Liverpool have started the new campaign in excellent form, both defensively and as an overall team, with three clean sheets helping to send the Reds to the top of the fledgling Premier League table.
Despite Jamie Carragher's retirement over the summer and the lack of a big-money defensive signing as a replacement, free transfer Kolo Toure slotted straight into the new back four and quickly made a big impact on the team and on the fans.
Manager Brendan Rodgers further added to his defensive options by signing left-back Aly Cissokho on loan from Valencia, before a double defensive deadline day swoop saw Tiago Ilori arrive from Sporting Lisbon and Mamadou Sakho join from PSG.
Add that to the already present group of Daniel Agger, Martin Skrtel and Sebastian Coates, plus versatile youngsters Andre Wisdom and Martin Kelly, and the Reds are now extremely well stocked in a key area of the park, both now and for the future.
Early-Season Pairings and Problems
Uruguayan defender Seb Coates was unlikely to be heavily involved in the first team at Anfield this season, and it was probable that he would leave either on loan or permanently during the summer. However, his long-term knee injury sustained on international duty effectively ends his season before it has even started, and it ruins any chance of the Reds offloading him before January at the earliest.
Kelly is still feeling his way back to fitness after a similar injury sustained last autumn, so it will be several months before he is involved on a regular basis. Even then, it is likely to be at right-back initially, not in the centre.
Wisdom may head out on loan to increase his game time, though he will be restricted to Championship level football now, as the transfer window has closed. Even so, game time on a weekly basis, especially if he is trusted to play centrally, will only be of benefit to the player and Liverpool for the future.
Liverpool also suffered with an early-season injury to Skrtel, leaving Agger and Toure as the automatic starters for the first two matches of the campaign. Toure then suffered a groin injury in a League Cup match, forcing Skrtel back into the side for the most recent Premier League game against Manchester United.
Agger has been the common factor, but all three defenders—and new goalkeeper Simon Mignolet, lest we forget—have played a big part in the Reds' defensive resilience until now.
Defensive Tactical Approach
The Reds' thee league matches have followed a set pattern so far this season: Dominate the first half in terms of possession and chance creation, score a goal (this instruction is explicit to Daniel Sturridge) and sit far deeper in the second half, soaking up pressure and claiming a hard-fought 1-0 victory.
It's a methodology that has yielded nine points and the top spot so far, but it's not Liverpool's ideal or preferred way of seeing out 90 minutes.
The second-half defensive barricade has come about for a number of different reasons in each match. On the opening day against Stoke City, a host of missed chances inevitably made the fans and players wary of the visiting side's ability to strike on the counter or from set pieces, leading to a more compact and deeper defensive unit late in the game.
Aston Villa's defeat saw Rodgers play a more deliberate tactic of sitting deeper to deny Villa's rapid attackers the space to utilise their pace, while they also ultimately lacked the cutting edge to play through Liverpool's defence.
Manchester United pushed the Reds back after the break because, quite simply, they remain a quality side who were always going to have a say in the flow of the game at some point, while against Notts County, the mistakes were of Liverpool's own making. Sloppy passing and concentration combined to force the Reds onto the back foot in that game.
In each game, regardless of the reasons, common attributes were required from the Liverpool back line.
A commanding presence and leader, holding the line and repelling attacks by force or by voice, directing teammates left, right and centre was an invaluable weapon in Toure.
Aerial ability was required to fight off United and Stoke on numerous occasions, with Agger, Skrtel and Toure all doing their bit in this regard. Skrtel's dominant performance on his return to the team showed the best of his game, with but a few glimpses of his usual weaknesses.
Agger in particular has been quick to make blocks and tackles, while the defence as a whole has also been shielded by an extremely hardworking Steven Gerrard and Lucas Leiva.
Mignolet's early-season form with making saves has also been a big bonus, from his penalty save against Stoke to his saves from Christian Benteke.
Sakho and Agger as the Ideal Duo
Once recovered from injury, there will be inevitable—and, to be fair, justified—calls for Toure to return to the back four.
His experience will be important in plenty of games for the Reds this season, that much is clear, while Skrtel may have won himself a stay of execution following his performance against the Red Devils.
Even so, the ideal situation for Liverpool has to be to get Mamadou Sakho and Daniel Agger playing together as quickly as possible. Together they have the potential to be the foundation for the Reds' new side, a strong foundation in front of a talented goalkeeper—in short, the building blocks for Rodgers' attack-minded team to play from and not worry about leaving too exposed.
A perfect pairing? Maybe not quite, but pretty close to it.
Sakho is used to playing a high defensive line, something Skrtel—coupled with being stationed wide on the pitch when the Reds were in possession—struggled with early on last season, and Carragher was never even asked to hold.
A good competitor in the air, Sakho will be a great physical presence in Liverpool's defence, something Agger often needs beside him, despite the very real strength the Dane himself possesses.
He is also—or at least has been in the past—seen as a good leader despite his young age. Sakho captained his club while he was still a teenager and has been touted as a potential France national team captain.
Already he has 14 caps for France at 23 years of age, favourably comparable with Iñigo Martinez (Spain, 22, one cap), Angelo Ogbonna (Italy, 25, six caps), Stefan de Vrij (Holland, 21, seven caps) and Chris Smalling (England, 23, six caps).
Together with Agger, there have been concerns voiced over playing two left-footed centre-backs which neither have extensive experience in playing on the right side of centre. Practice, game time and hard work in positional tendencies are to be the only remedy for this particular area of their partnership.
Sakho to win the ball, Agger to bring it into midfield: The ideal pairing at its easiest and most base level is clear to see. Rodgers must now fashion them into a partnership which can continue Liverpool's resolute defensive start to the season, while also allowing room for Toure or Skrtel to fill in when required, and Ilori an opportunity to shine for the first team, too.
Three clean sheets and three good wins, but Rodgers now has a new problem to solve, whether to stick with those who have gained him results so far or quickly bed in a new signing who could be key to the next half-decade or more in the heart of Liverpool's defence.
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