Liverpool Transfers: Analysing Whether to Retain or Sell Martin Skrtel
There's one every summer.
With all the chatter recently about transfer rumours, wish lists, war chests and the like, the name of the Slovakian baldy has been fairly prominent the last week or so attached to phrases like "had his head turned", "wants assurances", "match his ambition", etc.
In 2011-12, Skrtel was Liverpool's stand-out player; partly due to Luis Suarez suffering a dip in form around the time of the eight (or nine, counting the extra game from the Fulham incident) match ban imposed upon him but also because he stepped up his own game and forged a solid, reliable and—importantly—continuous partnership with Daniel Agger.
Before we launch into a "should he-will he" debate, it's important to consider and accept that no official word has come out about Skrtel needing reassurances about the direction that Liverpool are taking, and also that it is fairly natural for players to be a little wary whenever managerial changes are made.
Skrtel, along with several others, had a regular place in the team, knew his role in the side and was comfortable and won his first Reds trophy under the previous regime; it is not therefore too untoward to suggest that, as a senior player, he might want to discuss the immediate future with the new manager in a little more detail.
We know how sensationalism works; Skrtel or his agent or a friend (or nobody at all) might have said something along the lines of, "yes, I'm looking forward to meeting the new manager and I am interested to hear his thoughts on how we'll progress and what we're aiming for next season".
Which could somehow suddenly appear in a paper as SKRTEL SEEKS ASSURANCES THAT LFC AMBITION MATCHES HIS OWN, especially with his contract needing updating this season. He has 24 months left to run; that is nowadays the moment to review and renew, to avoid losing player value as the contract runs down.
However, it also appears that there is too much talk of interest in him for it to merely be nothing, and while Skrtel has been at the club for a period of time he doesn't really have too many ties to it, especially if the likes of the aforementioned club are offering title challenges, Champions League football (not Anzhi) and plenty of zeros.
So is Skrtel a must-keep for Brendan Rodgers at the start of Liverpool's brave new era?
Let's take a look at a few facts: Skrtel signed back in January of 2008 from Zenit St. Petersburg for around £6.5 million, and in the ensuing four and a half seasons has played 172 for the Reds, scoring seven goals. The defender played every game in 2010-11 season and has almost exclusively played in the centre, save for a few memorable occasions at right-back (Middlesbrough, Tottenham).
Last season was by far his best and the fans afforded him the honour of being voted LFC's Player of the Season, while he also scored an important equalising goal in the Carling Cup final which Liverpool eventually won.
Lovely; all shiny and rosy then, Liverpool need to tie him down for another four years and fend off any interest from outside parties.
Skrtel suffered terribly in his first games, though that is of no real consequence now. What is important is that, until last season, Skrtel had a terrible habit of lunging around the front of attackers to try and win the ball in situations of no danger, conceding needless free kicks and keeping the team under pressure.
What is important is that he was often dragged out of position towards the touchlines, hit the ball long far too often and far too inaccurately and was not as comfortable playing on the left of defence as the right, which he did alongside Jamie Carragher. Now that the partnership with Agger is established, a naturally left-footed player, that is no longer an issue—but what of playing with Sebastian Coates?
Under Brendan Rodgers, central defenders will need to have key attributes: calmness on the ball, the ability to pass out from the back, positional awareness and tactical acumen to maintain a high defensive line and know when, and where, to drop back to without the ball, and at least one of the pair must be vocal, organisational and reliably "clever" in the footballing sense.
What to do with Martin Skrtel?
In other words, with a lot of space behind them most of the time, darting forward to nick the ball off a forward on the halfway line, potentially missing it and letting the forward in behind, is not going to be a good idea.
Add into the mix the usual requirements for a defender—able to tackle, timing of tackles, fearlessness, dominant header of the ball, at least some semblance of pace for adequately utilising the high line—and it's fair to say that Skrtel ticks the majority of boxes.
He's a good defender, no two ways about it. At his best last season he was very good.
Is he a great one though? It's subjective and all opinions, but no. Skrtel's not a great one, nor will he ever really rank up there with the finest defenders Liverpool have ever had; he's not reliable enough for that title and, as much as he was improved and impressive last season, will that continue?
Never mind Liverpool providing assurances about their ambitions, can Martin Skrtel provide assurances that his own performances will continue to improve, rather than slide back to 2009-10 season where he was nothing short of a liability as Liverpool totally lost their way, or the following season where he was merely average-to-good in a much deeper defensive line and protected more often by more players?
In Skrtel's four full seasons at Liverpool, discounting his initial half-season whereby a few mistakes were to be expected as he bedded into the new team and league, just how much has he improved?
|Mins. Played|| |
|Ground 50-50s|| |
|Ground 50-50s win %|| |
|Aerial 50-50s|| |
|Aerial 50-50s win %|| |
|Total tackles|| |
|Tackle success %|| |
|Defensive errors|| |
|Mins / defensive error|| |
So what do we make of this?
Well, some of it is very consistent; Skrtel has barely altered his ground duals win ratio at all, he wins around two-thirds of them. This is a good ratio for a centre-back; sometimes you have to accept you can't win the ball every time and perhaps this is in part why his percentage has jumped slightly this season, as Skrtel has not as often gone around the front of the forward.
