Life as a defender can be a grim, cruel game. Much like the life of a goalkeeper, a single error can undo 89 minutes of otherwise great work. Too much hesitation, too much enthusiasm, too much stupidity… there’s a fine line between being Tony Adams and Titus Bramble.
Upon his arrival at Anfield, Martin Skrtel was heavily compared to Jamie Carragher, mainly due to the fact that he flew into tackles and didn’t possess much technical ability. That didn’t deter Rafa Benitez though who in 2008 paid £6.5m for the Slovakian and declared him a perfect fit for the Premier League. This is where the Martin Skrtel illusion began.
There is actually a tragic irony in Skrtel’s defending. Spending 90 minutes making last-ditch blocks, slide tackles & kamikaze headers is no doubt eye-catching, and has earned him many plaudits. The fact that such defending is usually required due to his poor positioning/awareness though, seems to go largely unnoticed. It is understandable that due to their rarity in today’s game, people will go out of their way to support commitment and bravery. This is especially the case in England (Grrr, Terry Butcher, Stuart Pearce, The Queen, etc.) It does though take an almighty level of aggression and bravery to elude people from the fact that you’re actually an average player. This presents a frightening possibility. Maybe, in stark contrast to his thoughtless, moronic style of play, Martin Skrtel is in fact so clever that he has fooled us all into thinking that he’s not a terrible defender. Have we all been blinded by his bravery and impassioned style? The Keyser Söze of football, perhaps.
Due to the cunning genius that he possesses, Martin Skrtel has amassed over 200 appearances for Liverpool and has spent nearly 10 years as their first-choice centre back. He even managed to spend the early parts of his Liverpool career as the preferred choice to a talented Daniel Agger. Rafa Benitez placed an awful amount of faith in Skrtel, especially considering that he was no stranger to errors during his early seasons. His performances did, though, improve alongside Jamie Carragher, at times even showing some signs of maturity… unfortunately these signs have never been seen since. Benitez is an astute coach who has always placed a massive emphasis on his team’s solid structure, so maybe Skrtel deserves some credit for being a key figure during the Spaniard’s managerial reign. Personally, I think that Skrtel owes his entire career to Benitez. He was provided with a world class central midfield pairing, Pepe Reina in his prime, and a system that massively protected him – this was the foundation for Skrtel’s career of swindling us all. We all believed that Skrtel was the reliable, no-nonsense defender that the Premier League loved so. Such was the illusion.
Towards the end of the 2010/11 season, Skrtel professed that it had been his best campaign for the club to date. This was also the season famous for Hodgson’s master class in management, including his glorious declaration that Liverpool were not too big for a relegation battle. A statement that’s definitely not included in the “How to make friends in Liverpool” handbook. It cannot be by coincidence though that Skrtel has flourished (well, not been as bad) when Liverpool have been struggling and scrapping for results. His eye-catching style of defending is at its peak when Liverpool’s football is a mess, which was just as evident the following season. In stark contrast to Hodgson, Kenny Dalglish is one of Liverpool’s favourite sons, and his most recent tenure in 2011/12 did indeed earn the club a trophy. Unfortunately, they were painful to watch for much of the season and devoid of any fluid football. Liverpool’s ‘Player of The Year’ that year? Quite obviously, Martin Skrtel.
Now I would never make light of winning a trophy in football as it’s a great achievement for any club or player. I will though say, when your team is playing terrible football and the players look as if they have never met each other before, a player showcasing Skrtel’s attributes is seen as a silver lining. I mean, who wouldn’t be impressed by brave headers and flying tackles when the majority of your players seem terrified of the actual football? Kenny’s no-nonsense managerial ethos was loved throughout Liverpool, especially his frosty attitude towards the media. This ethos though also meant that Skrtel was a perfect fit for his no-nonsense defence, and thus continued the legend of Martin Skrtel as Liverpool’s first choice centre-back.
