Benitez & Ferguson: On the defensive

In the Premier League era, Liverpool have never conceded so many early goals, and Carragher is under attack. At United, Foster faces similar potshots. Ian Herbert hears the managers counter the crisis talk

It was once a profanity around the streets of Anfield but a considerable proportion of Liverpool fans have been uttering it in muffled tones in the past few days. Is Jamie Carragher's position in a Liverpool starting XI really still immutable?

Carragher's troubles dealing with West Ham's Zavon Hines in Liverpool's harum scarum 3-2 win at Upton Park last weekend, put with his culpability in the dubiously disallowed goal by Leeds' Jermaine Beckford in the Carling Cup on Wednesday, have made the question a particularly stubborn one. A poll of 180 fans on the ThisisAnfield website this week registered only an eight per cent vote for the theory that Carragher's totemic presence at the heart of Liverpool's defence remains unquestionable, while 22 per cent said a replacement was required and 56 per cent felt "improvements are needed" where Carragher is concerned after a start to the season which has seen the club concede nine league goals. Never in the first six games of a Premier League season have the club leaked so many.

Today's arrival of Hull City, who will threaten from the kind of set plays which have so troubled Carragher and his side, presents Benitez with the opportunity to change his central defence, with Daniel Agger fit again after a back injury. But the Liverpool manager joined that eight per cent of fans with total conviction about Carragher yesterday, rebutting suggestions that the 31-year-old is short of pace as only he knows how – by revealing he has data which suggests he is faster than a month ago. "I have been talking to him about his physical condition because everyone has been asking," Benitez said. "His fitness tests are better than the beginning of the season – so it's OK. He made mistakes, it's obvious, but it's a team that has to improve defensively. He's quicker now than he was before. He's not going down, he's going up." Benitez didn't reel off the figures but Carragher will start.

It was a day for defence lawyers all round, in a footballing sense. Manchester United have defensive anxieties of their own, having conceded six times this season. Not since the 1995/96 campaign have they shipped more in their first six games and not until their 10th game, on 1 November, did they let that many in last season. The Old Trafford derby was an even more error-littered encounter than Liverpool's last weekend and though Sir Alex Ferguson was unwilling to linger on that game – he is convinced that City manager Mark Hughes was deliberately goaded into controversy after the game and "did well" to resist it – he was ready with a defence of Ben Foster, insisting the goalkeeping errors which helped City to two of their three goals were a product of mere inexperience. "There's no need to change [things]," Ferguson said. "[Foster] is showing great qualities. We are not worrying about the odd mistake. Young players make them all the time and he has not had a great deal of game experience. No, I've not got a problem with the boy."

The goalkeeper's communication problems with his own back four clearly contributed to two of City's goals. Taken with the questions Andrei Arshavin's goal for Arsenal at Old Trafford asked of Foster's reactions last month, plus the goalkeeper's error-strewn Community Shield final, Tomasz Kuszczak might feel he has some claim on a start at Stoke today, with Edwin van der Sar's comeback three weeks away. But Ferguson's problem is that Kuszczak has presented even less conclusive evidence that he is ready to assume the Dutchman's mantle if the 39-year-old's usual late December decision-making about his future sees him concluding that next May is the ends of things. Set against a spectacularly instinctive right-handed save against Wolves in midweek was also a defensive mix-up resonant of the error which saw the 27-year-old dismissed in United's FA Cup quarter- final defeat to Portsmouth in March 2008.

Benitez, who has not been in any hurry to offer Carragher a new contract, has the most substantial challenge, though. The 13 goals conceded by his side in all competitions is a third of those leaked throughout last season in the league and Benitez accepted that the more offensive aspect to Liverpool's defence which Glen Johnson's arrival has presaged creates pressure on those left behind when opponents counter-attack. Hines was particularly effective in that respect, last Saturday. Benitez said that with Javier Mascherano offering cover, the side "can manage and organise things a bit better" and Johnson's impressive start, with two goals already, certainly suggest he may be one of the Spaniard's best buys. Johnson's role has also given the impression that Liverpool are playing a higher defensive line and are thus in more need than ever of defenders with more pace to advance, though Benitez dismissed that notion, too. Carragher's game intelligence made him a better player at 31 than at 26, he said. "When you've been playing five more years you know others players, you know your movement and your position. He is a much better player now because his understanding of the game is much better."

But there is a strong case for Agger playing alongside Martin Skrtel on more challenging occasions, even though the Dane has sometimes lacked a solidity to go with his distribution and movement out of defence – which comfortably surpass Carragher's. The Englishman's lack of pace has been exposed for over 12 months now and his on-field histrionics with Alvaro Arbeloa at West Bromwich last season were the signs of an individual perhaps no longer quite so in control of his game. Sotirios Kyrgiakos, Benitez's £2m summer acquisition from AEK Athens, is yet to prove he offers anything more than cover, though he was solid in Liverpool's 3-2 win at Bolton. The tortological answer Benitez provided yesterday when asked if Carragher remains a shoo-in for a starting place suggests he cannot expect that kind of ascendancy forever.

The question will be more pressing if Liverpool stumble again. They entertain Hull on the back of five victories on the trot in all competitions and the doubts raised by defeats to Tottenham and Aston Villa would be diminished further with a win over Hull, who have sunk steadily since last season's 2-2 draw in L4 proved their high tide mark. But for now, Benitez can indulge in levity. "You win 3-2 instead of 1-0 people say 'much better'," he said. "But after, you all ask about us conceding."

Springing leaks: Do the 'Big Four' have a problem?

Liverpool (two clean sheets from six league games this season)

Rafael Benitez's side have already conceded nine goals in the Premier League after just six games, a third of the amount they conceded in the whole of last season.

Manchester United (two / six)

Conceded six goals in six games (ave 1.00 a game), last season Edwin van der Sar let in 22 in 33 (0.66 a game). United have only let in more at this stage of the campaign - and still gone on to win the title - once in a 38-game season. It took United 10 games to concede the same amount last season.

Arsenal (one / five)

Only kept one clean sheet this campaign; at this stage last season they already had three shut-outs. At Manchester City the Gunners conceded four for a third time in 11 months, after taking four years prior to that to let in as much.

Chelsea (three / six)

During title winning year of 2005/06, Jose Mourinho’s side kept a clean sheets in first six games and let in just 18 in whole campaign. So far this season Petr Cech has kept just three clean sheets.

David Currie

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