paid for them. Daniel Agger cost £5.8million. Martin Skrtel, for all his faults, was £6.5m. Sami Hyypia was £2.5m, and even Stephane Henchoz was £3.5m. In terms of keepers, Pepe Reina was £6m.

The priority should be to be amazing in both penalty areas, and then sort the other areas of the pitch last. That is a wider problem in the market, in that not enough clubs nail signing goalkeepers and centre-backs.

You could have made an argument for us to get four new centre-halves and a goalkeeper. Getting back-up – or even a replacement – for Alberto Moreno shouldn’t have been a priority (and hasn’t been by the looks of it).

The issue was that Kolo Toure wasn’t being offered a new deal. Martin Skrtel had run his course – the time was right to let him go. Sakho has various issues, and that left you with Dejan Lovren – and you could still make a case for buying better than him.

LONDON, ENGLAND - Sunday, August 14, 2016: Liverpool's Dejan Lovren in action during the FA Premier League match between Arsenal and Liverpool at the Emirates Stadium. (Pic by David Rawcliffe/Propaganda)

The summer saw Joel Matip (free) and Ragnar Klavan (£4.2m) arrive, and I do think there is value there. That said, we’re still crying out for proven quality – and that’s where we have made a mistake in the market.

Jonathan Tah is a player that I expected to move to a massive club this summer. That’s a team-of-the-year centre-half for the next five or six years, before one of the massive clubs comes and takes him off your hands. He’s one of those players that hasn’t quite done enough and has a couple of rough edges, which is putting those clubs off. That’s exactly the kind of signing we need. I also really like Virgil Van Dijk from Southampton.

Klavan, as I mentioned on this week’s Tuesday Review, is a signing similar to Bjorn Tore Kvarme, Glenn Hysen or Toure. For those players, signing for Liverpool is such a big deal to a player coming towards the end of his career, that naturally you’ll get a honeymoon period.

For the first few months or so you’ll look at Klavan and think what a great deal. After that time being at Liverpool will start to become the norm for them, and the weaknesses in his game – which have prevented him from making a big move in the past – will come out. We have seen glimpses of both sides of the player already.

The signing of Matip was considered by some as being the answer to all of our problems, and there seems to be a huge buzz about him after Tuesday night’s game. A couple of years ago he was considered to be the next big thing, and Borussia Dortmund or Bayern Munich could have snapped him up, had they seen fit to do so. But it is widely considered that, while he can look classy and cultured, he has a calamitous error in him.

On a free, he is a good gamble for Liverpool. The German media seemed to believe that once we had opened negotiations to sign him, his performances began to improve – and it may be the case that getting a move to a club like Liverpool, and working with Jurgen Klopp day in, day out will help him take that step up to the next level. But it may be that we have to bear with him until at least next season to get that out of him.

Looking at Sakho, I guess there are a number of issues. Our major advantage this year over our main rivals is two fold:

1) Due to no European football we can train more regularly and be tactically at our peak;

2) For the same reasons as above, we can be one of, if not THE, fittest teams in the league.

Sakho, and Daniel Sturridge for that matter, pose the manager an issue. With their injury records expecting them to train at full intensity, and be available for selection regularly, for long periods is questionable. Select too many players that fit that criteria and we risk losing two of our main advantages.

Another issue with Sakho is that – as Gibbo referenced in his piece the other day – people aren’t considering the ill-discipline enough. Look at it this way, Liverpool are an employer. Therefore, if these players are, allegedly, taking their own drugs, not only is that ill-discipline of the highest level, it also means that the club have wasted their time and money on sports science at Melwood if players are just going to ignore it.

There could be insurance issues with that and, if there aren’t insurance issues, there will certainly be contractual issues. That is massive, and I can totally understand moving him on.

Zonal Marking

I got this question on Twitter, this week:

You’re going to concede goals from set pieces no matter what you do, and most teams believe that they don’t score enough from set pieces and concede too many from them.

