The Centre Cannot Hold

Mama knows best - Clive Brunskill

For an area in which he is blessed with options, Brendan Rodgers seems oddly unsure of himself when it comes to his centre-back selections. It has been a source of fan angst all season and it's a problem the manager needs to solve soon.

Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

William Butler Yeats, The Second Coming

In my peculiar and solipsistic vision of the universe, the great literature, movies and music, about which I am passionate, merge seamlessly with the unhealthy obsession I have with Liverpool Football Club. In this way bizarre mental marriages are made between poetry, film dialogue and and songs and the moments in Liverpool's history with which I associate them.

The UEFA Cup win of 2001, for example, is immediately evoked when I hear the Patti Smith album Horses which I happened to have on heavy rotation at the time. Similarly, the Champions League triumph of 2005 is called to mind whenever I revisit the delightful madness of Flann O'Brien's At Swim two Birds and The Third Policeman, both of which I was endeavouring to draw inspiration from during that incredible run to Istanbul.

In this way, as I've gawped in horror at the almost comical ineptitude of Liverpool's defending at times this season, I've been haunted by the phrase that forms the title of this piece. In a way that William Butler Yeats would no doubt abhor, the above lines from The Second Coming could form the most articulate match report of the Hull City game ever written. It may be heresy to abuse one of the great works of Modernist poetry in such a way, but frankly, who cares? I'm Irish too, Yeats can indulge me. "Mere anarchy," indeed, was what reigned in the Liverpool rearguard on Sunday as the "best" of our defenders seemed to "lack all conviction."

Brendan Rodgers has a problem. It's the kind of problem that managers aspire to have. Presented with a veritable embarrassment of options at centre back, he is currently struggling to select the correct combination of talents. Of course, it is not that simple. On Sunday, Daniel Agger and Mamadou Sakho sat on the bench so that Kolo Touré and Martin Skrtel could form an often shoddy and cumbersome looking  partnership. Meanwhile Tiago Ilori kicks his heels, André Wisdom is gaining experience at Derby, Sebastian Coates is in the late stages of a long injury rehab and Martin Kelly, at twenty three, is clean out of time to still be considered a 'prospect.'

The ingenious and possibly cagey way that Rodgers found to circumnavigate the issue was to play with three at the back and two wing-backs. Some saw this as the manager simply 'bottling' the decision, but for a while vice captain, Daniel Agger, was the man who was missing out, and that was hardly the easiest call for the manager to make. No, it is only fair to credit Rodgers with making the call for the correct reasons and, for a while at least, it seemed to be the correct one, with Mamadou Sakho, in particular, looking solid.

Of far greater concern to those of us who spend too much time pondering such things, was the apparent abandonment of the possession-based football Rodgers had made such an issue of. The system seemed to change in order to facilitate the two most prolific front-men in the Premier league, with the ball getting pinged to them as quickly as possible, often on the counter-attack, having soaked up some opposition pressure. This yielded some results and the manager showed a new willingness to embrace whatever system saw his team accrue three points.

Against Hull, however, the whole team seemed to lack focus and direction, as players under-performed en masse. Glen Johnson, normally inclined towards slaloming runs and subtle interplay, inexplicably seemed to punt the ball forward incessantly. On the other flank John Flanagan once again toiled honestly but he is the third player to have played in that position thus far and cannot be relied upon yet as a source of stability or reliable creativity. Simon Mignolet, so impressive to date with his general play and shot stopping has been wayward with his kicking and joined Johnson too often in lofting 50-50 balls towards the forwards.

When there is such uncertainty and underperformance across the back-line one must be able to rely on the resolute stoicism of one's centre-half pairing. Kolo Touré, who started the season so well and had made himself almost undroppable until his injury, looked a shadow of himself at the weekend. Hesitant and immobile, the Ivorian was partnered with Skrtel, who was far from impressive. Endless chatter has focused on the folly of leaving Sakho and Agger on the bench and your scribbler will now contribute further to it.

When Daniel Agger plays, the back-line seems to be further forward and Agger himself is in constant dialogue with Lucas Leiva and Steven Gerrard, both of whom have been inclined to sit too deep. Agger has shown a certain frailty on set-plays, as have the whole team, but he is the most accomplished footballer available to Rodgers in defence and should start in the opinion of most, including the forthright Dane himself.

Mamadou Sakho has been the focal point of some of the more fanciful conspiracy theories to have done the rounds since the weekend's defeat. He was a compromise signing, say some, not particularly coveted by the manager and flaunted by the bumptious Ian Ayre as the club's £15 million summer 'marquee' capture. How else can one explain his omission, after doing well for Liverpool and performing heroics as France qualified for the World Cup? Well, doubtless, Brendan Rodgers has a valid conspiracy-busting reason, but his quotes on the subject seem a little at odds with the perception of most fans and indeed those of the managing director.

"The idea was to bring him in to develop but Sakho came in and challenged," said the Liverpool boss. "There's no real change to that. He came in at a time when we went to a back three and did reasonably well. He's now working very hard to come back into the starting line-up. That's where we're at. He's a good player, an international, and if he's working well enough in training and the team is not doing so well, it could open up the door for him."

Having thought he'd already opened that door and shut it behind him, Sakho must be wondering what changes he needs to make to his game to ensure readmission. The selection of Touré and Skrtel was, according to Rodgers, "simply tactical" and based on what he saw as their ability to deal with more robust attackers. By his own admission, however, the manager has been "disappointed" by a succession of "mistakes" and he admits he is struggling to discover the right "balance" in the heart of his defence.

"Central defence is an important area of the team and it's something I need to look at to get that consistency," insists Rodgers. "There has been lots of change and some of that has been down to me, knowing every game is an absolute cup final for us. If I feel I need to change the defence going into a game to get a result, then I will do so. But from the coaching perspective, I need to consider that a little run in the team might breed consistency, even if we have to change a number of other positions."

The take-away for me from these words is that Rodgers is under immense pressure to win every match. A team with aspirations to play Champions League football must certainly win more than they lose but the notion that every game is a 'cup final' and the self-admitted anxiety that has caused him regarding his team selection suggests a lack of calm that is worrying. Then again, it may just be Rodgers erring on the side of needless loquaciousness again. One way or the other, all eyes will be drawn immediately to the defensive personnel on the team sheet tonight.

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