Liverpool’s weekend defeat to West Brom was a bad day all round for the Reds; the loss of three points obviously being the biggest problem, not to mention losing to the man who wasn’t good enough to manage us, going ahead only to lose the match and generally not playing very well, but perhaps the most important issue in terms of the remaining Premier League games was the fact that Liverpool lost another two defenders to injury during the game – in fact inside the opening half hour.
First, the only senior full back still available, Glen Johnson, succumbed to what looked like a hamstring strain as he chased a long ball over the top of the Liverpool defence, before Daniel Agger, who switched to left back after Soto Kyrgiakos replaced Johnson, also fell foul of injury with suspected ligament damage behind his knee.
That now leaves Liverpool with just four fit senior defenders: Jamie Carragher, Martin Skrtel, Soto Kyrgiakos and Danny Wilson, all of whom are centre backs by trade. Despite having no less than seven senior specialised full-backs on the club’s books, not a single one is currently available for selection – Emiliano Insua, Philipp Degen, Stephen Darby and Paul Konchesky are all out on loan and Martin Kelly, Fabio Aurelio and now Glen Johnson are all injured.
Though Carragher, Agger and more recently Wilson have all filled in at right and left back when needed, and have at times performed admirably, there is something quite clearly missing when these naturally more conservative-minded players have to play in what has become an incredibly important position, even more so for a team like Liverpool which lacks natural width further up the field.
Against West Brom, and not for the first time this season, a lack of thrust and pace was blatantly apparent in the wide areas of the pitch when the Reds had possession and, though the overall play of the team was not good and cannot be completely blamed on the make-shift full backs, this obviously had an impact on Liverpool’s style of play and absence of pressure on the opposition higher up the pitch.
The Reds’ next game is against Manchester City at Anfield on Monday 11th April – and it is highly unlikely that any of the three injured full backs will have recovered by then. What then will Kenny Dalglish do to overcome the problems in the wide areas of defence?
Perhaps the most simple, and safe, solution would be to leave the back four as it finished the West Brom game – Carragher right side, Wilson left, Skrtel and Kyrgiakos in the centre. However, as mentioned, this leaves the Reds with problems in possession when trying to attack and as City’s own full backs – likely Zabaleta and Kolarov – like to get forward, it would make sense to try to exploit the space behind them whenever possible.
What other options, then, are open to Dalglish?
A return to the three man defensive system could be on the cards – the Reds certainly have the depth in central defence – but with no full backs available this would mean Danny Wilson would be deployed at wing-back and while comfortable and composed on the ball the young Scot has not shown the same aptitude nor inclination to get forward as, for example, Martin Kelly has when given the chance. This roving, attacking intent is even more important when playing with wing-backs of course as they must double-up as wide midfielders when the team is in possession.
And on the right side? Dirk Kuyt might be the most logical choice, given his work rate, stamina and sense of tactical responsibility, but he is no defender and truly no genuine winger. Even with Carragher on his shoulder telling him where to be, it would be a big ask of the Dutchman to perform this type of game against an attack as good and varied as Manchester City’s. Dirk also lacks the pace to get forward in support at a moment’s notice and also likes to float inside at times – as a wide midfielder this is fine when he has, for example, Glen Johnson on the outside of him to keep the width but if he is the only wide player in the team he would need to stay outside for most of the game, not something which comes natural to Kuyt.
Perhaps, therefore, the logical choice would be to promote from within. In Jack Robinson and John Flanagan Liverpool have two young full backs who have been in great form at reserve level for the whole season and have been involved with the first team squad on a number of occasions over the past few months.
Robinson, Liverpool’s youngest ever player having appeared at just 16 years of age on the final day of last season, is a fast and adventurous left sided defender; a naturally attack-minded full back who can beat a man with pace and put over a decent cross. He has been on the bench for Liverpool this season, though has yet to add to his cameo debut appearance, and though has struggled with injury of late for the Reds’ second string he did feature for the whole game against Everton in the mini-derby at the end of last month.
Flanagan, a right back who holds the number 38 shirt, has yet to make his debut for the Reds but has travelled with the first team squad as the “19th man” on a number of occasions recently and manager Dalglish himself has said that the young Scouser is pressing for first team action. Uncompromising in the challenge and a good reader of the game, Flanagan is perhaps less of a spectacular attacker than Robinson but no worse a player for it; he has made great strides over the past two seasons and is one of several young players who travelled with the Reds to a recent European away fixture.
With the likes of Jonjo Shelvey, Jay Spearing, Kelly and Wilson having all made impacts on the first team over the past couple of months, perhaps it is not so surprising that two of the younger members of the side might be called upon in such a big game. True, Spearing had played Cup games and had started a Premiership game the year before, but earlier this season Dalglish started him in the Merseyside derby when he played only a few minutes of league football this season before that – evidence indeed that Kenny trusts to the quality of the younger lads in even the very biggest of matches. Indeed, we might also point out that a centre-back could even be called up to the first team from the reserves as substitute, should all four seniors be picked. Conor Coady, who has already been on the bench for the first team this season, would fancy his chances of inclusion in that case.
After the defeat to West Brom, the challenge for fifth place is perhaps all but gone now; Spurs hold a five point advantage and have a game in hand. Perhaps this is a perfect time to integrate the kids into the team and give them their chance; with still a sizeable gap between Liverpool and the 7th place team in the league, even in the worst case scenario we wouldn’t drop any further in the table were the idea not to pan out.
City’s attack is often centre-heavy and reliant on clever movement by the likes of Tevez; perhaps, just as against Chelsea, deploying a three man defence of Carragher, Skrtel and Kyrgiakos would work very well in Liverpool’s favour? So often City attackers, even the wider players such as Silva and Johnson, prefer to cut in rather than work the flanks; bottle-necking the centre of the Reds’ defensive zone could negate the opposition attack to a huge extent.
Robinson and Flanagan both of course will have lots to learn in terms of defending – and indeed playing – at Premier League level, but that is certainly not to say they are not good enough. Look at the effect Martin Kelly had on the team; he is young and will make mistakes, likely ones that will cost the Reds a goal or two at some time. But he’s good enough to play, and has a consistently good effect on the team which undoubtedly outweighs the possibility that he could err from time to time.
Given the chance, Robinson and Flanagan could provide similar performances.
Playing with three defenders between these two youngsters significantly minimises the chance that their inexperience could give the opposition a scoring opportunity, while their need to make an impact and youthful energy would be a welcome addition to the side both in defence and further forward.
Even if Kenny chooses to stick with a back four for the City game, I would be highly in favour of perhaps Robinson starting on the left, with Carragher remaining at right back. A true attacking full-back adds so much to teams’ play and I feel it imperative that Liverpool try to incorporate this against Manchester City.
But with complete honesty and no rose-tinted, youth-exaggerating, trumpet-blowing biased point of view in sight, I would very much, tactically, technically and ‘long-term-edly’, like to see both Robinson and Flanagan given a chance next Monday night.
Careers are made, sometimes, by the chances taken when others fall foul of injury. Martin Kelly looks to be the next great example of just such a case – and there is every possibility that these other two local boys might just get their first big chance at Anfield in a few days time.
Preferred Reds side vs Man City (presuming no new injuries or returns from injury):
Skrtel Carragher Kyrgiakos
Subs: Gulacsi, Wilson, Spearing, Ngog, Cole, Maxi, Poulsen.
Carragher Skrtel Kyrgiakos Robinson
Kuyt Meireles Suarez
Subs: Gulacsi, Wilson, Flanagan, Poulsen, Maxi, Cole, Ngog.