But if you’re choosing between man marking and zonal marking, some managers will do it based on what suits their players. Others will have a system, and a set way of playing, and that’s it.

If you’re going to man mark, there are two key considerations. One of those is that you need to have a very big team. The other is that they need to actually be good at marking. It’s alright if you’ve got a few players who are good at heading and marking, but it’s more common that most players won’t be able to do both well.

You might have a few good headers of the ball, but the other team might have one or two more, or somebody ends up marking somebody they don’t want to be marking. What’s the point in man marking if your defender is coming up against somebody that they know is going to beat them in the air? In addition, your best headers of the ball may be dragged into areas where they can not positively affect critical areas.

I’m not sure if this Liverpool team is big enough or good enough at heading and marking to implement man marking successfully.

LIVERPOOL, ENGLAND - Sunday, January 17, 2016: Liverpool's James Milner and Lucas Leiva challenge for a header with Manchester United's Marouane Fellaini during the Premier League match at Anfield. (Pic by David Rawcliffe/Propaganda)

Most teams now work incredibly hard to analyse the opposition and that forms the way they take set pieces. Football has advanced so much that set pieces and marking aren’t the same prospect that they used to be. It’s no longer a case of just drifting the ball in and seeing who gets their head on it. These days players can zip the ball into the box with so much pace and teams now employ blockers, so if you’re man marking you can only be reactive. You’ve also got to factor in that the new rules make it harder to pull and grapple in the box, making an Italian style of man marking nigh on impossible.

The beauty of a zonal-marking system is that you can put your best headers of the ball in key areas, to allow them to win the ball.

On another point, I think having men on the posts is a waste. On a very rare occasion they may clear it off the line, but I’d rather that player be there to win the header. All too often you see goals scored when players come off their posts, or the ball goes over their head anyway. Again, it’s reactive – I would rather be proactive.

Also I would bring every player back to defend set pieces. People will argue that there should be a few players forward, but they’re going to have players back. If everybody is back and your ‘keeper catches it, or it’s cleared, they might have only left one player back, then you’ve got a real counter-attacking situation. In my experience you’re actually more dangerous on the counter with nobody up there, than you are with two or three.

Ideally I prefer a hybrid. If you have your best headers zonally marking in the six-yard area, and about four guys marking their biggest players, you get the best of both worlds.

System v Spurs

I suspect that against Burton Klopp was testing out his team selection. He would have been looking at that game as a confidence booster, which is why he didn’t make a load of changes. I don’t think he actually cares that much about the League Cup, it was more a chance to correct the wrongs of Saturday and get a few goals.

BURTON-UPON-TRENT, ENGLAND - Tuesday, August 23, 2016: Liverpool's Emre Can celebrates the third goal against Burton Albion during the Football League Cup 2nd Round match at the Pirelli Stadium. (Pic by David Rawcliffe/Propaganda)

I’m really intrigued to see what our shape with the ball is, and whether we attempt high risk possession from deep in our own half in the first 20 minutes.

Spurs are a very high pressing and aggressive team – much more so than Arsenal and Burnley. He may need to go more direct in the first 20 minutes, in order to beat the press, rather than continue to play the ball out from the back, regardless of the amount of pressure we’re under.

If we do stick with that system of playing out from the back, then it will be interesting to see if he looks to change the system. The defensive midfielder could drop in between the centre-halves to make it a three.

If we continue playing out from the back during that early period, then it will be interesting to see if he looks to change the shape. The defensive midfielder could drop in between the centre-halves to make it a three. The wingers have been quite narrow so far, they could play wider in the first 20 or so minutes to stretch the play, or the full backs could give us more width and push up higher than they have.

I’d be really frustrated if, early in the game, we’re conceding possession to Spurs in our own half, because we’re trying to play out from the back in high risk situations. We don’t have the players to be able to consistently play through teams like that, in my opinion. Instead, we should be looking to play long, diagonal balls to force their defensive line to back off, and allow us the space to play our football from there. I would be delighted if it was 0-0 after 20 minutes, away from home.

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