Liverpool’s current second longest serving player has edged a step closer to the Anfield exit amid reports Martin Skrtel is heading to Fenerbahce.
The Slovakia international, currently at Euro 2016, is in no hurry to decide his future and expects to have offers from elsewhere by the time he’s done with the tournament in France, but it’s clear his time on Merseyside is drawing to a close.
Only Lucas has been at the club longer than Skrtel, who was signed from Zenit Saint Petersburg by Rafa Benitez in January 2008, but the decision to offload the defender will not have been a difficult one for Jurgen Klopp. Skrtel’s age, salary and patchy performances make it something of a no-brainer, particularly with the Reds needing to trim their squad due to the lack of European football next season.
Skrtel, 31, began 2015-16 as the club’s first choice central defender but ended at the back of the queue, behind Dejan Lovren, Mamadou Sakho and even 35-year-old Kolo Toure, who recently left the club having not been offered a new contract. If Toure was not needed next season, there was definitely nothing down for Skrtel.
He has struggled badly since Klopp took charge and never recovered from a horrific performance in a 3-0 defeat at Watford last December, when Troy Deeney and Odion Ighalo pushed him around and embarrassed him before injury was added to insult when he tore a hamstring and was sidelined for several weeks. Upon his return he was unable to regain a regular place and when he was called upon, he usually failed to impress.
Normally when a player has been at a club for so long he would be something of a fan favourite, but even after eight years few Kopites will mourn Skrtel’s departure. Consistency has always been a problem, and not just from week to week. Skrtel has actually been Liverpool’s Player of the Year on more than one occasion, but he tended to follow a good season with a bad one and never managed to forge a successful pairing with anybody.
He’s had numerous central defensive partners during his time at the club, but there isn’t one with whom he really struck up the kind of understanding that a defence needs. Individually, Skrtel often played well, but defending is all about working as a unit and that is where he often struggled, especially in recent years following the departures of experienced professionals Sami Hyypia, Jamie Carragher and Daniel Agger.
Lovren and Sakho have fared quite well when paired with each other but have often looked all at sea when asked to play next to Skrtel. Sakho in particular has suffered frequently alongside him.
The 6-1 humiliation at Stoke on the final day of the 2014-15 season immediately springs to mind, as does the capitulation against Crystal Palace the season before, when the Reds blew a 3-0 lead by conceding three times in the final 10 minutes. Then there was the loss at Southampton last March. Skrtel replaced Lovren at half time with the Reds in total control of the game and leading 2-0, but his presence seemed to unsettle everybody and Southampton came back to win 3-2.
Skrtel’s replacement has already been signed. Cameroon international Joel Matip arrives this summer on a free transfer from Schalke, and Kopites will hope he is the type of physical, dominant presence that Skrtel occasionally threatened to be but mostly never was.
Despite Matip’s arrival, Skrtel’s impending departure means there is still some uncertainty at centre-back for Liverpool, not least because of UEFA’s delay in dealing with the Sakho situation. If the Frenchman escapes a suspension for an anti-doping violation then Liverpool probably have enough central defenders for next season. Toure proved to be a terrific squad player who filled in well when needed, but promising youngster Joe Gomez is now fit again following an anterior cruciate ligament injury. The lack of European football means rotation won’t be needed next year and Gomez should be able to fill the No.4 centre-back spot while also providing cover at full-back.
If Sakho is suspended, however, that changes everything and Klopp would have little choice but to bring in another defender. With that in mind some may feel it would have made sense to wait and see what happens with Sakho before offloading Skrtel, but Klopp has clearly seen enough and would prefer to take the cash while it’s on offer and move in another direction. Besides, the player is surely ready for a change of scenery and would certainly not want to spend next season sat on the bench.
Wherever he eventually ends up, Skrtel will leave Anfield with the best wishes of the fans but he won’t be missed. In the eight seasons he was a part of the Liverpool defence only one trophy was lifted. That’s far from being just on his shoulders, but ultimately — as with Lucas — for Skrtel to have survived so long at Anfield says more about the decline of the team than it does his own abilities.