One of the most hotly anticipated Merseyside derbies in recent years resulted in a great deal of controversy. The two sides drew 2-2 with Richarlison being sent off for Everton and Liverpool being denied a late Jordan Henderson winner with Sadio Mane adjudged to have been fractionally offside in the build-up. However, the biggest talking point of the weekend was the injury to the imperious Virgil Van Dijk, who was on the receiving end of a reckless challenge by Everton ‘keeper Jordan Pickford, made worse by the fact that Van Dijk was offside so neither a penalty nor a red card were awarded. Liverpool will be disappointed not to have won the game, especially with the questionable decisions by the VAR official but the damage of losing Van Dijk, potentially for the remainder of the season, could be far more severe.
Since Liverpool signed Van Dijk for £75m from Southampton in 2018 he has been a rock in their defence and is arguably Liverpool’s most important signing, aside form perhaps Alisson, in Liverpool’s successful quest for European and Premier League glory. He oozes class and confidence and has a settling air about him which no doubt rubs off on his teammates. He is a natural leader and arguably the best defender in world football right now with many strikers appearing beaten by the mere presence of him on the team sheet before a ball is even kicked. This post explores how Liverpool may look to cope with the loss of the Dutchman and if indeed they can cope with this loss.
Liverpool let central defender Dejan Lovren leave the club to join Zenit St Petersburg in the summer and didn’t sign a replacement. While Lovren was fourth choice centre back at Liverpool at the time of his departure the failure to replace him did leave them short at the back prior to Van Dijk’s injury, especially when you consider Joel Matip’s injuries in his time at the club. Now that Van Dijk is out injured, Liverpool’s only two first-team centre-halves are Matip and Joe Gomez. They will have to establish a partnership straight away and both have always looked a better player with Van Dijk alongside them which says a lot about the Dutchman himself.
Highly-rated young defender Sepp Van den Berg was brought to the club last summer from Dutch club PEC Zwolle but at 18 years of age and without a single Premier League appearance to his name it seems unlikely that Jurgen Klopp will throw him in at the deep end unless forced to. Fabinho can play at the back and has done in spells in his time at Liverpool when injuries have left their options scarce but by putting him in defence Liverpool lose his influence at the base of their midfield. He is key to the way Liverpool play and is the man that provides the balance that allows the midfield and full-backs to get forward and support the front three.
Last season it was clear to see how much Manchester City struggled once star defender Aymeric Laporte was injured for a prolonged period, especially given the club had lost Vincent Kompany in the summer. This could be an almost identical situation; even more so if Fabinho is asked to play at the back. For City, Fernandinho was the player asked to transition from midfield to defence, although this process had already started with him moving deeper to accommodate Rodri in midfield prior to the injury to Laporte. Neither Gomez or Matip appear to have the leadership qualities of Van Dijk as was the case with the City defenders who were asked to replace Laporte and the effects of this on their solidity was evident for all to see. Liverpool will be desperate for this not to be the case for them as it could be the difference between retaining the Premier League title and seeing it go elsewhere.
One way that Liverpool could seek to limit the damage of the loss of Van Dijk would be a slight tweak to their tactics. This could see them play with Gomez and Matip at the heart of the defence but a change in the midfield to provide better protection to the back four. Klopp is unlikely to sway from his favoured 4-3-3 formation, however, we could see a slight tweak in that he plays with two deeper midfielders with one midfielder just in front of them, more in the mould of a 4-2-3-1 formation. This could see Fabinho and Jordan Henderson sitting deeper and one of Thiago Alcantara, Gini Wijnaldum or Naby Keita playing slightly more advanced. Thiago could also play the deeper role as he often did at Bayern and with his superior passing ability to the alternative options this could be a good way of bypassing high-pressing sides or speeding up play to try and beat a low-block which is often the way teams play against the champions.
Another tactical tweak that could be made by Klopp and his side is to defend less aggressively and concede some possession by dropping the back line a little deeper. Even with Van Dijk in the side this was an approach that left Liverpool vulnerable defensively as highlighted in emphatic fashion by Aston Villa’s seven goals in their last fixture before the international break. It would significantly reduce the risk of exposing the new defensive partnership who also may not be able to play offside as effectively as an established back four could.
One other option that Liverpool have would be to explore the free agent market, although this may leave them with slim pickings. One player who is currently unattched is ex-Real Madrid and Benfica defender Ezequiel Garay after his four-year spell at Valencia came to an end this summer. Despite no fee being paid this signing would still provide an element of risk. Garay is 34 years-old and ended his Valencia contract early in February of this year to allow an alternative player to be signed, following a crucial ligament injury to his right knee which saw him side-lined for the remainder of his contract. He hasn’t played since and is still coming back from the injury and this, coupled with his age, could mean that even if he is signed he will not be ready to play. However, with fixtures always coming thick and fast and European football to contend with another body in the squad could prove invaluable and, with Garay’s experience, it could prove an astute piece of business.
How Liverpool will cope with the loss of Van Dijk remains to be seen but it will certainly be interesting to see how their season develops without him. It has often been said that he was the difference between Liverpool being a good side and a title-winning side and this period on the side-lines could either prove or disprove that notion. The other players in the squad will have to step up and it could give Gomez and Matip a chance to flourish, however the lack of defensive depth will remain a concern. Can Liverpool challenge for titles with their world-class Dutchman? We’re about to find out.