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Holding the Line

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jamie carragher screaming angry

No matter if it was right or wrong, Jamie Carragher was always going to start against Arsenal on Saturday. Legend to some, a man who in his prime fuelled dreams of a cloned brood of Carraghers all straining and screaming as they dragged the club to glory. To others a lately tarnished legacy of behind the scenes politicking, his local's influence and friends in the press helping him hang on to a starting role years after he should have joined Sami Hyypia in heading gracefully off into the sunset a fondly remembered hero.

Either way, a player who continues to cast an inescapable shadow at the club, his feet planted firmly mid-decade with Champions League glory and a constant desire for success so palpable it couldn't help but convert a legion of supporters to his cause. The signs of his decline, though, are nothing new, and as far back as Liverpool's 2008-09 campaign that fell just short of league glory there were rumours that the search was on for an established, world class defender to step in and take over as Liverpool's first choice.

Three seasons and two managers later, Carragher started 2011-12 still the first centre back on the team sheet, and still any argument in favour of dislodging him quite nearly began and ended with "He's Jamie Carragher." There was an insistence Liverpool needed his leadership capabilities, even if at times they seemed to amount to screaming incoherently at anyone nearby. There was an insistence that without him there to organise the line, a pairing of Daniel Agger and Martin Skrtel would be lost—despite that both anchor the defence for their national teams. And, of course, there was an insistence that to even suggest he should be phased out was tantamount to treason because, well, he was Jamie Carragher.

liverpool average position arsenal
Above: Average positions against Arsenal on Saturday.
Below: Average positions against Bolton in January.

Six months later it was the same story, despite that an injury in the autumn had forced Dalglish to give Agger and Skrtel an extended run together which had gone on to provide one of the club's few true bright spots in a rough and inconsistent season. Despite that it proved Liverpool's defence wouldn't completely fall apart without him in it—and that in fact the exact opposite could happen—when it came time to ask whether Jamie Carragher or Sebastian Coates would replace the injured Daniel Agger in the new year, there was really only ever one answer. It was always going to be Carragher. And not for any especially tangible, tactical reasons—mostly because, as always, he was Jamie Carragher.

Robin van Persie, it turns out, was more interested in twice beating the defender Jamie Carragher has become in 2012 than in being intimidated by the reputation he deservedly earned in 2005. Somewhat surprisingly, however, after Carragher had consistently dragged the defensive line deep before his injury in October, on his return Liverpool managed to mostly hold the higher line they've used since Agger and Skrtel became an established pairing.

It could be argued that Agger and Skrtel might not have retreated quite so quickly on both of Arsenal's goals, and that without Carragher's fear of being exposed by pace providing van Persie space in front of him, the Arsenal striker wouldn't have been able to so easily score a largely uncontested brace. Such speculation, though, is difficult to confirm one way or the other. When it comes to what can be confirmed, it's clear that Liverpool's defence was five to ten yards higher up the pitch for most of the match against Arsenal than they would have been early in the year and as such likely not far off where they would have been on average had Skrtel paired with Agger instead of Carragher.

Looking back at the performances of recent weeks, it can be seen that Liverpool's deepest defender has been similarly positioned to where Carragher was against Arsenal. Against Manchester United, it was Daniel Agger who was the more reserved of the duo. This was because his position on the left of defence meant that he often faced Antonio Valencia, United's most consistently dangerous attacker on the day, and that attacking threat forced Agger into a more conservative performance.

liverpool average position united
Above & Below: Average position in recent games
against Tottenham and Manchester United

By comparison, against Tottenham with Gareth Bale cutting in from the opposite side, Skrtel was the far deeper of the two while Agger was freer to join Liverpool's attack when the opportunity presented itself. Following that pattern, on Saturday against Arsenal, with their attacking threat coming primarily down the right through Theo Walcott, one fully expects Skrtel to have a relatively deep average position in line with the deeper centre back in previous games.

Where Carragher suffers as part of a pairing, then—perhaps unsurprisingly—is that he doesn't show any signs of forward intent despite being put under less immediate pressure by a club intent to attack down Liverpool's left. At least, however, it seems that despite taking away from Liverpool's attack, his return to the starting eleven didn't move the defensive line deeper on average.

This, again, is noticeably different from earlier in the season, when Liverpool's line was consistently positioned further back. At the time, there was some question as to whether it was Carragher or the coaches setting the line deep enough that the average position of Liverpool's centre backs was often right on the edge of their own area. It now seems clear that Liverpool's deep line in the early going was—by design or otherwise—an artifact of Jamie Carragher's lock on the starting eleven.

With Agger and Skrtel paired at the back in subsequent months, the line has moved a good five to ten yards higher up the pitch on average, and while doing so has become one of the stingiest defences in the league even with the injury to Lucas Leiva in November. It's also notable that with Carragher out of the lineup, it hasn't only been Agger who has headed forward, with both defenders now willing to commit themselves to attacking areas depending on the particular threat offered by the opposition. How things might change now that Agger is injured—both when it comes to the line's depth and also to any slight boost to attack provided by centre backs getting forward—is now the question, and cause for some concern.

For good or ill, Jamie Carragher was always going to get the start on Saturday. If Kenny Dalglish is convinced fourth is still within reach, it's entirely possible that, right or wrong, he may start again against Sunderland on Saturday given his reputation at the club and the power he holds in the dressing room despite that in recent seasons his performances haven't consistently measured up. One thing that is clear, however, is that without Carragher in the starting eleven in recent months, Liverpool's approach to defence has shifted noticeably. If he continues to play in Agger's absence, it will be telling if once again the line shifts back in an effort to compensate for his presence, seeking to provide a more comfortable platform for an aging centre back who for at least three seasons now has been a pale imitation of his former self.