In Michael Cox (a.k.a. Zonal Marking)’s preview of France’s chances at the forthcoming World Cup, he noted the following about Liverpool’s £17m French centre-back.
Mamadou Sakho is good in the air and quick across the floor but poor in possession.
The end of that description didn’t sit quite right with me, so I took a quick look at the stats.
Just to be clear, this isn’t an attempt to discredit or pick holes in what Michael Cox has said, rather that his comment set off a thought process. For starters, ‘poor in possession’ could mean a number of different things; holding onto the ball too long, speed or distance of passing, creative input, and so on.
But the obvious assumption would be that it refers to pass accuracy, and a look at WhoScored reveals that Mamadou Sakho had the third highest passing accuracy percentage in the Premier League last season (excluding the cameo merchants with a handful of passes to their name).
What I hadn’t realised until digging a little deeper is how few passes the French international sends backwards: just four percent of his total. To give that some context, Liverpool’s other centre-backs averaged 5% (Agger), 7% (Toure) and 8% (Skrtel).
This means that whilst they obviously played different amounts of time and passes in 2013/14, Sakho only passed backwards thirty-seven times, whilst Skrtel did so on 141 occasions.
Now considering that the only player behind them is probably Simon Mignolet, whose strong point is certainly not considered to be his distribution, which centre-back would you rather have in possession of the ball? It would have to be Sakho for me, as he is more likely to find a team-mate and one who is further away from the Liverpool goal to boot.
Here’s a table of how often Liverpool’s centre backs (plus Per Mertesacker and Laurent Koscielny, the two players to have a higher pass accuracy than Sakho this season) pass backwards.
Martin Skrtel has a very impressive pass accuracy on the face of it, yet approximately four times a game he passes back to a goalkeeper who appears to not want the ball; the Slovakian is literally passing the problem on. Of course, not all of these passes will have been made under pressure, in which case a back pass isn’t the end of the world, but then that’s equally true of the other players too.
In short, this information illustrates neatly the potential pitfalls in taking stats at face value. But also, if Sakho is poor in possession, then I wish that all of Liverpool’s centre-backs were just as poor too.