//TALKING FOOTBALL

Neil Scott

Defending Martin Skrtel

//Defending Martin Skrtel

Putting it politely, he’s a player that divides opinion but NEIL SCOTT reckons the Slovak deserves more credit.

THIS season, this glorious, deranged, enticing, nonsensical season, with its impossible victories and its brittle promise, goading us to flirt with dreams of which we dare not speak lest they break like so many before them. This season, when the inconceivable has lost meaning and crashed headlong into the everyday, and when the traits that have been rediscovered start to outnumber the flaws that have long held us back. It’s a season that may herald a renaissance or another false dawn, but you can’t turn your back on it for a minute.

Like all seasons tend to, it has thrown up conundrums and narratives. Fighting for supremacy like weasels in a sack, the doubts wrestling with the certainties until it’s hard to see where one ends and the other begins. For Liverpool, the conundrum, the narrative, has been endlessly regurgitated. Devastating, destructive, electric in attack. Unconvincing, error-prone, fragile in defence.

It’s easy to see why. At times we’ve resembled a grenade balancing on the edge of a razor. It falls one way and the opposition – Tottenham, Everton, Arsenal – is laid to waste, an explosion of angles, movement and incisive passing; it falls the other way and we get caught in the blast – Hull, Southampton, Villa – chasing shadows, overloaded, individuals buckling under pressure.

Inevitably, and notwithstanding the debate that has raged (or at the very least, smouldered with intent) about the structural defects of the midfield, most of the concern has revolved around the perceived frailty of the Liverpool backline. Despite a summer overhaul of his defensive options that saw several new arrivals, Brendan Rodgers has struggled to establish a settled back four, back three or back five, despite experimenting with a range of systems and personnel.

Injuries have bitten hard. Agger. Sakho. Enrique. Johnson. All mooted as first team shoo-ins. All out for extended periods. Coates, the ultimate frightened rabbit of a player, cruelly denied a place in the Capital One Cup squad. Kelly’s re-establishment as a credible alternative, hampered by questions over fitness, confidence and mental fortitude.

For lengthy swathes of the season to date, we have relied on players who, with the best will in the world, would barely have figured in many people’s pre-season projections.

Toure, a perpetual bench-warmer for hefty chunks of the two previous campaigns and a man defined as much by his proclivity for in-game grinning as his defensive capabilities.

Cissokho, a lunatic reincarnation of Djimi Traore whose attempts to replicate the performances of a convincing left back have, if his harshest critics are to be believed, rarely strayed beyond the sarcastic.

Flanagan, all heart and fire, though a failure to, in the parlance of the genre, ‘kick-on’ after a promising start to his career led many to question his chances of ever becoming an established Premier League player.

And Skrtel. We’ll come back to Skrtel.

Hardly the foundations to base a top-four challenge on.

At least that’s what we were led to believe.

As it’s turned out the lack of stability, allied with a continuing propensity for individual lapses (*nods at Kolo*), has undeniably cost us. An early season clean-sheet flurry gave way to a high-risk ‘death or glory’ approach, whereby the emphasis was squarely placed on the capacity of the team to outscore the opposition. The trade-off was clear: maximise our attacking potential, sacrifice a degree of defensive robustness. When it’s worked we’ve been irresistible; when it hasn’t (and these occasions have perhaps been less frequent than we could have anticipated, in the circumstances) our weaknesses have been laid bare for prolonged public dissection.

In truth, such concerns have plagued Rodgers throughout his Anfield tenure. It’s fair to say that his greatest triumphs have stemmed from an ability to coax the maximum from attacking players. Suarez, Sturridge, Sterling, Coutinho, Henderson, Downing (yes, Downing. And what?) have all thrived under his supervision. Defenders have found it harder to consistently shine.

Perhaps, in the wider context, there’s a discussion to be had over the changing nature of the defensive art and the impact it’s had on players still coming to terms with the demands of their role. Full backs (or, in the interests of positional accuracy, wide defenders), for instance, are now judged largely on their contribution in the other team’s half, eschewing the notion that a defender’s primary task is to stop their direct opponent. As a result, there is a knock-on effect on other areas of the side, with notional wingers tucking in-field and the need for a deep-lying, shielding midfield player intensified. There is consequently a greater onus on central defenders to be aware of the need to cover wide areas, while simultaneously ensuring that no gaps are left for opposing forwards or runners from deep to exploit.

To get the balance right is no easy task. It requires organisation and it requires stability. And when the individual who has been an on-going presence at the heart of the defence for the previous decade, and who, more than anyone, has been responsible for organising and directing and cajoling the back-line, calls time on a glittering career, the job becomes that much harder. At times, when we have looked most vulnerable, there has been a Carragher-shaped hole in the team.

Allied to this, the difficulties encountered in establishing a viable midfield formation have led to an uncertain, unfamiliar, often unprotected defence left exposed more often than any of us would have expected. On the face of it, another season of transition would have been an understandable, if unsatisfactory, outcome.

That we have transcended such modest ambitions, that we have crept into the title chasers’ peloton, is to the credit of both manager and players. Imagine where we’d be with a defence that could, you know, defend. It’s an over-simplification but it’s also a reflection of what many seem to be thinking.

