When Liverpool went looking for a centre back four years ago, they watched no fewer than 34 candidates play 15 games apiece. When it came to those with potential to develop, Virgil van Dijk emerged top in every category, from aerial prowess and recovery speed to composure and the respect of his colleagues.
It’s the spatial awareness, the calmness, the height, the goals and the guidance for Joe Gomez and Joel Matip who are poorer without him, which they will now miss. As well as the diagonal passes which propel Liverpool ahead on the counter attack and were integral to last year’s 3-1 away win at Bayern Munich, in which Van Dijk also scored.
Can Liverpool possibly retain the Premier League if, as seems possible, van Dijk will be out all season with the ACL injury which will require surgery. ‘I would say no, says the BBC’s Mark Lawrenson. ‘His performances don’t change but he helps everyone around him and makes them better. He’s a talker; a leader. He is irreplaceable.’
Joel Matip now must step up to the plate as Liverpool suffer a huge defensive injury
Virgil van Dijk will be out all season with the ACL injury which will require surgery
Jurgen Klopp insisted that Liverpool have to regroup. ‘Virgil will get over it, 100 per cent, and today is already the first day of the recovery,’ he said.
But he was already a centre half down, having sanctioned Dejan Lovren’s sale to Zenit Saint Petersburg this summer, so it will be for Joel Matip – injury-prone and also undergoing a muscular scan after Saturday’s derby – as well as Joe Gomez – a work-in-progress with a tendency to adopt the wrong body shape at key moments and hit trouble – to step up.
So far, Matip, 29, has not looked like a leader though it’s possible, of course, that this crisis will turn him into a more vocal defender, conscious that this is his moment to guide Gomez, 23. Unexpected outcomes can come from adversity. When Kenny Dalglish missed two months of the 1983/84 season after Kevin Moran smashed his jaw, Paul Walsh played and flourished.
It’s possible that Fabinho, impressive in van Dijk’s shoes when stepping in for him in the 0-0 home leg against Bayern, could become one of Klopp’s centre halves of choice, though Lawrenson sees the Brazilian possibly sitting slightly deeper in front of the defensive back two ‘to form a triangle with the centre backs.’
Jurgen Klopp insisted that Liverpool have to regroup with Matip and Joe Gomez in defence
Another alternative is a three-man defence of Matip, Gomez and Fabinho, though that would mean Andy Robertson and Trent Alexander-Arnold operating as pure wingers, which would be detrimental. ‘In their current position they’ve got acres to run into and their starting position is a defensive position,’ Lawrenson says. ‘With three at the back they become two midfield players, playing on the half turn in more congested space.’
Klopp will surely go back into the transfer market in January, not least because Lovren’s departure has left him short, though the problem is that centre half is currently a premium position, which has driven up the price.
Liverpool have actively looked in Germany, asking about Schalke’s combative Turkish centre half Ozan Kabak – a more aggressive version of Matip – though after hearing the £36.2million price, they did not proceed down that route. Malick Thiaw, the young Finn who has captained Schalke’s under 19s and briefly appeared for the senior side, has also been of interest.
Liverpool and Manchester City’s scouts are cut from the same cloth so Seville centre half Jules Kounde will be well known to Klopp, though he, like Thiaw, has very little experience. Liverpool like to buy defenders who, like Gomez, can develop at full back and be adapted to central defence.
They were surprised that Bristol City’s England under-21 international Lloyd Kelly signed for Bournemouth, rather than them, last year. They like Brighton’s Ben White, though have reservations about his height and have considered Burnley’s James Tarkowski in the past.
Matip, 29, has not looked like a leader in his career but this crisis could turn him more vocal
The truth is that Klopp’s huge demands on centre backs makes buying one for immediate use fiendishly difficult. ‘Because the team push up and press you need the pace to recover and get back,’ says Lawrenson.
‘You need to back yourself in a foot race over 30 yards.’ That might rule out thoughts of bringing Conor Coady, a leader and extremely effective defender, home to Liverpool from Wolves.
There is consolation for Liverpool in that the rest of the Premier League big guns are not exactly pulling up trees and that van Dijk has generally proved so durable.
The moment above all others which left Klopp and his staff convinced they’d signed the right man came late against Tottenham at Anfield last season when Moussa Sissoko led a two-v-one breakaway. Van Dijk held his ground, forcing Sissoko to rush his chance and miss. Van Dijk took a very heavy blow to the ankle in the process and left the stadium in an ice pack. He was back in the team six days later.
This lay-off will be considerably longer though and even if the Dutchman is back ahead of time, will the damage have already been done?