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Getting Defensive

Making an appreciable transformation in a struggling team's fortunes is not a simple thing to do, but since his introduction of a new defensive structure containing Mamadou Sakho and Emre Can, Brendan Rodgers has overseen just that.

Liverpool 's rock-solid defensive unit. Yes, you read that right. Marvellous, isn't it?
Liverpool 's rock-solid defensive unit. Yes, you read that right. Marvellous, isn't it?
Jamie McDonald/Getty Images

If the doors of perception were cleansed every thing would appear to man as it is. Infinite.

William Blake, The Marriage of Heaven and Hell

"I am the Lizard King. I can do anything."

Jim Morrison

When the visionary genius that was William Blake wrote the above words, he inspired generations of both navel-gazing introverts and louche lascivious rock stars into believing that everything is possible; that man is limited only by the narrowness of his vision or the potency of his mescaline-based narcotics. Blake, whose thrillingly unsettling art and poetry betrayed the chaotic boundlessness of his own imagination, was a massive influence on creative types as diverse as the likes of Aldous Huxley, Allen Ginsberg, Jim Morrison and Bob Dylan -- all of whom preached the gospel of aspiring to change.

Recently, the oft-befuddled paragraphs of this column contained a wary appraisal of the self-help industry. The making of a dramatic change in one's life, in the all-too-ample experience of this particular Irishman, is an act of tremendous individual focus and will. Of course, the right advice is always welcome, but outside guidance and encouragement are singularly pointless in the absence of a stoical self-reliance and desire for metamorphosis.

The professional athlete is, more often than not, replete with both impulses but also the fortunate recipient of the very best counsel and instruction on how to attain his/her goals. Happily, for fans of Liverpool Football Club, there seems to be a pleasing synergy currently at play between the talented and driven playing staff and those charged with coaxing the maximum productivity from them. Nowhere is this more evident than in the transformation of the team's defence from an angst ridden shambles to a comparatively calm and efficient unit.

The key to this encouraging transmutation was Brendan Rodgers' decision to increase the chances of solidity in the rearguard by shifting to three at the back with energetic, motile wing-backs protecting the flanks when not in possession and marauding forward when the ball is Liverpool's. Another key to the transformation of the team's defensive solidity was the introduction of Mamadou Sakho and Emre Can into the side, as ball-playing foils to Martin Skrtel's central sweeper.

Sakho, who has had to endure some dubious criticism over his time at the club, has been particularly impressive in his defensive duties and his recent injury which necessitated a sooner-than-planned rehabilitation of Dejan Lovren, left many Reds fans deflated. Thankfully, despite the comparatively acceptable work done by the Croat in his stead, it seems as though the mohican-fancying stopper is now fully rehabilitated and primed for battle. Last night, in what has become known as the Mini-Derby, the Frenchman played the first half against Everton's Under 21s. Michael Beale, whose side went on to a dramatic late win thanks to an injury time Harry Wilson screamer, was effusive in his praise for the influence and attitude of Liverpool's number 17.

"He's played for us before and he's an unbelievable professional," the coach insisted. "He lights up the whole dressing room with his personality. I thought he showed today the difference between U21 and Premier League level, everything about him, his physique, and how composed he is. He really understands what this derby is about and he's a player that fans just love because they see his commitment and I can't speak highly enough of him.

"I had to sort of tear him off because he would have liked to stay on a bit longer but I wasn't going to risk that one, he's a big player for the first team. But you can see he's a real winner, 45 minutes in an U21 game and he doesn't want to come off. We've got a real player there. What a role model for our boys. When they were leaving at half-time, he was saying, 'don't lose this game - make sure you win'. I said that the boys would definitely win because they would be scared to go back in there and face him!"

Aside altogether from the incredibly gratifying depiction of Sakho's attitude to his own recovery, it is a real treat to hear Beale speak of the influence he wields over the younger players on the club's books. Leadership is clearly a natural trait of the amiable French international and Brendan Rodgers will be very glad to reintroduce his authority and poise to the first team. One can easily imagine that despite his remarkable smile and apparently easy-going nature, Sakho's teammates would not want to disappoint their Mama.

Perhaps the only man around Anfield and environs whose beaming grin is more affecting than that of our resident painter/decorator is Kolo Touré. The AFCON winning captain, who also has two Premier League titles and three FA Cup wins to boast of, has been particularly taken with Sakho's counterpart, Emre Can. Touré, who was excellent against Blackburn at the weekend and is in talks over an extension to his existing contract, was unequivocal in his glowing assessment of Anfield's Adonis.

"He’s a leader," gushed Touré. "When you’re on the pitch, you can see that by the way he plays. He is really confident and he talks on the pitch as well. Right now, Jordan Henderson is very good, but there’s no doubt this boy is going to be a king here. He is a top player, who can make a difference in games. He can score goals, his work-rate is amazing and there is no better player."

"He’s young, but he’s a top player," the ebullient Ivorian continued. "He has been playing outstandingly at the back and in midfield, he’s a very strong player. We like him here. He’s from Germany and German players are really good. I’m not surprised by how well he’s doing. They learn football and they are really intelligent, tactically outstanding and really strong."

Ignoring the delightfully benign stereotyping from The Happiest Man in Anfield, one can readily agree with his assessment of Can's impact and centrality to what Rodgers is currently building at the club. Although most, including the young man himself, see his future in the centre of the pitch, this scribbler would not lament his continuance at the back, where his calm reading of the game and ability to impose himself on the play have been a real boon of late.

Whatever their thoughts on the current back three formation, there cannot be many fans who are not gladdened and reassured by happy sight of Mamadou Sakho and Emre Can in the Liverpool defence. In these two, Rodgers has discovered a pair who have facilitated a mighty change and whose efforts have helped the fans to cautiously peer through a crack in "the doors of perception" and dream once more of an auriferous future. A peyote-addled Morrison would no doubt approve.

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