Liverpool are going to be looking at a range of players to consider signing during the forthcoming summer transfer window, but perhaps the most important position to get right in terms of strengthening is central defence.
With Jamie Carragher retiring, Martin Skrtel rumoured to be heading back to Russia and Sebastian Coates far from heavily involved this season, there will be at least one and quite possibly more centre-backs coming into Anfield in the close season.
Reserve defender Danny Wilson will also leave the club after the expiration of his contract.
The Reds, quite simply, have to get this transfer right. While the attacking side of their game has improved as the season has gone on having received reinforcements in the January transfer window, Liverpool have been unsteady in defence at times this season.
It's not simply a matter of goals conceded but the sheer amount of chances Liverpool give up in certain matches and their failure to wrest back control of games if they ship a goal. With 42 goals conceded thus far, the Reds have the seventh-best defensive record in the Premier League—consistent with their seventh position placing in the actual table.
But a closer look reveals the depths of the problems the Reds have.
As a team, they have kept 14 clean sheets this season from their 35 matches—only Manchester City have kept more (15). So far, so good. But the problem isn't keeping clean sheets, it is remaining strong enough at the back when they concede the first goal.
What has invariably happened with Liverpool this term is that if they concede a goal, they are unable to reform the solidity in defence and, inevitably, go on to concede a second strike. This isn't speculation or a general feeling of the season, this is verifiable fact. Consider the table below:
|Team||Total goals against||Clean sheets||One goal conceded||Two goals||Three goals||Four or more|
The tallies are startling; the Reds fare better than most at keeping teams out entirely, but if a team scores one, there is an 80 percent chance that they will go on to score at least another one goal this season.
Such a frail state of defensive solidity indicates that there is not only an issue to be resolved with the quality of players in the team but also the mentality that the players in the back-line have. If a goal goes in, to challenge at the top end of the Premier League, Liverpool must be capable of reforming and repelling the next wave of attacks.
Games against Arsenal and Tottenham are indicative of just how the Reds fail to re-structure themselves and regain confidence; within minutes of the first goal going in, the opposition hit a quick-fire second.
The point of this analysis is not to lay blame, nor apportion fault to those who played in those matches, but to emphasise the qualities that any incoming defender must have: Organisational skills (or the strong character to learn to direct teammates), a positive and strong mental approach and of course, the defensive quality that is needed in a side challenging at the top end.
A few other considerations are needed too. With Daniel Agger as the remaining half of the partnership, an incoming player needs to complement his abilities as a playmaker from the back and operate on the right-sided member of the back line.
Who, if money were no object but some aspect of realism remained, would be the ideal candidate?
Arguably it would be Schalke 04 centre-back Benedikt Howedes. The German is a top professional, is strong and powerful, dominates in the air and has experience playing in the full-back roles, ideal for a team like Liverpool where the centre-backs split in possession. He is, at his best, a thunderous opponent for forwards to try to deal with.
Even better, at least at the turn of the year, was the fact that his contract expired in only one year, and with Schalke down in seventh or eighth place in the Bundesliga, it looked as though he could perhaps be persuaded to leave the club he is the captain of in the summer.
Fast forward a few months and Howedes has signed a new long-term deal, and Schalke are up in fourth place, good enough for a Champions League place if they hold their form until the end of the season.
So on we move.
The next best thing?
There are a number of options who are similar in style and quality, though their availability is not clear. In truth, this might be more for an idea of defensive style rather than specific name.
Unsurprisingly, another German name should be in the mix: Serdar Tasçi, central defender with Stuttgart. The 26-year-old is an international, capped 14 times for his nation, but has not featured for them for more than two years. He is a tough-tackling and committed defender, though perhaps not noted for his aerial ability. He has also had a history of Achilles injuries, which may be of some concern.
The free transfer
Liverpool don't necessarily have to make a big initial outlay to sign new players this summer. There are a number of players who are out of contract this summer and will be leaving on free transfers, including Modibo Diakite and Alex Pearce of course, both of whom have been linked with the Reds.
Perhaps the outstanding free transfer candidate, though, is Twente's Douglas, a 25-year-old centre-back who has an ability to hit the back of the net at the other end of the pitch; he scored five last term and has four this year so far.
Douglas is strong and quick, both necessary attributes in the Reds' new signing, and he is also strong in the air. Though he is not capped by Brazil, a work permit would not be a problem for Douglas, as he has dual nationality and has been called up by Holland in the past.
The potential high-risk, high-reward
Who fancies a bit of a gamble? That's what we maybe have here—a defender with all the potential tools to become a formidable central defender but relatively little experience in the role and issues with his game which would need to be worked on intensively.
Manchester City defender Micah Richards was a long-term target of Liverpool around 2011 but remained at City to be a big part of their title-winning team last season. This year, he has missed most of the campaign after a knee operation, and with Pablo Zabaleta so impressive at right-back, he might struggle to regain his place.
Richards is not the tallest but has a powerful leap and massive upper-body strength, making him a formidable opponent in the air, anyway. His tackling is strong, and he would be one of the fastest centre-backs in the league if that becomes his dominant position.
He has one season of experience playing in the middle, alongside Richard Dunne when Sven Goran Eriksen was still the manager of City. His positional play caused problems at the time, as he was unused to the role at senior level, of course, though his pace was a route out of that issue.
Richards would no doubt still have some adjusting to do—but if someone took the chance on him, coached him well defensively and backed him when mistakes were made, Richards has the potential to be one of the top centre-backs in the league.
The opportunity to promote from within
Which current young defender should get the chance to play centrally next season?
Perhaps, in the way of Brendan Rodgers' first season at the helm, he would prefer to not buy at all and instead take the chance to offer the chance to secure a first-team berth for one of the younger players at the club.
Andre Wisdom and Martin Kelly have both grown into the team at right-back but are predominantly central defensive players. It would of course be a massive risk, indeed likely a folly, to go into the new campaign thinking that the club would be able to cope with two "rookies" and Agger, who has historically until this season struggled with injuries, but it would also be a show of faith from the boss in the talents of the younger players.
In truth, perhaps the more likely scenario is that one of these two will get the chance to be a squad central defender, while one of the above types will be signed as the regular partner to Agger, giving depth in a key position while still allowing the path from the academy to the first team to remain open and productive.