Liverpool would be wise to keep Kolo Toure for one more season
Liverpool's announcement last week that they had reached an agreement to sign Schalke defender Joel Matip this summer almost certainly signals the end for one of their current crop of centre-backs, with 34-year-old Kolo Toure the most likely casualty of Jurgen Klopp's restructuring of his defence for next season.
The popular veteran is out of contract at the end of this season and at this stage there does not appear to be any desire on Liverpool's part to offer him a new deal. This is understandable given his age and that unless someone else departs he will have four players ahead of him for a first-team spot. However, the prospect of not retaining him has been met with some disapproval from supporters, some of whom have even taken to Twitter using #KeepKolo to demonstrate their feelings. It's not just sentiment talking, there is a legitimate case to be made for extending the Ivorian's stay for one more season.
There is obviously a genuine affection for Toure from the Kop because he's such a likeable, larger-than-life character. He's always smiling, he loves his football and his personality is infectious. Everybody at Anfield loves Kolo and it's easy to see why fans would like to keep him around a while longer, but all of that would count for nothing if he wasn't delivering on the pitch. He has been delivering though. In fact, Toure has arguably been Liverpool's best centre-back this season.
Others may have shown spells of more impressive form (Mamadou Sakho was outstanding before his most recent injury lay off, but has been less impressive since his return), but none have provided the level of consistency that Toure has. This has been a little surprising given that, in his two previous seasons with the Reds, he'd been somewhat erratic and occasionally prone to costly mistakes. He was never fully trusted by fans as a result of that inconsistency, but this season he's hardly put a foot wrong and his experience and enthusiasm have been invaluable.
Few will have expected his form this season, as more than a few eyebrows were raised last summer when the club gave him a new one-year deal. It had started to look like the years were catching up with him and with younger defenders such as Andre Wisdom and Tiago Ilori hoping for opportunities, the decision to keep Toure around didn't please everyone. Still, few expected him to play much and there were far more important problems for supporters to worry about, such as who was going to score the goals? As it's turned out, though, he's played far more -- and far better -- than anyone could have predicted.
Around the turn of the year, Liverpool were hit by a spate of injuries in the centre of defence, with Martin Skrtel, Dejan Lovren and Sakho all missing games, occasionally at the same time. In their absence and with games coming thick and fast, Toure has filled in admirably, which is why plenty would like to see his stay at Anfield extended for another year. Sentiment alone should certainly not be a reason for keeping a player, but there are a number of reasons why keeping Toure would make sense.
First and foremost he's the perfect "squad player." He is not going to make any waves if he's not in the team every week and managers and teammates certainly value such unselfishness. Chemistry and team spirit are important and Toure is one of those players who brings everybody together and is liked by all.
Toure has never been under any illusions as to his place in the pecking order. He has been fourth choice ever since he first arrived at Anfield in the summer of 2013. Initially he was behind Skrtel, Daniel Agger and Sakho. Agger moved on a year later and £20 million had already been spent on Dejan Lovren a few weeks earlier, so Toure's role didn't change and he's always seemed happy with it. At his age he doesn't need to be playing every week anyway, his body wouldn't be up to the demands of that so the situation he signed up to at Anfield suits him perfectly.
He has embraced his backup role and has been a fine example for the younger players at the club. If you want to know how a top professional is supposed to act, go and watch Kolo Toure. His knowledge and vast experience have made him a real asset on and off the field, especially in a squad where very few players have sampled success. He's won the Premier League title with both Arsenal and Manchester City, yet he still trains as hard as anybody and with a smile on his face even at this advanced stage of his career.
Liverpool could go into next season with a quartet of Matip, Skrtel, Sakho and Lovren, but when you have four players fighting for two positions and all of them believe they should be playing every week, it can be problematic. How would any of those react to sometimes not even making the substitutes bench, especially for important games? We already know how Toure reacts to it; he smiles, he works hard and he makes sure he's ready if and when he's needed.
Matip has not certainly been brought in to sit on the bench, which means if Toure leaves then Skrtel, Lovren and Sakho are fighting it out for the right to play alongside the new man. One of them will win, one will be the backup and the other will be in the role Toure has filled for the past three years. All are regulars for their national teams and a lack of regular club football would certainly hurt their chances of being called up by their country, so will they accept it as Toure has or will they be looking to move when the January transfer window opens?
Financially it would make sense to keep Toure and offload one of the others. The Ivorian is the lowest paid of Liverpool's central defensive group and if he leaves the club this summer when his contract expires the Reds will get nothing back for him. Extending his contract and selling one of the other three, however, would bring in funds to strengthen other areas of the team.
It's also worth considering that given the salaries involved (particularly in the cases of Sakho and Skrtel) perhaps Liverpool's owners would prefer to cash in now rather than pay big money to a backup while seeing his transfer value depreciate due to sitting on the bench. As we are so often told, football is a business and from a business standpoint keeping Toure and moving someone else might be appealing to them.
In a perfect world Liverpool would just keep whoever they regard as their best four centre-backs and salaries and potential transfer values wouldn't come into it. In reality it's not that straightforward. Liverpool are wealthier than most but they don't operate with the seemingly unlimited budget of some, and as such it's not the most prudent use of funds to be paying big money to backups. Pepe Reina and Andy Carroll were both moved on for that very reason; Fenway Sports Group don't want to be paying top dollar to players who will mostly be sitting on the bench.
While there are some strong arguments for extending Toure's time on Merseyside for a final year, ultimately the most important factor is whether Klopp thinks the veteran has enough left in the tank to play to his current level for another year. If he believes that is the case then the smart move would be to have him stick around and offload one of the others instead. If, on the other hand, he sees signs of the old man slowing down, then it's in everybody's interests to call time on it this summer.
Toure's recent performances mean this is far from being a straightforward decision. He obviously wants to stay, but all he can do is keep giving his all and see how things unfold. Whatever happens, you know that he'll still be smiling.
Dave Usher is one of ESPN FC's Liverpool bloggers. Follow him on Twitter: @theliverpoolway.