ESPN FC: Liverpool's defensive struggles
Brendan Rodgers is considering a defensive reshuffle to keep Liverpool’s Premier League title challenge on track as centre-back Mamadou Sakho closes in on a return from injury.
Rodgers has confirmed that Sakho, 24, signed from Paris Saint-Germain for 15 million pounds last summer, is around a week away from being available after two months out with a hamstring problem.
And the France international is in the frame to head straight back into the starting XI as the Reds bid to sort out a porous back line.
Having kept clean sheets in each of their opening three league games this season, Liverpool have managed just four in 24 top-flight matches since.
And they have been beset by a number of defensive howlers over the last month, beginning with Kolo Toure’s poor pass across the face of his own penalty area which allowed Victor Anichebe to score West Brom’s equaliser in a 1-1 draw at The Hawthorns on Feb. 2.
A 3-2 win at Fulham 10 days later came despite Toure slicing in an own goal and Martin Skrtel producing a poor clearance that led to Kieran Richardson scoring.
And Sunday’s 4-3 win over Swansea was marked with another jittery defensive display, with Glen Johnson uncertain at full-back on his return from injury and Daniel Agger replaced after 63 minutes for tactical reasons.
Injuries and fluctuations in form have resulted in Rodgers using no fewer than 21 different defensive combinations in the Premier League this season, in front of ever-present goalkeeper Simon Mignolet.
The Reds boss has struggled to adequately replace the experience, organisation skills and leadership qualities of former vice-captain Jamie Carragher, who retired at the end of last season.
Carragher, restored to the side in January last year as Skrtel struggled for form, was instrumental as Liverpool went on to keep eight clean sheets in their final 16 league games of the campaign.
Four of the Reds’ seven summer signings were defenders, with three of those centre-backs -- Sakho, Toure on a free transfer from Manchester City and Tiago Ilori for seven million pounds from Sporting Lisbon -- plus left-back Aly Cissokho on a season-long loan from Valencia.
Cissokho has failed to impress and is set to return to Spain at the end of the season, Ilori has been sent out on loan to Granada after failing to break into the side and Toure, after a solid start, has become prone to errors.
Rodgers has not been helped by a long-term knee injury to Jose Enrique, which shows no sign of clearing up despite surgery in November, although Jon Flanagan has impressed in his absence.
Johnson has also struggled with injuries this season, making his return against Swansea after a month out with groin and ankle problems.
Rodgers is hopeful of a quick return for Sakho, who sustained his hamstring injury during the 2-1 Premier League defeat at Chelsea on Dec. 29.
He said: “He is back on the field. Hopefully over the next week to 10 days, he won’t be far away.”
Rodgers acknowledged, though, that there is only so much he can do to sort out his team’s defence.
The Reds boss has become increasingly concerned that his team’s haphazard defending could derail their chances of a first league title since 1990.
Rodgers has insisted all season that Champions League qualification is his priority, but does not want to settle for finishing fourth.
Sunday’s win over Swansea strengthened Liverpool’s grip on fourth spot, as they moved six points ahead of fifth-placed Tottenham, who were beaten 1-0 at Norwich.
While his side have overtaken Manchester City as the Premier League’s top scorers, with 70 goals, after scoring four against Swansea, they have conceded more than any other team in the top half of the table, except for Newcastle.
Discussing his side’s defending, Rodgers added: “The problem is that it’s not coaching. Some of the situations in which we conceded goals -- you can’t coach that.
“There’s a feel when you’re in the game -- of how to defend -- and you have to use that experience to be able to defend properly. I’ve always said that, ever since I’ve been here.”