02 September 2013

On Mamadou Sakho

So much for transfer inactivity. Oh, deadline day, you never (read: frequently) fail to impress.

Liverpool have made three deadline day signings – center-backs Mamadou Sakho and Tiago Ilori on permanent deals, and winger Victor Moses on loan – but there's only one I feel comfortable writing about now. I may have something up on Moses tomorrow, but Sakho's by far the most interesting.

Even before Kolo Toure's injury, even before Skrtel's surprisingly competent return to form against United, Liverpool needed another senior center-back. Now they've got one. A very, very good one, and one who's still just 23 years of age.

Three things stand out from Sakho's aerial duels last season.

First, that he won an awful lot of them. 84 of 110, a 76.4% success rate. As a reminder, Agger won 115 of 188 (61.2%), Skrtel 72 of 103 (69.9%), Carragher 19 of 34 (55.9%), Johnson 66 of 115 (57.4%), and Enrique 13 of 34 (38.2%).

Second, that he was almost as impressive when defending PSG's penalty box, winning 14 of 19 (73.7%) inside the area. Which suggests that he's especially handy on set plays, as that's where a larger proportion of aerial duels inside the area come from. Which, as we're all well aware, is something that Liverpool desperately needs.

Third, Sakho seems comfortable playing a fairly high line, with the vast amount of his aerial duels just inside PSG's half. That's a key part of Rodgers' system, especially given what we've seen so far this season as Toure's taken over for Carragher.

For the most part, Sakho's tackles and interceptions came far deeper than his aerial duels – not especially surprising – but the amount of interceptions which took place directly outside the box is impressive, cutting off numerous throughball chances before they reached their target. None of Liverpool's center-backs made more interceptions per minute than Sakho last season.

Sakho's tackle success rate of 70% isn't especially awe-inspiring – slightly worse than Agger and equal to Carragher's last season – but what's more intriguing is that Sakho's made fewer tackles in each of his last three seasons – averaging 2.6 per appearance in 2010/11, 1.7 in 2011/12, and 1.1 in 2012/13, suggesting that he's become less reliant on diving in to make stops as he's gotten more experienced, relying more on his positioning and interceptions.

Both chalkboards demonstrate that Sakho is very much a left-sided center-back. Which is also Daniel Agger's favored position. Both players have rarely played on the right side of defense, and you rarely see two left-footed central defenders in the same XI. Kolo Toure's had a very good start to the season, but Liverpool aren't paying somewhere between £15-20m for Agger's back-up. I'd be very surprised if Sakho had fewer appearances than Toure by the end of the season. One of them – most likely Sakho – will have to adjust playing on the other side of the pitch. And if it's Sakho, he'll have to make that adjustment while adjusting to the pace and style of play of a completely different league than the one he grew up in. Gulp. But that's literally my lone concern.

So, how does Sakho's last season compare to Liverpool's center-backs?

Sakho played 2139 league minutes, while Agger played in 3097, Skrtel 2080, and Carragher 1535.

Skrtel's defensive statistics are actually surprisingly adequate. Yes, statistics lie – as Carragher's don't demonstrate the massive effect he had on Liverpool's defense over the second half of last season – and statistics don't explain how much Skrtel struggled with the high line that Rodgers wants to implement. But one stat still stands out, though: Skrtel's defensive errors, which were quite costly, especially since two of the five led to an opposition goal, and to two points dropped. Only one Liverpool player made more errors last season: Pepe Reina, who coincidentally is no longer with the club. Sakho made just two errors all season – more than Agger or Carragher – but neither leading to a goal.

Sakho's ability with the ball at his feet should also fit into Rodgers' style of play. The only Ligue 1 center-back with a higher pass accuracy than Sakho's 91.5% was his PSG teammate Alex, completing 1055 of 1153 passes. Agger completed 88.5% (1516 of 1713), Skrtel 90.1% (1030 of 1143), and Carragher 91.8% (741 of 807). Most impressive was Sakho's accuracy with long range passes. He attempted 132, completing 111 (84.1%). Agger completed 82 of 107 (76.6%), Skrtel completed 79 of 111 (71.2%), Carragher completed 66 of 81 (81.5%).

Sakho also scored twice last season, one of those goals coming from the five of seven aerial duels he won in the opposition box.

Mamadou Sakho was the youngest player to captain PSG, or any Ligue 1 side, at age 17, given the armband for a few matches by Paul Le Guin in 2007 in an effort to galvanizing the struggling side. He's captained France at every youth level, from under-17 to under-21, and has already made 151 league appearances despite his tender age of 23, young for any regular starter, let alone a center-back. Predominantly a center-back, Sakho's also capable of playing at left-back.

All the above statistics are from a season where Sakho was often third-choice center-back behind Alex and Thiago Silva. His statistics from 2010/11 and 2011/12 were similar, with more tackles and slightly more interceptions in those two seasons, but vastly improving his aerial duel success rate and pass accuracy in each successive season. The fear seems to be that he's somewhat stagnated; hopefully, the challenge of moving to a different league will help to revitalize his form. This summer, PSG added another center-back, paying €32m for Marquinhos to push Sakho further down the depth chart. It seems PSG's Qatari owners are far more concerned with big-name Brazilians rather than improving young French players who've been with the club for a decade. A young, much-heralded talent whose progression has slowed, made available for transfer by a big club that wants to replace him with a more-expensive signing? Where have I heard that before?

That's seemingly to Liverpool's benefit, finally filling one of the most glaring holes in the squad with an excellent, potentially top class 23-year-old French international. Welcome to Liverpool, Mamadou.


Anonymous said...

Excellent analysis! But Sakho's minutes per successful aerial duel should be 25.5, not 37.4. Also, a question: do defenders from the French league typically transition well to the premier league? The only example I can think of off the top of my head is Koscielny.

nate said...

Fixed, thank you v much.

Off the top of my head: Koscielny's the obvious standout (aside from his few red card foibles); Lovren's done well in three matches of Southampton this season; Newcastle's Frenchmen acquired last season (Yanga-Mbiwa, Debuchy, Haidara) were hit and miss because Newcastle were hit and miss; Bassong and Kaboul were as advertised, even if they've declined in recent seasons. I'm sure there are a ton more that I'm missing.

Anonymous said...

Sakho, not Sahko.

nate said...

Yeah, I got there in the end. I have no idea how I got his name right in the graphics but proceeded to write the entire post with the k and h transposed.

tkired said...

Thanks for the numbers to back up everything I've heard about this man. I am well chuffed at this signing, especially with skrts seemingly staying and stepping up his game. The D should remain solid for the majority of the season.

And then Suarez comes back. I drool now.

Mike Kennedy said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
CStars said...

That was an excellent read on Sakho Nate and he's arrived at a time when Cissokho, Johnson, and Kolo T are all injured. One injury to Enrique and it could be our new signing or Agger filling in on the left of defence.

If Agger and Sakho are going to be the likely first-choice pairing, who do you see as the player who will operate slightly deeper in defence?

Anonymous said...

We could go back to Dessaily (success I think) and Blanc (not as good but older when he came over), for French examples.

Tom Kelly said...

Looking more and more like 3 at the back

Anonymous said...

Sakho was often compared to Marcel Desailly in France. I don't know how well he managed in Chelsea but it's another case of French CB in the PL.