Managerial appointments often change the course of a player’s career. Whether it’s a clash in styles or personalities, it’s a regular occurrence that a new manager arriving will result in the offloading of certain players. Brendan Rodgers’ appointment as Liverpool boss brought with it the promise of slick, Barcelona-esque passing and the type of football that Swansea were lauded for the year prior. This would probably mean the end for a very technically limited player like Skrtel, no? Well, ‘no’ would actually be the correct answer as Rodgers didn’t sign a single defender when taking over at Anfield. As logic would have it Skrtel did struggle to adapt throughout Rodgers’ first season, and he even spent a spell on the sidelines as his weaknesses became apparent. The illusion wasn’t over though… with only an ageing Carragher and an inconsistent Coates as immediate cover, his removal was never likely to remain permanent.
The following summer saw the expected and much welcomed arrival of a new central defender, Mamadou Sakho. The Frenchman boasted a promising CV, and his £15m move left some PSG fans dumbfounded. Despite Sakho’s lanky and ungainly appearance, he is a confident distributor of the ball and can match most strikers for pace. How would this affect the ailing Skrtel whose illusion seemed to be coming to an end? Well, it wouldn’t. Sakho being a left-footed, left-sided central defender meant that Skrtel was still the natural partner for him. Skrtel’s only direct competition for the right-side of defence consisted of, well… Kolo Toure. Despite missing the opening 2 games of the 2012/13 campaign, Martin Skrtel would then go on to complete the remaining 36 Premier League matches. This season was though a monumental one for the club attacking-wise, as Liverpool finished in 2nd place scoring an incredible 101 goals. Skrtel himself even managed to score an impressive 7 goals… unfortunately though he scored 4 own-goals, which is the highest ever achieved in a single Premier League campaign. Ultimately, Liverpool’s generous defence had cost them their elusive Premier League title.
Brendan Rodgers clearly knew something was off-key defensively and needed to be addressed if they were to better their 2nd place finish. Rodgers now needed to be ruthless in pursuit of defensive stability and Premier League glory. Armed with over £80m in transfer fees from outgoing players, most notably Luis Suarez, he identified his defender of choice… Dejan Lovren. The Croatian international was signed for £20m from Southampton to strengthen Liverpool’s fragile back four. Unfortunately the only thing that Lovren has managed to strengthen so far is Skrtel’s place in the Liverpool team. With a collection of defensive errors that make Skrtel look like Paolo Maldini in comparison, Lovren has turned stupidity into an art form. Regardless of whether you think Skrtel is “good enough” or not, very few Liverpool fans would argue that Lovren is. Much like the power of illusion that Skrtel possesses though, Lovren has a similar magical hold over Rodgers, who inexplicably favours him to Sakho despite the latter being far superior. All being said… the fact of the matter is that Liverpool have only one central defender who is anywhere near the quality required for a team with ambitions of winning the league.
Given the club’s topsy-turvy nature, ownership problems and underwhelming transfer dealings, Skrtel’s performances have never really been under the spotlight for too long. The club’s various issues in recent years have helped Skrtel’s cause as much as the player himself. In all honesty, it’s now fairly hard to see where the Skrtel story ends. Having only recently signed a new 3 year deal amid apparent interest from Napoli, the likelihood is that Skrtel will be first choice for the foreseeable future. Adding to that, manager Brendan Rodgers now faces increasing pressure himself, and the likelihood is that a new boss wouldn’t remove one of the squad’s most experienced faces in Skrtel. Not immediately anyway.
Despite the barrage of abuse that I have aimed at Skrtel throughout this article I do hold a fondness for the Slovakian. He is as committed as anyone you will find in the Premier League, and any player willing to take the man and the ball for their club is all right with me. Sometimes you just have to overlook the fact that he is allergic to passing forward or further than 20 yards. Ignoring the pass into midfield in favour of a punt back to Mignolet has pretty much become a trademark Skrtel move. He has been an integral part of Liverpool for nearly 10 years now and that alone certainly deserves some respect. Has he ever been good enough for a club wanting to return to the peak of European football? I don’t believe so.