Amidst all the plaudits that have come Brendan Rodgers' way for Liverpool’s scintillating attacking play throughout this season, there has been frequent dissection and criticism of the defensive flaws that have undoubtedly curved this wonderful side's admirable charge for an unlikely title.
For a side well-stocked numerically in the centre back department, there has been frequent condemnation of the lack of a consistent partnership on which to build the team.
For many years, those hankering for the days of Stephane Henchoz and Sami Hyypia have long viewed Martin Skrtel and Daniel Agger as the ideal defensive partnership, yet the latter has been plagued by injury in recent years, whilst the former's goal record this season has been overshadowed by frequent defensive lapses and ill discipline.
The supposed cure - much vaunted French international Mamadou Sakho - has also forced a wedge into this partnership, but its clear that the ex-PSG man does not form a balanced partnership with the similarly physical Skrtel and has had very limited pitch time with Agger.
Old-fashioned purists, of whom there many still lingering in the Kop, may continue to hold out hope of a back four of Jack Robinson, Andre Wisdom, Martin Kelly and John Flanagan eventually emerging as the bedrock of this side in Rodgers' new era. The same crowd also believe that Dani Pacheco will one day return to displace Luis Suarez in the starting line up.
Whilst these are four fine players with futures in the game, it is unlikely those futures can be at regular Champions League level. Robinson has spent two years fighting at the bottom end of the Championship, whilst Kelly has been cruelly sidetracked by a succession of injuries. Wisdom has made solid progress at Derby this season.
Liverpool have plenty of young talent on their books, but Rodgers would be foolish to believe that the long-term solution to his defensive conundrum will be found in this well of youth.
Remarkably, across all competitions this season, Liverpool have used a rather small total of 25 players. Of these, 11 have been defenders, including four left-backs, although this includes the likes of Wisdom and Brad Smith who have made two appearances between them. Tiago Llori and Sebiastien Coates have yet to appear.
Such rotation is not the hallmark of title winners and may go some way to explain why Liverpool are 11th in the clean sheets table, tied with relegation candidates Sunderland. That £15million worth of centre-back have had such small impact at the club and another £18million man in Sakho is struggling to fully impose his considerable frame on a regular basis is perhaps the most obvious indictment of Liverpool’s defensive woes.
It is, therefore, testament to Liverpool’s irrepressible attacking force that they have failed to score in just three games all season. Without this, the frequent defensive maladies - encapsulated by the late 3-3 capitulation at Crystal Palace - could have cost them their hard-earned Champions League position.
Looking to next season and the Champions League campaign, Rodgers has many intriguing decisions to make with regards to his back five. Pepe Reina will have returned, though it is almost universally expected that he will depart permanently. Coates shall be another out of the door if a buyer can be found, whilst at centre-back Rodgers may be tempted to cash in on one of Skrtel or Agger in an attempt to kickstart the rebuilding process.
Wisdom may have an opportunity to impress alongside John Flanagan. The latter has demonstrated enough to become a valuable squad member next year, but a long-term future at left-back seems highly unlikely.
It is the full-back positions that perhaps need most attention. Aly Cissokho, it is fair to say, will not be returning ,meaning that a foray into the transfer market may be required for possibly two top class full-backs with Glen Johnson an increasing, ageing liability.
As mentioned earlier, despite the financial security of Champions League football, Rodgers and the highly ambiguous transfer committee must seek to spend shrewdly without the considerable financial aberrations of previous windows.
Indeed, it may even be time to allow the younger, more expensive imports such as Llori and Sakho to demonstrate their worth to the squad without the need for excessive outlay. Should he need to, though, Rodgers could do far worse than tempt Cardiff City captain Steven Caulker back to the Premier League.
A defender of definite international class, the youngster may cost over £10m, but is a strong, talented Englishman who can feature in Liverpool sides for decades to come. Other potential targets - such as Southampton duo Nathaniel Clyne and Calum Chambers - similarly point towards an invigoration of youth into the back four that may prove highly beneficial as the manager continues to build ever gradually to sustained, long-term success.
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