When Brendan Rodgers arrived at Liverpool two summers ago, the new Liverpool manager inherited one of the Premier League's top defensive duos. A series of poor signings and a season-ending injury to Lucas Leiva saw the club's midfield and attack flounder as Kenny Dalglish's first full season back at the helm went from promise to pessimism and an unfortunate end to the Liverpool legend's second spell. Yet for all that Charlie Adam, Stewart Downing, and Andy Carroll never looked as though they would install themselves as Anfield legends, Steve Clarke's defence had proven itself amongst the league's best.
Daniel Agger appeared a lock as the left-sided centre half, finally starting to show signs he might be able to shed the injury-prone label that had haunted since he arrived from Brondby. Having set a new appearance mark with 24 league starts still spoke to a player whose injuries were a concern, but after starting an average of 15 matches a season over his first five years, it was a hopeful enough sign for many who had written the talented defender off due to his injury record to start worrying less about whether he might be able to stay fit and more about whether the club could keep hold of him if they continued to struggle.
The bigger surprise, though, was alongside Agger, where Martin Skrtel had usurped the ageing Jamie Carragher on the way to becoming the club's player of the season. It was the second strong season in a row for Skrtel, who had been one of the few bright spots during the disastrous reign of Roy Hodgson and then under Dalglish and Clarke managed to insert himself in the conversation of the league's best centre halves. Gone was the inconsistency and mental lapses. In their place was a confident, consistent defender who seemed set to anchor the defence no matter who was in charge. Then, everything went wrong for him.
Of all the players who struggled to adjust to life under Brendan Rodgers, none seemed more ill-suited to the uptempo passing and high pressing game than Skrtel, and by the time the first season under Liverpool's new boss was over he had gone from player of the season to spare part. Most expected him to be sold, and it is perhaps only Kolo Toure's injury late in August that kept him from reuniting with Rafa Benitez at Napoli. The arrival of Mamadou Sakho only added to the belief a departure was inevitable—if not then, then in January if the rest of Liverpool's defenders could remain mostly fit through the autumn.
Rodgers, though, continued to insist there was still a place for Skrtel at Liverpool. That a role was still his to be won. Few saw those words as more than platitudes, the sort of thing a manager says because to say otherwise serves little purpose but to drive a player's value down. Yet in the end, it has begun to seem Rodgers' words might have had some real weight to them. It would hardly be surprising, given Liverpool's depth at centre half and that Skrtel spent much of last season out of favour, to still see Skrtel sold in January. But having excelled when given a chance in Rodgers' new-look 3-5-2, it at least doesn't seem quite so inevitable now.
"I've always tried to show my fairness with players," said the manager following another strong showing by Skrtel against West Brom over the weekend that saw the in-form defender selected over vice-captain Daniel Agger. "People say ‘do you not like him?’ but I always say that, no, it is about performance levels. If you're playing well, you will play. If not, you might be in and out of the team. I've got an international captain, this club's vice-captain, sitting on the bench, but that's because I like to think I'm fair. If people are playing well, they play. That sums up how well Martin is playing. He's been outstanding."
Outstanding or not, one still can't help but wonder if Skrtel will still fit into the manager's plans if the return of Philippe Coutinho and Liverpool's stable of increasingly healthy fullbacks leads to a shift back to something closer to the 4-3-3 Rodgers arrived at Anfield with and that seemed so incompatible with Skrtel's game last year. The coming weeks, then, will tell an awful lot about just how flexible Rodgers is—and just how willing he is to alter his approach when the form of the players he has on hand would seem to demand it rather than when that change is forced through injury.
"I think the three at the back allows him to play to his strengths," Rodgers added. "It allows him to defend, and it simplifies his game when we have the ball. I think in the run of games he has had, he has gained in confidence. I've recognised and acknowledged with him that he is playing at a really good level."
If Liverpool are still playing three at the back this time next month, it might be time to put those persistent rumours linking Skrtel with a January Napoli move to bed. If they aren't, then at least the defender will have put himself in a position to leave Anfield on a high note, looking something an awful lot closer to the player of the season he was before Brendan Rodgers arrived than the liability he became afterwards.
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