Which, in a ludicrously convoluted way, brings me to Martin Skrtel.

At regular intervals throughout the season, Skrtel has been held up by some of our most vocal supporters as a symptom of all Liverpool’s defensive ills. It’s a recurring theme. Goals have been given away cheaply, vulnerabilities exposed. As our most frequent starter at the back, and someone who seems to sporadically operate on the cusp of panic, Skrtel has been anointed the scapegoat of choice.

The critiques are familiar. He lacks the composure and elegance of an Agger or the newly-cast dominance of a Sakho. He can’t fall back on the cult appeal of a Toure. He lacks positional awareness, he’s clumsy in possession, he’s a liability – a casually tossed accusation that requires an interpretation of the word so elastic you could safely attach it to your belt and hurl yourself from the top of a crane in a pub car park.

It’s not the Martin Skrtel I’ve seen. Sure, there have been times when he’s struggled to impose himself or appeared uncertain of the precise parameters of his role. Much like his defensive colleagues, for that matter. But he has grown into the season, his confidence and solidity developing week on week. At times, particularly from around early December, he has been the catalyst holding the defence together as others floundered, winning his individual battles, taking responsibility, earning the plaudits of his manager.

Yet much of the credit to come his way is grudging at best, and typically couched in so many caveats that it feels more like a means of reinforcing existing reservations. Some preconceptions are not easily overturned.

Of course, it’s only natural to have players that you just don’t rate. That’s fine. And it’s fair to say that Skrtel has given plenty of ammunition to the naysayers during his Anfield career. But a little perspective wouldn’t go amiss. And when someone’s doing a decent job perhaps it’s nice to acknowledge it. Or is that just too radical a concept?

Myths and half-truths seem to cling to Skrtel in the same way that an air of punchability clings to Piers Morgan. One of the more persistent of these proclaims is that he is essentially incapable of functioning with the ball at his feet. That somehow the message transmitted by his brain gets diverted en-route, resulting in the football equivalent of a jellyfish attempting the Riverdance. Again, the reality is a million miles away.

This season, Skrtel has appeared comfortable, progressive even, in possession. At times he has been the only central defender prepared to carry the ball forward into the midfield, if not beyond, and his distribution has been confident (91 per cent accuracy it says here, stat nerds). He has also shown a hitherto unsuspected fondness for charging up-field to join in with attacks, like a startled rhino escaping capture, a sight to evoke a mixture of curiosity, fear, and the sheer joy of being alive.

Then there’s the holding. As the broadcast media have helpfully pointed out, Skrtel is the first defender in history to employ the use of physical contact when facing an opposition corner (apparently Ricardo Carvalho’s attempts to enact some kind of Stamford Bridge Wrestlemania have been erased from the collective memory). At the time of writing though, no referee has seen fit to penalise such underhand methods, not even Howard Webb, and, by Christ, if anyone is looking for an excuse to piss on our Shreddies, it’s Howard Webb. It’s almost as if it’s not actually as big an issue as everyone is so keen to make out. Imagine that.

Maybe there’s a wider problem at play here, wherein we (‘we’ being football supporters generally) must always identify someone to blame whenever things don’t turn out the way we want them to. It’s easier to rationalise adversity when there’s someone to assign responsibility to. So, whenever a goal flies past Simon Mignolet (a man who walks his line more than Johnny Cash), the reflex reaction for some is to ask, ‘Where was Skrtel?’

My take is slightly different. All teams concede goals. It’s as inevitable as Jose Mourinho’s charmless arrogance. And the person closest to the goalscorer at the point of scoring is more likely than not to be a defender. But sometimes, that’s where the correlation ends. Sometimes, not always, but sometimes it’s not necessary to immediately leap on Twitter to apportion blame, categorically, unequivocally, rabidly. I mean, it’s ok if you don’t feel the need to do that. No-one is going to think less of you.

Perhaps it’s the name. Perhaps that’s messed with peoples’ expectations. Face it, someone who looks like a cross between a vengeful cyborg and an East European riot cop shouldn’t be called Martin. Igor maybe. Or Bosko. But not Martin. And I say that with due respect to any ‘Martins’ that may be reading this, many of whom, I’m sure perform a valuable public service. Unless you’re Martin Tyler. In which case, frankly, you’re a bit cringey.

Look, I’m not trying to make out that Martin Skrtel is perfect. In the long term, like all our players, if he can be upgraded then that’s something that we should welcome. But we should be careful of throwing the baby, no matter how tattooed and scary-looking that baby might be, out with the bathwater. After all, are there many central defenders currently performing in the Premier League that you’d take before him? Kompany? Of course. Cahill, Jagielka? Possibly. Mertesacker? Debatable. After that?

We can only hope that, as the season reaches a climax, and as our defensive options are bolstered by players returning from injury, we can begin to subvert the accepted narrative. Because if we supplement a fearsome attack with stability and solidity in defence then there’s no telling where it may take us.

Just ask Martin Skrtel. He knows the score.

Neil Scott