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Solving the Center Back Problem, One Fullback at a Time

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Liverpool has been on title challenging form since Kenny Dalglish's January return, a 57% win rate enough to be nipping at United's heels ahead of both surging Chelsea and fading Arsenal were it somehow stretched out over the entire season. Though of course part of that speaks to how poorly the clubs near the top of the table have performed at times, and that isn't something that Liverpool can pin their hopes of future success on. Then there is what seemed an obviously, chronically thin squad that whimpered out of Europe to consider. A squad that as recently as last month faced having zero healthy fullbacks. A squad that has relied on Jay Spearing suddenly turning from a League 2 pumpkin into a competent top flight midfielder to keep their European dreams alive.

For all the recent success, for all that Liverpool has managed a title challenging pace, this is still a fearfully thin squad. One that needs reinforcements from front to back and side to side; one that over the season has seen a growing need for reinforcements at center back; and one that can't move forward expecting unexpected revelations to carry them all the way back to the top.

Despite that they may have started the season appearing fairly strong at the back, Liverpool will end with it perhaps their shakiest area. Certainly the problems at left back have been well documented, and as much as Jack Robinson may be a great prospect and Aurelio may be well liked, there's a clear need for the sort of player who can come in and start 35-40 games a year at the highest level. However, the problems at center back aren't all that far behind those on the left when it comes to future uncertainty.

Jamie Carragher has of course been a loyal servant to the club, yet his firm embrace of the aimless long-ball under Roy Hodgson has seemingly survived Dalglish's arrival, where his refusal to pass to open men in midfield while launching balls upfield has been at the core of Liverpool's passing game breaking down whenever Andy Carroll is on the pitch. And though he still has it in him to make a spectacular last-ditch tackle every now and then, the continuing diminishment of what was his already fairly snail-like pace will only serve to pin the back-line deeper next season, thereby making an up-tempo, high-pressure game by the forwards and midfielders almost impossible as the resulting separation from the back-line would leave space for opponents to exploit.

Then there's Martin Skrtel, who at least has shown signs of becoming a slightly more stable defender again under Dalglish. Still, before now the Slovak had spent a season and a half in the proverbial wilderness, a terrifying weak point for opponents to focus their attacks on. He was timid in the air, insecure on the ground, and nothing like the player remembered from 2008-09's title challenge. So while perhaps a summer under Dalglish and Clarke would see him back to his best, it's far from a sure thing that he will ever fully return to being the defensive force he was for a time under Rafa Benitez before wheels started falling off all over the place.

Sotirios Kyrgiakos, meanwhile, has become a huge liability against any side that can play with pace on the ground. And it's not as though he was any better than a moderate liability at the best of times, either, though he might still be able to do a job against the occasional target-man. In any case, he clearly seems far from a weekly solution.

Which brings things around to the unfortunate case of Daniel Agger, potentially one of the classiest center backs in world football. Potentially Liverpool's Gerrard Pique. Potentially available 50% of the time if the club is lucky, though of course the coaching and medical staff may have some level of faith in his long-term prospects. If that is indeed the case, then one can only hope for him to become Liverpool's defensive centerpiece moving forward, though like Skrtel (albeit for different reasons), this seems a long-term question mark at best--even if it's one that still has a huge potential upside.

And even if one assumes for the sake of argument that Agger will be able to find some kind of long-term fitness, center back has clearly become a major problem. From four quality options and a handful of talented kids at the start of the year, it has largely devolved into one oft injured player of undeniable quality alongside three potential future liabilities and a handful of talented kids who might or might not pan out.

Still, in an indirect way, that left back position that seemed the club's thinnest less than a month ago may now in no small part help to solve Liverpool's growing central problems. The emergence of John Flanagan and Jack Robinson as not only promising prospects but, though they are almost certainly not ready for the weekly rigors of the Premier League, players who may in fact be ready to contribute occasionally yet reliably, could solve that center back problem. At least if, as everybody assumes must happen, the summer solves that other niggling question of who exactly will be starting those 35-40 matches at left back next season.

If that hole is filled, it would allow Robinson to be eased into the first team slowly, getting cup games and occasionally covering for injury and fatigue, while Glen Johnson would in all liklihood move back to the right and allow the same thing to be done with John Flanagan. That would leave Liverpool suddenly--and fairly unexpectedly--looking secure at fullback for the first time in years. Though it would also seem to leave Martin Kelly the odd man out, at least until one recalls that he came up through the youth system as a center back and most have assumed that would become his eventual home, as was the case with Carragher in his younger days.

With the likes of the club's other center back prospects, particularly Danny Wilson and Daniel Ayala, though they do have promise and might become fantastic players, it would seem foolish for Liverpool to gamble all their future success on either stepping in next year and doing the job of a £15M-rated player bought on the transfer market. Especially with the aforementioned classy injury and three question marks being the only other options currently on hand. For Martin Kelly, too, it would have seemed a similar gamble throughout even much of this season, but before his recent injury the strength and consistency of his play under Dalglish had already gone a long way towards soothing any doubts as to his long-term suitability, making him a viable option to start week in and week out in a way that would have been nearly unimaginable when the season started.

That still doesn't make Kelly a sure thing, of course, and with Daniel Agger's uncertain situation one imagines the club will still need to bring in at least one center back who can compete to start every week, but Flanagan and Robinson helping to make Liverpool's fullback future just a little more certain might in a roundabout way be enough to solve that problem at center back with one new player instead of two.