x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 20 January 2018

Questions linger about Liverpool’s defensive strength ahead of Chelsea clash

Resistable force meets moveable object when big names meet at Stamford Bridge

Liverpool's Mamadou Sakho, left, and Martin Skrtel challenge Manchester City's Alvaro Negredo during their English Premier League match on Thursday. Phil Noble / Reuters
Liverpool's Mamadou Sakho, left, and Martin Skrtel challenge Manchester City's Alvaro Negredo during their English Premier League match on Thursday. Phil Noble / Reuters

The summit meetings are often presented as the clashes of the classy, the rivalries between the remarkable. They are full of irresistible forces against immovable objects. Sometimes, however, they are something else altogether.

And so it is on Sunday that Chelsea’s blunt attack meets a Liverpool defence with fewer clean sheets than relegation-threatened sides such as Norwich City and West Ham United. The difference, perhaps, is that one has had its failings advertised while the other’s have been camouflaged.

Perhaps it is an exercise in blame deflection, but Jose Mourinho has complained about the lack of goals Demba Ba, Samuel Eto’o and the £50 million former Liverpool forward Fernando Torres have delivered; just five in the league.

In contrast, Brendan Rodgers’ comments have been less acerbic. Concessions of goals have frustrated him but, as they have not cost Liverpool too many points, they have been a footnote.

Until a pivotal few days, perhaps. Liverpool’s performance at Manchester City on Thursday provided a paradox. In restricting Manuel Pellegrini’s free-scoring side to two goals at home, they emulated the season’s best display statistically.

Only Hull City had been as frugal at the Etihad Stadium. And yet the manner of their defending nonetheless invited questions if Liverpool have the personnel – and if Rodgers is selecting them – at the back to realise their ambitions.

Martin Skrtel was culpable when Vincent Kompany headed City’s equaliser. The Slovakian has been a common denominator in setbacks. He was at fault for Hull’s second and third goals in a hapless display at the KC Stadium.

For a supposedly dominant centre-back, he has struggled at set pieces. He was at fault when Newcastle United’s Paul Dummett scored in October’s draw.

Mamadou Sakho has not been directly responsible for as many goals yet represents a greater concern in some respects. The Frenchman is the most expensive central defender in Liverpool’s history, a powerful, cumbersome figure. For a Rodgers signing, he has a strangely poor first touch that threatens to get him into trouble.

The £16 million (Dh96.7 million) Frenchman may represent an example of a signing that creates as many problems as it solves. Because left-footed central defenders are at a premium, they rarely have to play anywhere else.

Liverpool already possessed one of the most stylish around in Daniel Agger. When the one-footed Sakho arrived, it presented a straight choice between the costliest and the classiest defenders. Rodgers has opted for the former, lending weight to the theory Agger is unsettled. Napoli have attempted to take the Dane on loan.

Factor in Kolo Toure, the summer signing whose character and commitment have made him a popular figure at Anfield, and Rodgers has four central defenders of a roughly similar standard but with very different attributes.

It is the sort of situation that might suit a manager in another position. In the middle of the defence, however, continuity and understanding outweigh the reasons for squad rotation.

An uneasy attempt at compromise backfired in September’s defeat to Southampton when Rodgers selected all four central defenders, playing Toure and Sakho as full-backs. A centre-back scored the winner that day, too: the visitors’s Dejan Lovren.

Since then, Rodgers has decided that four into two or three will not go. His tactical changes have often been successful, just as there are indications his coaching has brought benefits to many of the younger members of Liverpool’s squad.

Aided by Luis Suarez’s extraordinary goalscoring run, they have become prolific and, until he allowed Alvaro Negredo’s Thursday winner to squirm through his hands, Simon Mignolet had been a paragon of reliability in goal. The goalkeeper has obscured some of the uncertainty in front of him.

Yet while their defensive record remains respectable and while their last trip to London brought a 5-0 demolition of Tottenham Hotspur, the suspicion remains that Liverpool have a soft underbelly. This would be an appropriate time to answer those charges.

Although, as Torres has never scored against his former club, perhaps Chelsea’s attacking impotence will be the telling factor when the resistible object meets the movable force.