By way of comparison, John Terry (Chelsea) won 67 percent of his ground duals last season and Vincent Kompany (Manchester City) won the same amount.
Obviously the pure numbers of challenges themselves—both aerial and ground—have gone up because Skrtel has amassed more minutes played in the past two seasons than in his first two, but it is also perhaps indicative that Liverpool have been required to do more defensive work in the past couple of seasons than in, say, 2008-09.
Tackling, one of Skrtel's supposed best features, has actually gone down in success terms since he joined the club. Whereas he initially made close to nine out of every 10 challenges successful ones, he last season won three-quarters of them.
Defensive errors obviously were a feature of his last season, but it is a rare defender who doesn't make one a season. John Terry made five last season.
Daniel Agger? Zero.
Speaking of Agger, it takes two to make a partnership and, while Agger has a lower success rate in tackles and aerial duals, he equals Skrtel's two-thirds success rate in ground duals and made far more interceptions (65), despite playing over 800 minutes less in 2011-12 than his partner.
The two compliment each other well, but do not underestimate the influence the Dane had on the Slovak.
Skrtel is aggressive, competitive, and at times impetuous; he sees the ball and he wants it.
Agger has grown into a fine, fine leader of men and an exceptional organiser of the Liverpool back line. Skrtel has benefited from this immensely, to the overall betterment of the club.
It is no coincidence that Skrtel's best form for Liverpool has come in the season where Agger played the most minutes of his past four years at the club.
Of course, Agger has his own skill set which make him perfectly suited to the Rodgers way of playing; his confidence and ability on the ball, his willingness to break into midfield and look for the forward pass and a full-on, in-your-face defensive style when it matters most make him far and away the most important of the centre-backs at Liverpool's disposal. If further proof was needed, Liverpool conceded goals at a rate of less than one per game with Agger playing (0.88 goals/game, 24 starts). Skrtel (33 starts) was slightly, but poignantly, higher at 1.06 goals per game. Our number 37 played nine games more than Agger, but also kept only two clean sheets more.
Agger has a (slightly) better pass completion rate but has a significantly higher ratio of passes going forwards with 60 percent of the Dane's passes going to a team mate further up the field. 11 successful dribbles is no mean feat for a centre back either.
Martin Skrtel was very, very good last season.
If he stays at Liverpool, there is no reason why he can't improve further still. But if he is having thoughts about going to Manchester City or elsewhere, make no mistake about it, he is eminently more replaceable in the centre of defence than Agger is.
It has been mentioned that the Reds should not be seen as a "selling club", and that offloading Skrtel to City, a Premier League rival, would be seen as turning us into a feeder club of sorts.
The whole point of what Liverpool need to do in the transfer market, what they were doing well under Rafael Benitez until the summer of 2009 and what they need to do again now, is to buy quality players who will make the side better at as low a price as possible, and sell them for a much, much bigger profit once they have served their purpose and can be upgraded on. Sissoko, Insua, Torres, Bellamy, Alonso.
With Seb Coates, Martin Kelly, Danny Wilson and maybe even Andre Wisdom all chomping at the bit to get involved next season, Liverpool already have plenty of promise in place.
With £20 million in the bank account from any Skrtel sale, there would also be plenty of targets attainable for half the price who would fit in as well or better than the Slovak.
Yes, the defence needs stability to get the partnership right and become reliable and watertight.
But Liverpool are, tactically speaking, starting afresh from this season anyway. It would make sense in those terms to start right away with the defenders in place who can take the Reds forward and be ready to align themselves to exactly the way Rodgers wants his team to play.
Skrtel's resale value will never be higher. He was, along with Kompany, the top defender in the league last season and he turns 28 in December of this year. Once he passes that figure, he'll be "close to 30" and, aside from PSG and a few teams in China, sides don't pay big money for players approaching that age.
The point is not that Skrtel must be sold, or that he is no longer any good for Liverpool, it's that if he is thinking of leaving and the likes of City are genuinely interested in him, then this is absolutely the right moment for the club to do it, and to get the best fee possible.
Forget a sale of £12 or even 15 million; Liverpool can still buy a replacement for that amount but they also have no need to let him go for a "normal" market price.
Player of the season, cup winner, in Europe, two years remaining on contract and in demand: pay up, or look elsewhere. That's the stance the Reds must, and surely will, take to the matter.
With regards to the player himself, it's also not a matter of loyalty, turning his back on fans or anything else. It's a football and life decision. City are the newest, biggest name in the business right now and will challenge for major honours for the next couple of seasons at least. Liverpool will be a minimum of another 12 months before they are even playing in the Champions League, and if he signs a two-year contract extension Skrtel will be 31 when it runs out.
Liverpool are heading for big changes this summer on and off the field and the sale of Dirk Kuyt and the sacking of Kenny Dalglish proves that.
Names will leave, others will arrive, and Liverpool will continue to grow.
If Skrtel wants to be a part of that, then great, and he damn well better show the form of last season and even better. But if he wants to go, then fans shouldn't worry, and nor should any potential incoming transfer targets. Thanks a lot, take the money, off we go.
The Reds are on the way back up.
Daniel Agger will be a massive part of it, and Martin Skrtel could be too, at least initially. But if not, and for the type of money being spoken about, there are plenty of others who can do his job.
[Stats courtesy of EPL Index]
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