It’s never easy for a team to handle the decline of an iconic player, whether it’s Joe Montana, Roger Clements, or Roy Keane. While Jamie Carragher certainly isn’t one of the all-time greats, he has meant as much to the Liverpool team and its fans as any of those superstars. Manager Rafa Benitez faces an enormous decision about Carragher’s spot in the starting lineup as he’s under intense pressure to finally deliver a Premier League title to Anfield but also must treat Carragher with the respect he earned in his nearly 600 appearances for the club. No easy task.
It is clear that Carragher has started the season poorly, but whether it’s the result of a simple dip in form, a terminal decline, or a slow adaptation to a new tactical approach is not clear. Whatever the cause, the debate about Carragher’s place in the team—once thought unheard of—has burst into the open this week with Paul Little writing in Football365 that the central defender should be sent to the bench.
Little argues that the never quick Carragher is poorly equipped to adapt to Liverpool’s new style of more attacking play from the fullbacks. With the wide defenders (and the rest of the team as well) pushed farther up, the central defenders must also take a more advance position to prevent huge gaps in the Liverpool lines. In Little’s view, Carragher’s apprehension about his own lack of pace causes him to sit deeper, unbalancing the defense and opening up the very space he is supposed to close off.
Anyone who watched young West Ham speedster Zevon Hines terrorize Carragher last week would likely agree with Little’s analysis. A look at the statistics also shows real defensive problems for Liverpool. The reds have conceded nine goals in their six league games, a pace that would more than double the 27 they let in last season. It would appear that Little is on to something.
A closer look at the actual goals allowed, however, reveals a remarkable oddity and evidence that whether or not Carragher is pulling the defense out of its shape, its hasn’t yet hurt Liverpool on the score sheet. The simple fact is that Liverpool have not conceded a goal from open play this season, allowing four goals from set pieces (including one own-goal), three from corners, and two penalties. Now, one of those penalties was on Carragher for bungling into Hines as he raced around him. But Little would have us believe that Liverpool are being carved open because the ageing central defender is too slow to fill the space in a more attacking formation. The facts don’t support the severity of Little’s analysis.
Liverpool’s real problem so far this year is defending set pieces, but I’ll save the debate about zonal marking for later in the season. This is about Carragher.
Carragher definitely is struggling. But let’s not forget that Rio Ferdinand was made to look rather silly in the Manchester derby last week and fellow Man U defender Nemanja Vidic went through a very rough spell towards the end of the year last year. And Carrigher is getting on a bit. But he’s still only 31, with central defenders known to make meaningful contributions into their mid-30s. His best asset has always been his ability to read the game and that shouldn’t wane with age, in fact, the opposite might occur.
Even though I don’t think Little is exactly right, I also don’t think he’s completely wrong. I’ve watched Liverpool play a ton of games in the last several years and I have often remarked that Carragher’s play isn’t as solid as it once was. If he wasn’t held in such high regard by the Anfield faithful, this discussion would likely have occurred last year at the latest. But because he is such a hero for Liverpool, as long as Liverpool aren’t leaking goals from Carragher’s poor positional play, it would be foolish to cause such unrest in the club by dropping him.
The most likely cause of Carragher’s poor start is a combination of all these things – adaptation to a more attacking style of play (which is just going to open up more space and lead to more goals conceded), a run of bad form, and an aging player. That’s not reason enough to bench him. But it is cause for concern and I think Rafa would do well to keep a close eye on Carragher’s form over the next several weeks. It’s not time to drop him, but Carragher probably shouldn’t be the automatic selection he has been for so long.