Defenders Of Our Faith

A first for Basstunedtored – a guest column! Andrew Fanko (who you can follow on Twitter here) takes a look at the defensive records of Liverpool’s current back-four combinations, and wonders if a previously untried pairing should get a run out…

Liverpool have already conceded 20 goals in their 13 competitive games so far this season, which is an average of 1.54 per game. You have to go back to the dark days of Graeme Souness and the 1992/93 season to find such a porous start to a campaign. We shipped 27 goals in the first 13 games of that season, including four at home to Chesterfield!

In the 19 interim seasons, the Reds have conceded an average of 11.6 goals in their first 13 games, which in itself is a per-game average of just 0.89 goals. So we’re conceding 0.65 more goals per game than we’ve been used to over the last two decades.

Many will explain it away by saying we’re adapting to a new system and way of playing. There’s some degree of truth in that, I’m sure, especially in terms of how exposed we are when we lose the ball. But there has also been a worrying trend of individual mistakes.

Reina, Enrique and Škrtel have all been found particularly wanting. My kind host has already examined Reina’s apparent decline, and his fellow Spaniard has been so poor that he will struggle to get back in the side when he recovers his fitness. So, what of Škrtel? The Slovakian has been arguably our most consistent player over the last two years, but there have been calls in some quarters for Coates to emerge alongside Agger.

What do the numbers say? Well, I’ve kept stats on the club’s centre-back partnerships since Agger arrived in 2006. Here is the raw data involving the four senior centre-backs currently at the club (GCPG = Goals Conceded Per Game; CS % = Clean Sheet %; Conc +2 % = Conceded 2 or more %):

The best figures by some margin are posted by Carragher/Agger, but we have to acknowledge that they were mainly produced four or five years ago when our vice-captain was at his best. I’m not sure too many people would be advocating Carragher in our first XI given his age-related decline in the last couple of years.

The main question is has Coates done enough in his short Liverpool career so far to warrant displacing Škrtel? Not according to the stats: we concede 1.47 goals when the Uruguayan plays (22 in 15 games), compared with 0.97 for Škrtel (130 in 133.5 games). That’s an extra 0.5 goals per game, which is pretty considerable.

But the flaw in that logic, of course, is that, strangely, Coates and Agger have never played together. In theory, they’re a good pair, so I’m sure we’ll see it sooner or later. We all know about the Dane’s strengths, but Coates is still a fairly unknown quantity because he hasn’t played in a run of games.

The Uruguayan took some stick for his own goal against Udinese, but I thought it was his best game in a red shirt. I was especially impressed with his reading of the game; it reminded me of Hyypiä – making up for a lack of pace with superb anticipation and positioning. And he increasingly looks a goal threat at the right end, too.

With Crouch a certain starter for Stoke, Coates would seem a logical choice at Anfield today, and it could be the start of that run of games he needs to prove whether he can genuinely challenge Škrtel for a regular slot alongside Agger.

It would take some serious courage for Rodgers to bench Škrtel and play the Uruguayan, especially given the stats we saw earlier, but the Ulsterman has proven already in his short spell in the dugout that courage in team selection is one thing he has in spades.

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7 thoughts on “Defenders Of Our Faith

  1. I find it strange that you don’t even mention the option of playing Skrtel and Coates together. Agger has been as poor as Skrtel, Enrique & Reina. Of the four Agger is the only one to be sent off this season and against ManU managed to injure himself, tackle his own player (Johnson) and fail to successfully take the ball from the ball from the opposition player all in one challenge. He’s now ‘playing through’ an injury which, given his injury record, strongly suggests he will miss at least one significant portion of this season. With all this in mind surely pairing Coates and Skrtel together and helping them build an understanding would be more beneficial to the team in the long run than pairing Coates with Agger who will most likely be in and out of the team for the remainder of the long contract the club had foolishly just given him. Then there is the matter of playing styles. Agger and Coates are both players who stay deeper than the rest of the defence and use their anticipation and positional skills to cover the other defenders and make last gasp interceptions and tackles. Skrtel however is a defender who goes ahead of the back line and challenges for the ball before it reaches the last gasp situation. His strengths are physical. The ideal centre back combination is a cover defender alongside a challenging defender. Which would mean Skrtel with either Agger or Coates. Playing Agger with Coates would mean both central defenders staying deep inviting trouble into dangerous areas.

