Mamadou Sakho: a case of team culture taking precedence over individual ability

Mamadou Sakho has been the subject of much debate among Liverpool fans throughout this season and until recently, it has all seemed rather futile. Sakho fell out with Jürgen Klopp after interrupting an interview, missing a treatment session and his poor timekeeping while on Liverpool’s pre-season tour in the US. He was duly sent home as a result.

Many of us might deem these to be minor issues which could be resolved, but for Klopp it was a breach of club rules which went against the culture he works so hard to build among his squad. Especially when there are many younger players involved on the tour, for a senior player like Sakho to act in an unprofessional manner set precisely the wrong example.

From then on, it was made quite clear to Sakho that he would not be involved in Klopp’s first-team plans, yet the Frenchman still refused to go out on loan. Any argument over his future at Liverpool, therefore, seemed in vain. It was quite clear from then on that he had got himself on the wrong side of the manager and that Klopp is a man who sticks vehemently to his core principles.

Compounded by Sakho’s decision to take a fat burner without consulting the club doctors and his later outburst via Snapchat about being left out of the squad, he had done himself no favours at all with his behaviour. For Klopp, Sakho’s presence was a disruptive one.

It was absolutely correct of Klopp to banish Sakho for these reasons. What is highly questionable, however, is whether Liverpool had enough quality in the centre-back positions to deal with Sakho’s absence. It is perfectly possible to say Klopp was right in banishing Sakho- while in hindsight he should perhaps have done more to ensure he had adequate quality and depth at centre-back, as Sakho had become a crucial figure last season prior to his doping ban, forming a strong partnership with Dejan Lovren.

Jöel Matip was brought in from Schalke and Ragnar Klavan from Augsburg, with Matip and Lovren forming a promising partnership towards the start of the season. What has become clear since then is that both players are injury-prone – Lovren in particular – and that in the long run, it’s not a pairing which is sustainable.

Klavan, meanwhile, has turned in some admirable performances on several occasions but is not of the required quality Liverpool need and has been called into Premier League action too often this season due to a lack of viable alternatives in that position. The fact that Lucas has also been called upon numerous times is also testament to a lack of depth in that department.

Given Liverpool’s defensive struggles this season- conceding 36 goals in 29 league games so far- it has been frustrating that Sakho’s qualities have not been adequately accounted for as we watch Liverpool ship avoidable goals on almost a weekly basis.

Meanwhile, Sakho had been training and playing with the U23 side, described as a hugely positive influence by former coach Michael Beale- a model of professionalism despite being exiled from the senior squad.

On deadline day in January, Sakho finally accepted a loan move to join Crystal Palace until the end of the season. Prior to Sakho’s involvement in the team, Palace were embroiled in an intense relegation battle having kept just two clean sheets in their previous thirty league matches.

Sakho has now played three games for Palace, and they have won all three- keeping clean sheets in every single one of them. While these have come against Middlesborough, West Brom and Watford, it’s still an astonishing statistic and one that should not be belittled or ignored. Right now, you wouldn’t hold much confidence in Liverpool keeping clean sheets against all of those sides. In the words of Sam Allardyce: “The lift he has given us defensively has been exceptionally good.”

According to Wilfried Zaha: “He’s a rock, so solid and at the same time, so composed. We’re much more solid now.”

While it would have been easy for Sakho to let his career go totally off the rails, he has demonstrated a willingness and determination to prove himself once more and show that he is still a strong, talented defender who will give everything to the cause. For that, he deserves credit.

It’s also easy to forget the extent to which Sakho had become a cult figure for Liverpool last season, scoring the equaliser in the stunning comeback against Borussia Dortmund at Anfield and in the Merseyside Derby in what is still his most recent- and quite possibly- his last ever performance for the club. At Old Trafford, his performance was simply outstanding as Liverpool eliminated Man United from the Europa League.

Although far from a perfect defender, there is a strong case to argue Sakho would still be the most naturally gifted defender at the club- perhaps alongside Matip. Certainly, he’s a better player than Lovren, Klavan and Lucas, despite Lovren’s improvement.

Indeed, Sakho’s aerial ability is a quality Liverpool very much lack at the moment, while his impressive passing range is ideally suited to playing out from the back. It is tempting to consider the potential of a partnership between Matip and Sakho with Lovren and Gomez as backup options. Especially with European football looking a very strong likelihood for next season, Klopp will need more quality and depth in his squad to cope with the added fixtures.

Yet what this all boils down to, still, is whether Klopp values Sakho’s quality enough to give him a second chance. Let’s be clear- there should be little doubt that Sakho is a talented defender who would improve Liverpool’s current squad. But is he that good that Klopp should reintegrate him rather than going out and buying a replacement of a similar or better quality?

I think the answer to this question is clear. Were Klopp ever going to give Sakho another chance, he’d have done so by now. Regardless of how good Sakho is, team culture will always come above individual ability for this manager. One can point to situations such as Luis Suarez under Brendan Rodgers, or Diego Costa this season under Antonio Conte- as situations where players have shown poor attitude only to make up with their managers and contribute massively to the team on their return.

Sakho is not in that bracket of quality, though, and the focus now should be on bringing in a top class centre-back in the summer to fill the void and partner Matip at the heart of defence, with Lovren, Gomez and Klavan in reserve. Ultimately, Sakho is not so indispensable that Klopp cannot upgrade on him in the summer and the likelihood of Klopp wanting to work with a player who has repeatedly broken the rules is virtually zero.

His impressive performances for Palace can still benefit Liverpool in terms of securing a decent transfer fee in the summer- but it is notable how no top clubs came looking for his signature when he was first made available by Klopp.

Above all, it is sad to see a player’s Liverpool career unravel in this way- from a fan favorite to being sent on loan to a club fighting relegation. Sakho missed the Europa League final and the chance to represent France at Euro 2016 in his home country despite the substance he took not actually being illegal. However, it could have all been avoided had he kept to club rules and consulted Liverpool’s doctor in the first place.

Sir Alex Ferguson, the greatest manager in the history of the English game, has spoken publicly about how attitude and team culture always takes precedence over ability. At Barcelona, Frank Rijkaard ultimately phased out Ronaldinho- one of the greatest talents in world football at the time- because of disciplinary issues. For Sakho, his fate under Klopp is surely already decided. For us, as fans, we can look at the situation and say Sakho deserves another chance and that he will have learned his lesson by now. For Klopp, though, he is the one who manages this group of players and is building a long-term project at Liverpool.

Sakho clearly isn’t an individual he wants to be part of that, so regardless of how good Sakho may or may not be, ultimately it is the manager’s choice- based on building a particular team ethic- which will almost certainly see Sakho move on to pastures new this summer. It would take a dramatic U-turn on Klopp’s behalf for Sakho to have any future at the club. What matters most for Liverpool now, is that a quality replacement is brought in as Klopp looks to build a solid foundation upon which to continue constructing a Liverpool side in his own image.

Written by Joel Rabinowitz

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2 Responses

  1. Cali

    What’s rather seldom mentioned is the fact how poor Sakho’s performance were last season. He did quite well after Brendan switched to a back three and in Klopp’s very first games. However, his second half of the season was very poor. People tend to forget that because of his ball-playing abilities and, above all, his lovely character.


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