When it became very clear that Dejan Lovren would be sporting the Liverbird by the time the 2014-15 Premier League season began, many correctly saw the writing on the wall. Liverpool's richness at centreback with Lovren in the squad meant that something had to give, and while Brendan Rodgers tried his best to pawn Kolo Touré off on Trabzonspor, it was ultimately Daniel Agger who found himself as the odd man out.
Agger's departure — both the lead-up to and the post-script of — dominated the centre back story line for much of the summer. The conclusion that one man in meant another man was out was a sound one, but it failed to really examine the idea that Mamadou Sakho might also be sacrificed to make way for the vocal and commanding Croatian. Sakho's ill advised departure from Anfield after failing to make the team sheet ahead of Kolo Touré versus Everton on Saturday has crystallized the concern quite sharply in the last few days, but it's an issue that's been brewing for some time.
Last September, Brendan Rodgers characterized Sakho and Tiago Ilori as players purchased to "protect the club for maybe the next 10 years." Ilori was obviously still inexperienced and would benefit from a loan spell or two, but Sakho was ready to go. Unfortunately for Sakho, he would go on to suffer the same misfortunes as Daniel Agger all season: he would play less than half the season, spending the other half alternating between recovering from injury and enduring fluctuating stays on the bench.
Sakho Wouldn't Change Liverpool Move for Anything
Having arrived over the summer as Liverpool's marquee signing, centre half Mamadou Sakho is adjusting well to life on Merseyside and is certain he made the right choice to head to Anfield.
When you're spoiled for choice sometimes you fail to make a choice at all. Last season gave Brendan Rodgers two capable left-footed centrebacks for a single spot pairing the always available Martin Skrtel, a situation he didn't quite know what to do with. He was forced to choose one or the other not necessarily based on who had proven their quality in training or what he envisioned for Liverpool's future at CB, but by who was available pure and simple. Agger started until he picked up a knock, at which point Sakho came in until he was no longer available. Lather, rinse, repeat. Each player had to experience the slightly stomach-turning feeling of waiting for minor tragedy to befall a teammate before getting back into the line-up.
All of this is to say that despite Sakho being labelled by the gaffer himself as Liverpool's future for the next decade, Rodgers never backed those words up with action. He didn't stick with the player during rough results (the loss to Arsenal in November) and Sakho didn't immediately supplant Agger once the Frenchman returned from injury in March. Not getting to play all the time is what both competition for your position and positional rotation look like, but it's harder to see it as purposeful decision making on behalf of the manager when the pattern of changes revolves so starkly around forced switches.
Few teams have four strong centre backs, many will go with three for injury insurance, and most will start a consistent two for the sake of developing a communicative and trusting relationship on the back line. With Agger out and Kolo Touré relegated to playing the role of social glue in the dressing room, Rodgers' interest in Lovren becomes clear. Beyond all the stated reasons of looking for Jamie Carragher's natural successor, Lovren's flexibility gives Rodgers that third CB who can play on either side in a pinch should injury strike either Sakho or Skrtel. It's an extra bit of insurance that Rodgers evidently didn't trust Agger to provide, but it's an insurance that has also marked Sakho out of the lineup.
Though both Lovren and Skrtel acquitted themselves well versus Everton, their inclusion in the lineup the week before versus West Ham United was the perfect microcosm of what's likely to happen when Brendan Rodgers makes a choice about his CBs that isn't forced by injury or illness. This time last year, a Martin Skrtel returning from injury would still have slotted straight back into the starting line-up without a second thought, a fit Mamadou Sakho would have also maintained his spot from the week before, and Dejan Lovren would be the odd man out. But that's not what happened versus West Ham, when Skrtel returned to the starting eleven and Lovren shifted over to the left side of the CB pairing, leaving Sakho to warm the bench.
Martin Skrtel will feel secure knowing that he will always start when fit, since neither Lovren nor Touré are more than stop-gap options on the right when he's unavailable. Dejan Lovren will feel secure knowing that his manager has actively chosen him to start week in and week out and that barring injury, he's also unlikely to be out of the line-up. Kolo Touré will feel secure knowing there is little expectation of him on the pitch and that he can take a pretty sweet penalty if push comes to shove.
Sakho, of course, feels anything but secure at the moment, with Saturday's outburst manifesting that particular concern. Leaving your boyhood club to become your new club's future at centreback for the better part of a decade has been a familiar tale this summer, and it's a journey on which Sakho is still very much at the beginning. But on the back of an incredibly successful World Cup — and having credited Liverpool with helping him get back into the French side — Sakho's downgraded role thus far this season is unfortunate for the player, and it's especially odd in the context of the money spent on him just a year ago — a transfer window in which Dejan Lovren was also available from Ligue 1 for far less before being snapped up by Southampton.
Liverpool absolutely need Mamadou Sakho, let's be perfectly clear. Having three senior, quality centrebacks is important in general let alone when you're competing in four competitions, but someone is always going to be the odd man out. Brendan Rodgers is famous for his man management skills, and it seems as though reassuring Sakho that he's an invaluable part of the team despite being left off the team sheet in favour of Kolo Touré might be one of the manager's biggest tests yet. Liverpool won't necessarily be keen to sell Sakho anytime soon, but it will be hard to imagine a player of his ambition being content to stick it out in his current situation with such a bright future ahead of him.