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All Change at the Back?

Early rumblings around the topic of what Liverpool's squad will look like next year have tended to focus on the defence, with just as many looking likely to leave as arrive. Given how the rearguard performed, that's both concerning and vaguely encouraging.

The post match macarena was always a half-hearted affair...
The post match macarena was always a half-hearted affair...
Jamie McDonald

Everybody loves a moan, so when you sit reminiscing about the campaign just ended, it's likely that you will get just as exercised by some of the abhorrent defending as you will by the almost unparalleled attacking virtuosity displayed by Brendan Rodgers' Liverpool. Over the season, fans of the Redmen were spoiled and thrilled by an attack that scored a frankly phenomenal 101 Premier League goals and yet those same fans were forced to watch-on aghast, as their title challenging team conceded a buttock-clenchingly awful 50 times. Aside altogether from the disturbing mathematical correlation of that dichotomy (you score one, we'll score two -- deal?), the flaw in the side is clear for all to see.

By contrast, Manchester City conceded only 37 times in the top flight and Chelsea's defence were breached on ten fewer occasions, as really creative writers everywhere conjured metaphors around stationary public transportation vehicles. If the Liverpool manager was looking for a place from which to begin his planned strengthening of the team, it is hard to see past the back-line and it is no coincidence that this area of the squad seems most unstable and vulnerable to considerable change as the transfer window looms.

At almost no point over the season was Brendan Rodgers able to select what he would consider his strongest back four and indeed, even that traditional formation was mutated into a back three on a couple of occasions as the Antrim man showed the primacy of the attack in his progressive thinking, by trying to manufacture a system that could shoe-horn in his two striking superstars, Daniel Sturridge and Luis Suarez.

As the campaign began, it appeared that the Anfield men were replete with centre-halves. New boys, and recent leaners, Kolo Toure and Mamadou Sakho, although at opposite ends of their career curves, were both theoretically first-team ready. Martin Skrtel and Daniel Agger were the incumbent veterans. Tiago Ilori was eventually allowed to move to Granada on loan and Sebastian Coates was still recuperating from long-term injury but even so, the middle of the back line looked to be one of the team's few areas of real strength in depth.

As the season began, with Toure preferred to Agger, a succession of 1-0 wins belied the frankly batshit months to come. Once it had found its groove and Luis Suarez was back in harness, it was clear that Rodgers' Liverpool would place a premium on forward momentum. That this was at the expense of defensive solidity is now the received wisdom. Several people, whose opinion I respect, have claimed that the current Liverpool side do not look defensively drilled and, indeed, having listened to one-time screeching doyen of the Anfield rearguard, Jamie Carragher, lose his composure about how deep the side was defending during the final crucial fixtures, it was hard to argue.

Rodgers will no doubt have very strong ideas on the kind of player he would like to have in his defence and his reputedly ardent pursuit of Ashley Williams last summer speaks to his desire to have a familiar presence, he deems reliable, holding the unit together -- it's a role Carragher had played effectively in his last days at the club. One feels that whilst Daniel Agger is quite vocal and Martin Skrtel has proved himself to have the requisite strength and bravery, the manager is not convinced by either man as a leader. Agger's recent claims about his understandable frustration at restricted playing time only complicates this scenario further.

Mamadou Sakho, despite his comparatively tender years, has looked the most complete of all the centre-half options available to Rodgers, marrying a formidable physicality to an adroitness on the ball and efficacy of distribution that the lazier television experts have singularly failed to acknowledge. Kolo Toure, by comparison, has seemed to fade before our eyes as the campaign unfolded. The Ivorian, who began the campaign so impressively, began to look vulnerable and the scoring of comically improbable own goals does not tend to galvanise anyone's reputation in the eyes of judgmental fans.

It was on the flanks, however, that the defensive issues of the team were most exposed. Glen Johnson, a footballer who has divided opinion savagely since his arrival under Rafa Benitez, was as poor as he has ever been over the course of the season and yet commanded the absolute faith of the manager when fit. With the stories of his ongoing contract wrangling and the attendant focus on the massive wages he draws from the club's coffers dominating the news currently, Johnson's situation is one of a handful of key personnel decisions for Rodgers and the owners. It would appear that the club are content to offer the right back a one year extension, a reward his form has hardly merited, but the 29 year old England man is holding out for more.

On the opposite side, the manager's first choice left back, José Enrique was ruled out from early in the season due to injuries, the extent and nature of which seems to be a little mysterious. The shirtless Spaniard had been a swashbuckling fixture as Rodgers' team found its feet at the end of the previous campaign and the Carnlough man was no doubt hoping to have him as a starter for '13/'14 but was instead forced to examine other alternatives. Aly Cisshoko was neither the runaway success fans hoped and nor was he the abomination some claimed. To be fair the Frenchman, he performed mostly solidly after a very skittish start but not many will be expecting his loan to become a permanent arrangement.

Of all the season's defensive performers, only Sakho and Jon Flanagan can say with any certainty that their futures will most definitely involve the donning of the Liverbird. Many permutations may apply as the manager weighs up the respective values and talents of the staff currently available to him but  Flanagan's efforts when introduced have been, to coin a Rodgersism, outstanding. The reprehensible reaction to his surprise inclusion months ago, against Arsenal, was a reminder of the fact that some Liverpool fans are every bit as whinging and negative as any of the groups they smugly deride but Flanagan rose above such pettiness and has proven himself to have a remarkable reservoir of character and ability on which to draw. Whether mercilessly scything opponents from his path, surging forward in possession or causing pretty slow-motion droplets of celebration, the young Scouser was second only to Luis Suarez in this scribbler's player of the season thinking.

The potential is there, then, for this summer to witness a monumental upheaval in the defensive personnel of the club. Whether that massive overhaul occurs or not, it is clear that the manager must add quality and depth in this area of the team. André Wisdom and Jack Robinson may return and the club have been linked already with some exciting talent, and Ashley Cole, but irrespective of what the specifics are, it seems necessitous and prudent that Brendan Rodgers looks to change things at the back.

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