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May 8, 2014

Liverpool's defensive struggles down to a lack of leadership

One isolated incident summarises Liverpool’s defensive failings. It wasn’t crucial. It didn’t cost Liverpool any points. It didn’t even cause them to wobble.

In fact, it was a completely irrelevant goal -- a consolation for Cardiff City in their 3-1 defeat at Anfield just before Christmas, scored by Jordon Mutch.

It was a simple backpost header from a lofted Peter Whittingham free kick that bypassed the other 12 players congregating in the goalmouth. Mutch was left completely unmarked at the far post.

Sometimes, these things happen. But the real story is about why it happened.

It’s fascinating to watch Martin Skrtel and Mamadou Sakho’s hand gestures throughout the 12 seconds between Whittingham placing the ball for the free kick and Mutch nodding in. Skrtel starts by pointing at the far post, realising the situation unfolding. His centre-back partner Sakho was overloaded against two players. Naturally, Sakho marked the man closest to goal, Ben Turner, who is taller than Mutch and therefore a greater aerial threat.

It’s entirely understandable if Skrtel felt unable to leave his responsibilities in the centre and move toward the far post himself, especially because Steven Caulker was alongside him, ready to charge toward goal. Lucas Leiva and Jordan Henderson realise what Skrtel is pointing to, but neither actually moves across to help out. Ordinarily, the situation is simple: Someone spots a spare player, and a teammate moves across and marks.

Sakho, meanwhile, is doing something entirely different.

Whereas Liverpool are defending a couple of yards inside their box, Sakho is desperately instructing his teammates to push up and occupy a higher position on the 18-yard line. This seems to fall on deaf ears; a couple Liverpool players finally step forward at precisely the wrong time before having to turn and drop backward once the kick is taken. As Mutch heads in, Sakho raises his arms to ask where the marking was while Skrtel angrily punches the air in frustration.

You can analyse this situation in a number of ways. Did Sakho and Skrtel not realise the situation quickly enough? Did they not instruct their teammates clearly enough? Did the teammates simply not follow orders? However you want to play it, this was a failing of leadership. Either the leaders didn’t lead or the followers didn’t follow.

That, more than anything else, was Liverpool’s defensive problem this season -- a lack of leadership from those two centre-backs.

Assess Liverpool’s goals for and goals conceded tallies and there’s an obvious analysis. Liverpool conceded so many goals -- more than 11th-place Crystal Palace and tied with 12th-place West Ham -- because they attacked so much, likely to record (at least) the third-highest goals total in Premier League history. The more you attack, the more you leave space at the back.

This is only partially true. There are some situations where this has applied, such as when Brendan Rodgers went chasing the game away at Goodison Park, throwing on Victor Moses for Joe Allen when 2-1 up and Daniel Sturridge for Lucas Leiva at 2-2. This left Liverpool frantically searching for a late equaliser, which they eventually managed.

In reality, however, Liverpool have rarely been caught out due to gaps between the lines, because the defence has been unprotected or because opponents have counterattacked quickly. For long periods, Liverpool’s defensive shape has been OK, and they have played more reactive football than we expected at the start of the campaign, sometimes sitting deep in their own half, staying compact and then pressing frantically.

They have made 832 tackles this season, more than any other club in the division. This isn’t necessarily a good thing, or a bad thing, but it’s a feature of their game. There was certainly a slight risk in fielding Steven Gerrard as the primary holding player, but in general it was highly successful.

Only away at Southampton, where Adam Lallana got the better of him, and at home to Manchester City, where David Silva did similar, has Gerrard looked genuinely overrun. Even then, this didn’t cost Liverpool, as they won those matches 3-0 and 3-2, respectively.

Gerrard's midfield colleagues have also been diligent in their defensive duties. Jordan Henderson’s energy and tenacity has been crucial (and sorely missed during his recent suspension) while Joe Allen battles well and Philippe Coutinho has impressed with his aggression since being shifted into a deeper midfield role. Even the wide players have fulfilled their defensive responsibilities. Raheem Sterling has shown amazing discipline for a young attacker, while Luis Suarez and Daniel Sturridge have done fine jobs out wide too.

The problem has been in the simple tasks at the back, where Liverpool have been extremely sloppy. They have often invited opposition pressure to facilitate their direct attacking game but been unable to withstand the pressure. That Cardiff goal summarises the situation. Skrtel and Sakho shouldn’t be beaten in the air. In a way, they weren’t. They simply couldn’t get organised.

This is where they have missed Jamie Carragher. The veteran centre-back announced his retirement on Feb. 7 last year, at the time understandable considering he had made just four Premier League starts that season.

Peculiarly, Carragher became a regular from that point. Liverpool went on a brilliant end-of-season run, winning seven and drawing four of their final 12 matches. The only game they lost was away at Southampton, the only match where Carragher was absent. Sportsmen reversing retirement decisions is always slightly annoying, but in this instance it would have made sense. Suddenly, Carragher was one of Liverpool’s most important players once again.

Carragher hadn’t declined as sharply as many suggested, partly because his abilities were sometimes slightly overstated in the first place. Even at his best, he was always a slightly scrappy, reactive centre-back. Even if his pace declined into his 30s, his increased experience compensated. He was always a player who worked hard, learned and improved rather than a naturally superb defender.

As it happens, while Carragher was initially judged unsuitable by Rodgers because of the need to play a high defensive line (something even Skrtel and Daniel Agger struggled with at the outset), Liverpool started to defend deeper this season, playing into Carragher’s hands.

Carragher may or may not have solved Liverpool’s leadership problems and defensive record. It’s simply one way Liverpool could have collected more points this season. You could point to a dozen other factors.

Nevertheless, this is increasingly a problem for top-level football clubs -- for Arsenal, arguably for Manchester City despite their imminent title success and potentially for both Manchester United and Chelsea if, as anticipated, their current veterans are released this summer. For some reason, players’ personalities have changed in the past 20 years. There are fewer genuine characters, fewer hardmen, fewer leaders. When you find one, you must hold on to him.