Daniel our brother.What does it mean to sign this new contract?
It means everything to me. This is where I want to be. And I’m really happy the club want me. I feel part of this club. I feel part of this city.
Danny Agger, 5th October 2012
When Danny Agger put pen to paper earlier this season and signed the long-term contract that keeps him at Anfield for the next few years you could hear the entire Liverpool global village exhale. It was a massive relief to a couple of million palpitating supporters (though probably a danger to the planet). He’s arguably our best player and probably our most important one so the prospect of losing him to a rival – especially one so short of class and heavy with dough as Man City - was nothing short of catastrophic. If he'd gone I'd have given up football. Well, almost.
Danny gave an interview to the official site after he re-signed which was unusual, and even odd. We’re used to hearing top sportsmen and women being asked to describe the extreme feelings and intense emotions they experience while performing their work, and it’s become a standing joke to point to the trite language and stale metaphors they almost all resort to. But with Agger there was no ‘football-speak’, there were no clichés, there was no ‘over the moon’, and he didn’t use the word ‘obviously’ once. Instead he listened to the questions closely, he answered them directly and occasionally he sounded short of breath, as if choking a little on the emotional significance of what he’d just done to that dotted line. Half way through the interview you realised you were listening to a proper conversation. That’s to say you didn’t know what he was going to say next. He was genuinely delighted and yet totally reflective. And the reason he didn’t need a cliché was because he was being sincere. It felt like listening to a fan. It was how you and I would sound if we’d just agreed a contract with Liverpool (ok, minus the fist-pumping and the sweary bits).
We’re not used to hearing Danny speak much. He rarely gets the headlines. Few defenders do. But we’re extremely familiar with how he sounds. That’s because every time he takes to the field there appears to be a BMW engine ticking over somewhere in the vicinity of our defence. It sounds great from the Kop. It must sound even better if you’re standing where Martin Skrtel’s standing.
That’s the thing about Agger and it’s called composure. All great footballers have it. They tick over. They keep something in reserve and can deal with the unexpected and with emergencies because they know that they have an extra gear, or an extra fuel tank, or however you want to put it. On Saturday, against the Saints, Agger suddenly pulled out a piece of gymnastics to cut out a dangerous cross from the left wing. You’ll remember it because his foot was higher than his head when he connected with the ball. It took great reflexes and astonishing agility to make that clearance. But it took composure too. I’m sure Agger knew that it was possible he might have to twist himself like a contortionist even before the cross was made. It was something he considered when wondering how to protect the space between himself and Reina. It was also something he'd done before (as recently in the summer for Denmark to deprive van Persie). Therefore when it came to throwing himself at the ball he had something just as important as acrobatic skill. He had a calm head.
That’s one of the reasons I love Agger. He’s calm therefore I’m calm. I trust him. He makes watching Liverpool tolerable when everything about watching Liverpool (or whoever your beloved club is) is designed to kill you.
Of course he’s made for Brendan Rodgers. We know that. He told us himself. After he scored his first goal for Liverpool – that stunning long-range strike v West Ham (hopefully after Sunday you’ll all be saying “which one?”) – Agger said to reporters “You just have to have courage to do it and maybe that’s what other centre-halves don’t have”. Cocky? Perhaps. But wrong? No, definitely not. He wasn’t talking about the shot itself of course (who needs courage to shoot?). He was talking about stepping forward from defence to receive a square pass in a congested midfield. Even today, in the modern game, it’s rare to see a centre back willing to do this. They don’t like the idea of getting the ball with opponents behind them. The quality they lack is, indeed, courage. Rodgers talked a lot about courage when he first arrived at Anfield. He wanted his players to have more of it because he wanted them to retain possession better than they’d been doing. When we all sighed that big sigh back in October there would have been no Liverpudlian more relieved than Brendan Rodgers. Things are possible when Agger is in the team that are simply impossible when he’s not. Agger committing his future to Liverpool was the first trophy of the season.
* * *
Never underestimate the temptation to hoof! It’s a powerful one. At the end
of a match it’s possible to look at the statistics and conclude that the defence played too many long balls. Yet in the middle
of one it’s hard to be so calm and analytical. For on each single occasion a defender gets the ball you can find a bloody good reason to belt it. That’s why ‘Get Rid!’ has become the English football national anthem over the years. Each individual hoof, in other words, can be justified by the pervading sense of emergency that cloaks all defensive work. But add all those hoofs up and the deplorable result is a team that is always chasing the game. One of the greatest things about Agger is that he doesn’t appear to feel the temptation, let alone succumb to it.
He’s an elegant player and you can tell that as soon as he touches the ball. That first touch is usually immaculate. Most centre-backs, when they collect the ball, tend to fold it into themselves. It’s a safety-first thing. Once the ball is under your knee, or even – in Carra’s case – literally under the sole of your boot it’s yours. No one can take it off you. But, inevitably, what this caution does is kill speed. It also narrows your options for a second touch and you squander any momentum that the rolling ball (ie the pass) has given to you. You see it in Lescott too. He comes to a standstill once he’s controlled the ball and finds it almost impossible to start moving again (no wonder Mancini came for Agger).
