The message Liverpool attempted to convey was that lessons had been learned. They had left it too late to open negotiations with Steven Gerrard about an extended deal, which scarcely gave their iconic captain the sense he was wanted, and saw him decide to depart Anfield. So there would be no repeat. Three first-team regulars are contracted until 2016. They would escalate talks and ensure they wouldn’t run the risk of losing Raheem Sterling, Jordan Henderson or Martin Skrtel.
Sterling is the most gifted young player, the man who may replace Gerrard as the face of the franchise. Henderson is set to take over the captaincy from his fellow midfielder. And Skrtel is Martin Skrtel, a conundrum where Liverpool require a commanding presence.
He is the first-choice centre back, a status that implies he is the cornerstone of the defence. Yet theirs is a substandard rearguard, one that arguably cost Liverpool the league title last season and that may well concede 50 goals again this. He is a man who epitomises their failings; their inconsistency, their set piece frailties, their tendency to get bullied, their lack of authority at the back.
Yet he seems to be coated in Teflon. Criticism of Skrtel doesn’t seem to stick as far as manager Brendan Rodgers & Co. are concerned. Sometimes defensive haplessness last season was camouflaged by the brilliance of Luis Suarez, Daniel Sturridge and Sterling. There has been no goal glut to obscure weaknesses in the current campaign, but the recent theme is that others are blamed. Over the last 18 months, Mamadou Sakho, Kolo Toure and Dejan Lovren have been dropped. Daniel Agger, the best central defender at Anfield, has departed in comparative obscurity. Skrtel is the constant, the common denominator and, given the troubles finding a settled, successful partnership at the back, the logical problem.
There are times when it seems different standards are applied. Lovren was signed from Southampton and charged with being the leader at the back by Rodgers; surely that responsibility should have fallen with Skrtel, four years his senior and then approaching 250 games for the club. Instead, the Croatian floundered and is now a costly substitute, just as Sakho, the previous season, found he was afforded less patience than his partner. He has discovered that highly rated players can appear to vanish from Rodgers’ plans, whereas Skrtel’s great talent is survival. His skill, since he saved his Anfield career with a genuinely terrific display in September 2013’s win against Manchester United, has been to escape the axe.
Yet it is particularly pertinent that his most incisive critic is his former partner. British television viewers are often treated to Jamie Carragher’s caustic observations about his old teammate. One of the best pure defenders of his generation implies an old colleague lacks both the attitude and ability to perform the task properly. After last May’s capitulation at Crystal Palace, he branded Skrtel and Sakho “mentally weak.” Following November’s shocking showing at Selhurst Park, he arrowed in on the Slovakian’s enduring inability to mark opponents at corners.
“I played alongside Martin for a long time and he was doing that from day one,” Carragher said. “Skrtel shouldn’t be grabbing shirts. He’s actually known for it now throughout the league with the referees. I think he’ll continue to do it until the day he retires.” Together with Chris Smalling and Ryan Shawcross, the Premier League’s other prime culprits, he relies on a technique that owes more to wrestling than football. Each is fortunate he doesn’t concede more penalties.
When Skrtel doesn’t attempt to foul opponents, he can simply be outjumped. Arsenal’s Mathieu Debuchy scored a header when supposedly marked by the 30-year-old in December. Given the size of the two players, that really shouldn’t happen.
And yet, after Skrtel equalised in the same game, Rodgers described him as “a warrior.” True, he had played on after having his head stapled when Olivier Giroud accidentally trod on him. But warrior centre backs tend to be defiant, determined figures — men who are at their best in a battle and players their team can depend upon.
Then consider Skrtel’s last six seasons. After a promising start to his time at Anfield, he was appalling in 2009-10 and merely mediocre the following campaign. Then came a revival in 2011-12, when he and the outstanding Agger formed a fine alliance. Yet that preceded a remarkable regression in 2012-13, starting when his botched attempt to play Rodgers’ passing game resulted in gifting Carlos Tevez a goal and reaching its nadir when he was utterly incapable of halting League One forward Matt Smith as Oldham knocked Liverpool out of the FA Cup. A shaven-headed 6-foot-4-inch centre back couldn’t cope with an aerial assault. The retiring Carragher displaced him from the side thereafter.
Skrtel returned to favour last year and, having tasted life as one of Rodgers’ outcasts, now ranks among the insiders, but his comeback was overhyped, partly because he started scoring goals. A brace in the 5-1 demolition of Arsenal helped him finish the campaign with seven, a joint record for a Liverpool centre back, even if the four he put in his own net hinted at his problems in his own penalty box. Then came the current campaign, when Liverpool’s defending has been dreadful at times, and while Skrtel has performed better since the switch to a back three, he can scarcely be deemed a success.
Overall, it amounts to one good season in six, which ought to be an unacceptable ratio for any player at a major club. At Liverpool now, however, it seems grounds to give him an extended deal, which will probably take his stay at Anfield into a second decade. The probability is he will become Henderson’s deputy and the most senior figure in a dressing room without Gerrard, Toure, Glen Johnson and, perhaps, Lucas Leiva and Rickie Lambert. Seniority will be conferred; Skrtel will be propelled to a position of prominence that his performances do not merit.
And those employed by clubs as journalists can be placed in invidious positions. Liverpool recently marked seven years of Skrtel at Anfield. It felt a celebration of mediocrity. It also seemed to highlight their misplaced priorities in the transfer market. Since Carragher retired, 37 million pounds spent on left-sided centre backs — and when they already had Agger — and none on their right-sided counterparts. That really ought to change this summer. Instead, having made their mistakes with Gerrard, Liverpool seem determined to keep Skrtel. It is a classic case of two wrongs not making a right.