    • Thanks for the comment. You make some valid points, but Agger’s record over the last few years (when he has played) warrants his standing as our first-choice centre-back. Not only do we concede fewer goals when he plays, he also makes many fewer defensive errors (https://twitter.com/DanKennett/statuses/233311795375398912) than his colleagues. Add to that his ability to intercept (http://basstunedtored.com/2012/08/15/daniel-agger-the-interceptor/) and win possession cleanly (a quality Rodgers definitely admires), and we can assume he will start if fit.

      I think Coates has the physical qualities required to play the more aggressive role you describe. I’ll admit that he needs to work on his aggression on defensive headers, but the raw ingredients are there. Also, having a left- and right-footed combination helps greatly because it opens up more angles for passes, and that’s doubly important for a Rodgers team.

      • Thanks for replying. First of all: I am not actually suggesting that we should be dropping Agger for Coates at this point. My point was that IF we were to drop one of Skrtel or Agger for Coates at this point I could see as strong an argument for the player to be dropped being Agger as for it being Skrtel. Personally were I to be in Rodgers position I would keep giving Coates as much game time in cups (and whenever Skrtel or Agger were injured/suspended) and keep Agger and Skrtel as first choice centre back pairing until the next time that Agger is out for a while at which point I would play Coates and Skrtel and hope they would build up an understanding good enough to justfify leaving Agger out when he returned.
        You say that Agger has done enough over recent seasons to show he should be in first team, yet you also admit Skrtel was one of our most consistent players over last two years. You concede that the stats don’t justify replacing Skrtel with Coates.
        So it is hard to see why we would consider dropping either for Coates, yet give your opinion that this might be a good idea. I was just commenting that if you had decided to consider dropping one for Coates anyway surely it would make sense to consider the pros and cons of dropping Agger as well as the pros and cons of dropping Skrtel.
        The only reason I can see for this is an opinion that Agger hasn’t put a foot wrong this season yet Skrtel has. Which is an opinion I strongly disagree with. Yes Skrtel has made individual errors. Yes the team as a whole has conceded too many goals, but Agger has also made errors. Reina has made errors. Enrique has made errors. So have Johnson, Carragher and Kelly.
        With the introduction of a new style, the loss of confidence by the keeper and (in the first few games at least) the inability of the forwards (or forward in Suarez) to convert chances the defence has been under a lot of pressure, and we have played 3 of last season’s top 4 already. With all this in mind I don’t think we need to be surprised that players like Agger and Skrtel are making more mistakes and the team is conceding more goals.
        Like I said before, I can see the merit in hypothetically examing whether dropping a central defender for Coates would improve things, but in that case I would expect both options to be explored rather than just the one.

      • Again, you make some very good points. While it’s true that Agger has made a couple of errors this season, I can’t put him in the same category as Enrique or Skrtel. For me, Agger is on another level as an all-round footballer. He’s one of those ‘makes the difference’ players in our squad (Johnson, Gerrard, Suárez) who bring something to the table that so few other players can.

        Despite his injury record, Rodgers can’t make plans assuming he’s going to be injured for long spells. He has, in my view rightly, identified Agger as his first-choice centre-back, and he seems very keen on examining long-term alternatives to Enrique at left-back. Johnson has been outstanding for the most part in recent games and looks a shoo-in for one of the full-back slots.

        The Skrtel/Coates sample size in the stats above is admittedly small, but they have been tried together already and it hasn’t worked very well so far. I guess that’s why I was hinting more at trying Coates with Agger.

        Thanks for your constructive feedback!

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