Compare and contrast with Agger my friends. The Agger first touch – when appropriate - puts the ball two or three yards ahead of him into space (you can do that at centre back). By the time he touches the ball a second time he’s cancelled out the opposition front line and he’s travelling pretty quickly - and once he’s accelerating into the ball the opposition’s back line takes a step or two backwards. They’re bound to. It’s instinctive and it’s necessary. What that means to Liverpool is a bigger pitch and more space for us between the lines. That becomes even more true if Agger adorns his run on the ball with either a successful feint and dribble (so removing yet another opponent from the script) or caps it with a forward pass to a player already half-turning towards the opposition goal. People talk about ‘defending from the front’. If you do that well you give your team a real chance. But ‘attacking from the back’? That’s harder because there’s inherent risk involved. But when Agger is carrying ball at speed into those gaps you realise what a potent thing it is to have a creator in your back line.
What’s also wonderful about this archetypal Agger move is the economy of effort involved. The skill is tremendous, the balance awesome, but the actual movement involved is actually very small. All professional football more or less conforms to the sporting equivalent of the ‘butterfly effect’ in the sense that small movements have big and unanticipated consequences - and no player illustrates this better than Danny Agger. That dropped shoulder of his is enough to have a knock-on effect all over the pitch. I love this about him. If he doesn’t like what he sees in front of him Agger is able to change what he sees! He simply flaps his wing. He does so usually by an abrupt movement with the ball, perhaps by setting off on an unexpected tangent. Or he just drops his left shoulder and sees three or four opponents lose their balance. It might be slight and it might be momentary, but it’s usually enough to open up a bit of space for him to use and to put his team on the front-foot instead of the back. I know this. Everything on the pitch changes when he does it.
* * *
I’ve talked about courage on the ball but there’s another type of courage too in football. It’s called the ability to rise above mistakes. Agger has this too, and two different examples come to mind. The first was the night he was bullied by Drogba at the Bridge in the European Cup semi. Even I thought that he might be ‘rested’ for the return leg and that the old trooper Sami Hyypia would be called to the colours – or, at the very least, that Carragher might be detailed to mark Drogba at Anfield. But neither of these things happened. Rafa stuck to what he wanted and it was Agger v Drogba Round 2.
At one point early in the game Chelsea managed to squirrel the ball into the right-hand channel and Agger and Drogba went shoulder to shoulder in pursuit of the ball. You feared the worst. You waited to see Danny spinning off into a sideways shuffle and Drogba, unmolested, bearing down on the goal. I’m sure I shut my eyes. Of course when they opened it was to see Drogba sitting in a heap in front of the Kop and Agger taking the ball the other way. It was the start to a remarkable evening for the young lad. The crashing goal was the highlight (the most difficult shot in football too, coming square on to the favoured foot), but the whole game was a testament to an indomitable spirit. I think it was after that performance that I began to think he might one day belong with Hansen and Lawrenson at the very apex of the Liverpool centre-back tradition.
The second example was the Wigan cock-up of three or four seasons ago. For once he was dispossessed on the ball at the back and the centre-forward practically walked the ball into the empty net. “That’ll put him back a few weeks”, I thought to myself. Minutes later he got the ball again in an identical position. A hoof would have been forgiveable. Once bitten and all that. But Agger obviously thought different. A dropped shoulder, a shimmy, a one-two and he was suddenly dancing along Wigan’s goal-line and pulling the ball back for an equaliser. Most footballers would have hidden from the embarrassment of moments ago. Danny decided to erase it.
Some will say that because Danny is an artist on the ball he must, as a corollary, be a bit of a soft touch when the opposition have it. I don’t know where that idea comes from but it’s a tenacious one in British football. Even such skilful half-backs (as they were then) as Dave MacKay or our own Tommy Smith are now remembered exclusively as ‘hard men’. It’s as if we fall for the division of labour imposed on our economy by capitalism and refuse to accept that the artist and the artisan can exist inside the same breast. There’s always one who grunts and one who sighs. Danny Agger, too, suffers from this failure of collective imagination. Good on the ball therefore a bit suspect in the tackle. Capable of back-heeling a goal (as he did v Benfica) and therefore not able to head one in a goal-mouth melee (must have been dreaming v Southampton). Delicate in his touch therefore no thunder in his boots.
But it’s not true. Agger’s tackle is ferocious when it needs to be. He attacks the ball well on the ground and in the air (I’d say with even more determination than Skrtel, who tends to reserve his most aggressive tackles to players at the side of him, not in front of him). Famously, Torres found out about Agger’s combative side when he swapped his red shirt for a blue one. The elbow that hammered into his neck was technically a little bit illegal but it was a delivered by a fan of Liverpool FC and not just a footballer. You sort of had to let it stand.
I started with a quote from a couple of months ago. I’ll finish with one from September 2010. “The coach has a philosophy that players up front play the football and a different style prevails at the back. But that’s not my philosophy. That’s not the type of footballer I am. I prefer keeping the ball on the ground. And I’ll keep doing that!” You probably remember it. The sheer fucking defiance! It was said by Danny moments after our defeat at Old Trafford when Hodgson had called him from the bench for the last few minutes and, no doubt, implored him to put a few ‘in the mixer’.
It was a bad time for all of us. It’s over now. We have a different manager. We value a different ‘philosophy’. Danny’s still here. He’s staying here. He’s only 27. I reckon the best is yet to come.