After examining Dejan Lovren’s season yesterday, our focus moves to his center back partner through most of the season, Mamadou Sakho. Sakho finally became a fixture in the Liverpool side this season under Jürgen Klopp after having to struggle for game time with Brendan Rodgers at the helm. Sakho was superb throughout the campaign up until his fateful drug test failure that has seen him suspended for an indefinite period of time that will likely impact his participation in the beginning of the next season. Not only did Sakho’s drug ban come at a terrible time as Liverpool had just reached the semifinals of the Europa League, but it may have a sizeable impact on his future role at the club. Sakho performed admirably this season, but his colossal mistake may prove costly for his future prospects at Liverpool Football Club.
Prior to the appointment of Klopp as manager, Sakho had been wrongly labeled by some as a clumsy defender whose awkward style had a severely negative impact on his defending. Although many of these critics did not pay attention to the effectiveness of Sakho’s game as a whole, the Frenchman proved that these criticisms were not at all factual. Defensively, Sakho won 64.1% of his duels and 1.7 tackles per match in domestic action. When compared to Arsenal’s defensive stalwart Laurent Koscielny’s returns of 62.2% and 1.4 tackles, Sakho’s excellent performance is clearly illustrated. Furthermore, Sakho won an astounding 66.7% of his tackles, besting his French compatriot Koscielny by a whopping 11.3%. Despite Sakho playing eleven fewer games domestically than the Arsenal defenseman, his performance in the league was tremendous. Sakho also recorded 5.9 clearances per match compared to Koscielny’s 5.4, further exemplifying Sakho’s exceptional performance throughout the campaign (whoscored.com). One area in which Sakho is noticeably weaker than Koscielny is the number of interceptions per match. Sakho only made 1.6 interceptions per match, a number that is dwarfed by Koscielny’s 3.6 (whoscored.com). However, all of Liverpool’s defense had a resoundingly low number of interceptions, potentially signaling a conservative defensive strategy. As a result, Sakho’s low returns in this area may be caused by an overall defensive approach, rather than Sakho being especially weak in this area. Sakho’s emergence as a regular first team player in the center of the defense was an integral part of the Reds’ European run. With the arrival of Joel Matip, Sakho’s strong form will have to continue if he wishes to earn back his starting spot upon returning from his suspension.
Prior to the 2015-2016 season, Sakho’s passing ability was continually overlooked by Liverpool supporters. Finally, given an extended run on the team, Sakho was able to prove his astute passing ability. The Frenchman completed 88.3% of his 57.3 passes per game. Koscielny, on the other hand, recorded only 49.1 passes per game with an 87.3% accuracy on those passes. Sakho’s superiority to Koscielny on this side of the game is the biggest illustration of Sakho’s tremendous ability to move the ball out of the defense. Koscielny has long been renowned as perhaps the best passing center back in the Premier League, yet Sakho was able to outperform him both domestically and Europe. It is telling that in the league matches Sakho was a part of, Liverpool averaged 1.77 goals per match versus only 1.5 goals when he did not participate. As a team that does not tend to institute a particularly direct style of play, Sakho’s ability to make an incisive pass from the defense to the midfield was key in setting the Reds on the attack. Without Sakho in the side, Liverpool was forced to drop Emre Can in between the center backs in order to give the ball to a player with more ball playing ability. Particularly in the match against Chelsea, it was apparent that by pressing and closing down Can and not letting him easily play the ball forward, the Reds greatly struggled to provide adequate service to the attacking players. In this match, Liverpool’s center back pairing of Dejan Lovren and Kolo Toure were forced to rely on Nathaniel Clyne and Alberto Moreno to get the ball to the feet of Liverpool’s attack. This proved extremely difficult since as soon as Clyne or Moreno received the ball, one of Chelsea’s wingers immediately closed them down, making it extremely difficult to play an accurate pass forward. In contrast, throughout Liverpool’s first match against Chelsea on Halloween, Sakho’s excellent passing consistently allowed the Reds to break through Chelsea’s press. This part of the game was instrumental in Liverpool’s dominance and subsequent 3-1 victory. Sakho’s passing is perhaps the best part of his game. Unfortunately, new arrival Matip is similarly skilled in this area, potentially clouding Sakho’s future prospects in the Liverpool side.
If Sakho were not suspended due to a doping violation, his future in the center of Liverpool’s defense would be the most secure of any current Reds player. However, with his suspension now in effect and possibly lasting upwards of an entire season, Sakho’s future is virtually unpredictable. The Frenchman’s extended spell on the sidelines combined with the arrival of at least one very talented new center back could spell trouble for Sakho’s Liverpool future. Matip is similar to Sakho in that he is strong in the air and is a reliable passer. This combination has proven to mesh well with Lovren’s no-nonsense style, as Sakho and Lovren’s partnership illustrated this season. With this possibility in mind, Sakho may make his return to the side as a backup. Despite Sakho’s very strong run of form this season, he will have to come back and prove himself all over again after letting down the fans and his teammates with this drug suspension. That being said, Sakho has proven to be the best center back currently on Liverpool’s roster and if Matip is the only new addition, Sakho should be able to regain his spot ahead of Lovren in the center back pecking order. The big question will be whether or not he returns as the same player he was before the suspension.