A Lingering Problem in Liverpool's Defense

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On Thursday night in Lisbon, former Liverpool left-back Emiliano Insua turned in a man of the match performance as he and his Sporting teammates fought back late to get a 2-1 win over Athletic, who've to this point been the darlings of the competition. They'll have plenty of work to do at the San Mamés, where Athletic are unbeaten in the Europa League, but they managed to give themselves a chance at forcing their way into what many predicted would be an all-Spanish final, and, at least on the night, they have the Merseyside castaway to thank.

To say that his display left all on the Liverpool end of things pining for his return would be an overstatement, and it might be a stretch to argue that many have even paid attention to the young Argentine since his exit was confirmed late last summer. At the least, though, it proved a somewhat painful reminder of a saga that saw a previously promising player alienated from the club and actively shopped at a time when there was quite literally nobody in the squad who could fill that position on a consistent basis. The re-signing of Fabio Aurelio was only momentary relief, as we quickly remembered that his muscles were made of Listerine Breath Strips, and the arrival of Paul Konchesky proved to be one of the worst signings in recent memory.

Most justified Insua's loan and eventual exit by the worrying dip of form that we witnessed towards the end of the 2009-2010 season. And I guess that's fair, as long as we're not factoring in that he was 20 years old and forced into regular action by the permanently injured Aurelio, and that he was an important part of Liverpool's record-setting points total when used more sparingly in the 2008-2009 season.

Insua wasn't the solution then and likely wouldn't be now, but as we talked about after Jon Flanagan's struggles against Sunderland back in August, Liverpool's inability to develop any sort of continued depth at the back---particularly in the fullback roles---continues to be worrying.

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The end of last season provided plenty of promise for Liverpool's young defensive contingent, as both Flanagan and Jack Robinson left us wanting for more, and Martin Kelly had been excellent despite missing most of the latter half of the season to injury. As August approached, news of Insua's departure, while still disappointing, wasn't cause for panic given the signing of Jose Enrique and a central defensive unit that's been relatively stable in comparison.

As it turns out, Kelly, Robinson, Aurelio, and Robinson have all had extended spells on the injury list, Flanagan's been about as inconsistent as you'd expect for a teenager, and Enrique's faded in a fashion strikingly similar to Insua's dip in the spring of 2010. This certainly didn't require Kenny Dalglish to call on Jamie Carragher to partner Martin Skrtel and push Daniel Agger to left back in the semi-final against Everton, but it's a position Liverpool have found themselves in far too frequently in recent years. Hoping that the fullbacks in the squad stay fit long enough for it to not be a serious problem.

And yet it's been a serious problem for each of the past three seasons, and it's not something that can be completely wiped away by the terrific form of Martin Skrtel and Daniel Agger. For all the good that's come from Liverpool's back line, there's still the lingering anxiety that if the wrong person goes down, there's a scramble to cover a problem that should have been solved at some point in the last few transfer windows.

The answers could very well already be at Anfield, at least hypothetically---if Johnson and Kelly stay fit, they're as good a 1-2 at right back in the Premier League, and Flanagan's a promising enough prospect. The same is true on the other side, as a fit and rested Jose Enrique is among the best in England and Jack Robinson is a more than capable deputy going forward. But that formula's proven unreliable this season, and for a club with top four aspirations, hoping on the availability of fullbacks that are of first-team quality isn't good enough.

It's a tough spot Liverpool find themselves in, with first-choice fullbacks that can be among the league's best and backups that are more than serviceable if called upon. But to constantly be in a spot that requires gambling on form or fitness, with the only solution playing someone out of position, cannot continue, and it needs to be remedied.

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