Jack O'Connell: A Sturdy Liverpool Back Up
Despite the coronavirus pandemic seeing football screech to a dramatic mid-season halt, the transfer rumour mill continues to churn out stories.
Dejan Lovren, Liverpool’s Croat centre-half, continues to be linked with a move to AS Roma. The Reds’ number 6 was heavily linked with a move to the Italian capital last season, and –apparently keen to make the switch to the Stadio Olimpico — the defender only remained on Merseyside owing to both clubs failing to agree a fee.
Lovren remained in situ for the season and the combination of consistent injuries and the rich form of Joel Matip and Joe Gomez saw him fall down the central defensive pecking order to fourth choice. 30 years old, liable to pick up injuries, and with only a year remaining on his contract, it would make sense for Liverpool to cash in on the former Southampton stopper rather than losing him for free in the summer of 2021.
As for the Croatian international, who joined the Reds in the summer of 2014 for £20,000,000, the offer of regular first-team football in the Serie A would be difficult to turn down, especially because — as mentioned earlier — he was keen to join the Giallorossi last summer.
Sepp Van Den Berg and Ki-Jana Hoever, the Dutch, academy defensive duo, are highly regarded at Melwood, but — given their youth and relative inexperience — to jump up to the first team and replace Lovren would likely be a step too far at this stage of their development.
So, in order to fill any Lovren sized hole in their squad, Liverpool will need to turn their attention to the market and a player who the crosshairs of their scouting network should focus on is Sheffield United’s, Jack O’Connell.
Born on Merseyside, the boyhood Liverpool fan has established himself on the left-hand side of The Blades’ back-three, contributing handsomely to the Bramall Lane sides defence becoming the Premier League’s second stingiest this season; only behind Liverpool in the solidity stakes.
Positionally solid, quick, and ambitious on the ball, O’Connell was targeted to play internationally for the Republic of Ireland, but — given his ancestry is a generation too deep to be available to represent the Emerland Isle — his ineligibility should attract the interest of England. With the Three Lions sometimes employing a back three, the 26-year-old would be an ideal tactical fit for Gareth Southgate.
It is a quirk of Chris Wilder’s tactics that would make O’Connell an intriguing option for Liverpool. Playing a well-choreographed 352 formation, the Blades have won acclaim for using their left and right-sided centre-halves to overlap and advance further up the pitch.
Typically, when in the attacking phase, O’Connell and Chris Basham will position themselves in the advanced half-spaces or tighter to the line out wide in order to make numerical overloads in wider areas of the pitch. Even without receiving the ball, these sharp movements distort and break opposition defensive shapes and make space infield.
To be so comfortable going forward is an attribute Jurgen Klopp looks for in his centre-halves — with all of Gomez, Matip and Virgil van Dijk exceptional on the ball — and the former Everton trialist could offer a similar level of contribution to the build-up, while also being the only left-footed centre half.
That Sheffield United utilise their lateral centre-halves so adventurously but remain so defensively robust — conceding only 25 goals this season — is testament to O’Connell’s positional awareness and recovery pace. To play for Liverpool — whose dominance of the ball and space are features of the majority of their games — requires a big level of concentration and awareness from defenders, as long periods of the game could pass where the defenders have very little to do. On that score, the native Liverpudlian looks like he fits the bill, even if it would take some acclimatizing to move from a back three to a back four.
There is also the option that O’Connell could fill in as a left-back in the stead of Andrew Robertson. With only 1 assist this season, the former Blackburn and Rotherham enforcer lags far behind the Scot — who has laid on seven assists — in the creativity stakes. The former England U19 international, though, could be a solid option in the left-full-back berth, in the mould of a Ragnar Klavan.
With Transfermarkt valuing O’Connell at close to £9M, Liverpool could do far worse than making the move for the defender, whose boyhood allegiance would see him hardpressed to turn the move down, even if it meant going from first-team regular to squad player.