It's pretty hard these days to muster anything more than a depressing sense of ambivalence about a new Liverpool signing in any position, but when it comes to centre half that's even more the case. Not since Sami Hyppia and Stephane Henchoz's arrival under Gerard Houllier has a new centre back come in and obviously improved us and that was back in 1999!
Certainly the last few big signings have promised much while subsequently failing, to a greater or lesser degree, to deliver on the inevitable sense of expectation among Reds. The likes of current failures Dejan Lovren and Mamadou Sakho can be joined by Martin Skrtel and even Daniel Agger on the list of players who never quite fully cut it in the position and the gaping hole left in Jamie Carragher's wake since the Liverpool legend's retirement is in dire need of filling. Welcome Joel Matip, then.
Without knowing much about the player other than the name of the man who signed him (which one hopes will prove a key indication of quality), the focus here is on who makes room for the incoming signing, rather than how good the new man will be. The obvious answer to that should be Kolo Toure of course. Because of his age and contract situation, it's widely assumed that he'll depart in the summer and of course that would not be a surprise.
That said, Toure has played as well as anyone else at the club in the centre back position this season and there's a lot to be said for retaining an older, wiser, more experienced head in the dressing room. Certainly, he's not a man who will spit his dummy out at a bit part role and it surely couldn't hurt to have a a smattering of title winners around all the potential we're so laden with. Also, he's hardly going to be expensive at his age and I'm sure we could give him another year on a modest basic wage with a big playing bonus on top.
So if not Kolo, then who leaves? To be honest, I wouldn't lose sleep over any of them departing and there's an argument that says we should just tout them all on the open market and see which one attracts the biggest offer. I've never been a huge fan of Martin "one season on, one season off" Skrtel, although he is that rarity of being a defender who scores goals for us. Like all Reds, I've been hugely disappointed by Lovren too who looked the real deal at Southampton before crumbling under Brendan Rogers. That said, he has played well when called upon this season and you cannot look at a central defender's form in isolation from the players around and - especially - behind him.
For me though, the biggest disappointment has been Mamadou Sakho because I was taken in by his positive character and aggressive style for a long time. A key factor in that deception has been his inability to put in a consistent run of games due to his poor fitness record which has left him benefitting from the old "anyone but the incumbents" approach to team preferences.
However, it has finally dawned on me that, despite his admirable desire to fizz a pass to feet, he often does so recklessly, giving the ball away far too frequently. The word reckless can also be applied to his tackling which too often sees him go to ground rather than stay on his feet. Finally, his heading style is bizarre as he folds his body in half from the waist and almost flicks himself at the ball, the upshot of which is poorly timed and/or directed headers.
So in short, if I was choosing, I'd go for Sakho as the man to make way. However, it's fine margins because there's not a single one of them who has put his stamp on the team. Let's hope Joel Matip breaks that mould then and has a positive impact on whoever plays next to him because we'll never do anything of note as a club again without addressing this key position in the team.
With a decent run in the Europa League there is the possibility of anywhere up to another twenty games still to be played this season, so the performances in those games could go a long way to deciding which member of the defending corps is given one of those handkerchiefs on a stick from the cartoons and kicked out the door. I would be leaning towards letting Kolo leave the club but with an open mind to any good offers that might come in for anyone other than Sakho.
The critics of the big Frenchman continue to bemuse me. Given the quality that he possesses when it comes to building our game up, getting dangerous players on the ball in attacking positions, he would have to be kicking the ball into our own net every game for the risk/reward ratio not to be acceptable to me. Looking a bit awkward and making the odd defensive mistake are not unique to him in this league; pinging it into the number ten's feet six or seven times a game are. There's a reason he sometimes racks up 80 or 90 passes in a game. He's good at it. He stays. End of.
Some would argue that Skrtel and Lovren have very little between them in any weighing up of their performances and qualities but that would be unfair to the Slovak, who only recently had an outstanding season. Given the injury problems Sakho has had I'd be in no rush to get rid of either of these two, but might me more tempted to listen to offers to Skrtel given his age and his contract situation, and also bearing in mind the recent improvements from the much maligned Croat. I'd like to see both of them coached by Klopp and given the opportunity to see which can become the preferred option. One year down the line their values shouldn't really drop too far from where they would be this summer either.
So if no suitable offer were to come in that leaves you with four senior centre backs in your squad, with Kolo Toure and Tiago Illori wondering where they fit in. Factors like wages, appetite to be a 5th choice and, in Kolo's case, the impact that they might have on the dressing room, would all come into the thinking on them but, in all likelihood, you'd see them leave the club this summer. Although, all that being said, since Lucas Leiva decided to use the recent West Ham game to let us all in on the secret that he is, on the quiet, the greatest centre back since Passarella, we may just have to decide who parters him there for next season's title win and leave the rest to sort itself out; yeah?
The obvious answer to this is Kolo. He’s the oldest, coming to the end of his contract and the easiest to shed. But we’ve been so bad at the back this year that you could make a case for any of the centre halves to be replaced.
I can’t say I know anything about Matip. The days of me being able to watch lots of foreign football are long gone. Even the early Sunday Italian kick offs, my guilty pleasure, are no longer part of my schedule. So forgive me if I say I’ve only seen Schalke when they’ve played English opposition, and even then it’s over the top of my laptop screen.
Do we still debate if a player is a committee signing or the manager's now that Kloppo is here? Is he enough of a personality (I’m certain he is) to basically put the kibosh on the committees mad, bad ideas for turning pennies into pounds into pieces of sh*t? Surely a signing from the Bundesliga has Kloppo’s pawprints all over it but, and you knew there’d be a ‘but’, a free signing on a Bosman has all the hallmarks of a committee signing; they live for trying to unearth quality players for minimal investment, and it’s worked so well thus far…
I have no idea and I’m going to stop going on about it now. Instead I’ll say that this looks like Benitez going in for Garcia and Alonso and Houllier going in for Ferr… never mind. It’s not uncommon for managers to raid the leagues they’re most familiar with, or pick up players they’ve seen often. How else do you explain how Paul Konchesky got to wear the red shirt?
Anyway, yeah, Joel Matip. Tall fella, great stuff, probably needs to be a talker, an organiser, we don’t have any of those – despite how Lovren was billed, it might as well have been from ‘Parts Unknown’. Who should feel most vulnerable after Kolo? Well all of them. Lovren is being rebuilt after being reduced to rubble by the end of the Rodgers era so who knows what happens with him. Skrtel would appear to be the safest; he’s got tenure and has formed solid partnerships at the club, plus his age could see him transitioned into the Kolo role.
Sadly he’ll never have the cult appeal of Toure. Then there’s Sakho, the bellwether for how well/badly we’re defending. He can be rock solid or he can look like he’s an extra in Earthquake. He’s also got a questionable injury record too, we’ve got enough sicknotes in the squad and you need your centre half to be robust; those partnerships won’t form themselves.
Maybe we buy another centre back and sell another one but I don’t think this will be another summer of huge overhaul. It’ll be about refinement and adding quality (I hope) and maybe Matip will be part of that. If I’m betting money on who’s out though, I’m betting on Toure.