Sami Hyypia: time to be put out to pasture?

Posted by Paul Tomkins on February 14, 2005, 10:22:12 AM

First of all: the title does not mean I am equating Sami Hyypia in any way to a horse, or worse still, a donkey. I am still a big fan of the colossal Finn, and Liverpool definitely sold the right centre-back (Henchoz) this winter. But there can be no escaping the fact that Sami is getting a fair amount of criticism this season, with fans calling for him to be ditched.

The most alarming thing I've read from some quarters is that Sami has lost his pace. Well, I can't recall him having any to start with. Players just don't suddenly lose their pace (it's an easy criticism to label at older players), and certainly not by the age of just 30, without the interference of serious injuries. Our ex-captain has played 300 games in five-and-a-half seasons; so no debilitating injuries there. That is an amazing record. He's been as consistent on the pitch as he has been consistent in simply being on the pitch. You don't know what you'll miss until something has gone; I still believe that's the case with Sami. We've never had to be without him, so it's easy to think the grass would be greener.

With regards his consistency, it's worth noting that he has had a mere handful of bad games this season. He has made a couple of mistakes, and been exposed by pace and power on a couple of occasions. Given his high standards, this may seem like a crisis for the player. But you could argue mitigating circumstances: the team is defending differently from set pieces, which took a while for all the players to get used to; Sami has a new partner, Carra, alongside him; the defence has not had settled full-backs; and not only is the back line taking a position higher up the field, it also doesn't have a four-man midfield whose primary function is to screen those behind it.

From what I can tell, Sami's positional sense is still superb (you don't lose that, you only get better with age), his reading of the game remains as strong as ever, he is as good anyone at tackling without going to ground, and remains very composed in tight situations. He's a fine passer of the ball, but he needs options in midfield so he doesn't have to resort to long balls.

He also contributes, on average, four goals a season. That might not seem a lot, but it's four more than we get from all our other defenders (unless Riise is playing full-back). He tends to score crucial goals, not 'icing on the cake' goals.

Sami has weaknesses, but then who doesn't? One of Gerard Houllier's most insightful comments was that you pick players on account of what they can do; you do not omit them for something they can't. On the kind of thinking he is rightly dismissing, a manager would never have selected Michael Owen earlier in his career, as he was short and had no left foot to speak of.

If you go at Hyypia with pace and knock it into the space beyond him, there will be times when he will struggle. No doubts. Most of the time he will tackle, block or intercept the ball. But if not, he's done-for. In seasons gone by, anyone knocking it ten yards past Sami would be knocking it into the area, and straight to Jerzy, as we were defending the 18-yard line the whole time. Now we're looking to defend higher up, there is that space in behind. But defending higher up is all part of a more expansive game. It's swings and roundabouts.

One mistake Houllier did make, in my opinion, was installing Sami as captain. He just isn't captain material. Once the captaincy was stripped, Sami was seen as being "in decline". Captains need to be demonstrative: not necessarily with chest-thumping hystrionics, but at the very least they need to be constantly talking to others (as indeed Carra does). They need to do more than quietly lead by example (which Sami never failed to do). When the team struggled, Sami found his own form inhibited by the burden of being the team's leader; as if he was solely responsible for the team's ills. The time was right, just over a year ago, to make Steven Gerrard captain.

And so to Sami's latest troubles. At St Andrews on Saturday, Heskey was always going to turn him inside out; some players have their bκte noire, who will give them nightmares. In training at Melwood, Heskey will have made a mug of Hyypia time and time again. Emile is that kind of player. He's made some of the best defenders in the world look like 11-year-old boys hopelessly out of their depth (Maldini and co. when England played Italy springs to mind; as do a number of games against Sol Campbell, whose pace and power should have meant he could negate Heskey, but it didn't).

It was as good as guaranteed that Emile was going to be a thorn in our side once he left, as his best games for us were always against Leicester, or in situations when he was 'wounded'. When he's fired-up, he's a frightening player. Trouble was always getting him wound-up in the first place; he was soporific in too many other games.

Pace at the heart of the defence has long been an issue –– but Carra is more mobile than either Hyypia or Henchoz, so there is already some improvement in that area. (And Traore at full-back, for all his shortcomings, does offer pace to cover across). It's just that the defence is being asked to do a different job: more exposed higher up the pitch, and without a four-man screening midfield. We're looking to be more creative, hence not sticking rigidly with two banks of four. Getting the balance right will take time, but that's Benitez's trick: last season, Valencia had by far the best defence, but only Real Madrid outscored them, by one single goal (and Madrid's failings have never been in attacking, have they? They were scoring goals for fun last season, just conceding more).

I don't deny that our defence is the area in need of most attention. But I just don't see the point of ditching Sami for the hell of it.

One thing I've become very aware of is that fans cry out for the solving of one problem, unaware of the new issues that will arise. When people are fed up with players, they call for their heads and offer alternatives; often, their suggestions would merely result in a new set of problems. Often called for is the exact opposite of what we have: when we needed steel in our 'passing' midfield in the 90s, everyone wanted an Ince; Ince arrived, and suddenly our passing wasn't so good. We were no better off, as while he often won the ball, he kept giving it away two seconds later.

Lose Hyypia, and we lose a hell of a lot of qualities. Before he arrived in 1999, we were struggling against high balls into the box from open play. Teams were just lumping it into the 'mixer' and seeing what happened (usually panic). They know they can't do that these days.

While Carra is very good in the air, he's not the tallest, and unlike Sami, couldn't cope with someone like Duncan Ferguson. Sami's height and spring means he can nullify the threat of the tallest strikers. He's also very good at knowing when to attack the ball when it's been launched upfield towards our goal; many centre backs get sucked under a high ball, only to misjudge it and then watch helplessly as it sails over their heads. If you notice, Sami gets into position early and, once set, only a foul or a prodigious leap can stop him clearing.

If we can find a better player than Hyypia, then by all means, bring him on (and the same applies to any player in the team). That said, I can't see any improvement on the big Finn being cheap, and it's hard to know who could do a better job and isn't already at a rival club unwilling to sell. The only name that springs to mind is Ledley King, as he is both quick and tall. He's still got some improving to do, but is getting better all the time. But I can't see Spurs selling, or, crucially, us having the funds to force their hand.

William Gallas is a great centre back, but would be a better partner for Sami than for Carra (in that Gallas relies on John Terry's aerial dominance). Gallas is back in the Chelsea side, and signing him would be impossible.

Beyond this you could throw a thousand names into the hat, and still not guarantee a better centre half than Sami. It may yet be something to resolve on the training ground, once Rafa can settle on his four best defenders, and drill them to the point it becomes second nature. (Something you cannot do in half-a-season). After all, at Arsenal in the late 80s, George Graham had three good defenders and one great one –– Tony Adams –– but he spent so much time working with them that they became legendarily parsimonious. (And none had much pace, either). When Wenger changed the dynamics of the midfield, so as to have it attack more freely, that defence –– after a season of getting used to the new ideas –– proved just as capable as it had under Graham's more defensive style of play. It can be done; just not in a matter of months.

While new players can often solve problems, they are not always the only answer. But to fans sat at home on their computer, it's the easiest solution, as you cannot easily speculate on how to better organize a defence every morning at Melwood.

© Paul Tomkins 2005

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