From humiliation at Villa Park to late VAR denial at Goodison Park, Liverpool’s title defence hasn’t been without its dramas thus far. And as Virgil van Dijk limped towards the makeshift away dressing room, having been wiped out by Jordan Pickford, you could almost sense that the drama was on the verge of reaching its peak; as though the doctor’s verdict could be a definitive one in the season.
VAR’s denial of a Jordan Henderson winner briefly stole the frontpages, but, as the doctor’s verdict reached Liverpool’s ears, it was the news of Van Dijk’s lengthy, and likely season-ending, spell on the sidelines which took centre stage.
Ask those on the red side of Merseyside for worse injury news, and they couldn’t possibly give it because, after all, the Dutchman is arguably the most important player in recent Liverpool history. Losing him for one game sends shivers down the Liverpool spines as they reminisce of the calamitous and vulnerable defensive errors made before the Dutchman’s arrival.
Losing Van Dijk for a season seemed impossible; unthinkable, even. Yet, here Jurgen Klopp is; here Liverpool are, tasked with the job or replacing the seemingly irreplaceable or risk losing their English crown after just winning it back.
How Liverpool Will Look to Cope Without Virgil van Dijk
Time for Joel Matip to Step Up Permanently
When fully fit, Joel Matip provides Liverpool with the next best thing to Van Dijk. He adds the necessary composure, both on and off the ball, needed to create an impenetrable Liverpool backline next to the Dutchman; calmness that Joe Gomez lacks at times.
So when the former Schalke man made his return against Everton, sighs of relief would have been heard around a Liverpool backline which looked all too uncharacteristically panicked against Aston Villa and co. His return provided Jurgen Klopp with the ideal solution to his defensive troubles.
The only issue is, however, take the presence of Van Dijk away from Matip and, all of a sudden, that composure doesn’t look as assured and, the defensive shine soon looks rusty as the old mistakes begin to reappear for all to see. And that is exactly what happened at Goodison Park.
Simple aerial errors last seen in a Liverpool shirt in 2018 crept into the Reds performance to hand Everton a point. Matip and Gomez failed to fulfil the dominant role of Van Dijk, creating instead a fairly penetrable partnership.
As a whole, Matip, in particular, was exceptional throughout, but, it is those little details and slight lapses of judgment that can prove to be the all too damming difference between lifting the title a high and collecting a runners up medal; a difference Liverpool must avoid this season.
Matip has proven his class next to Van Dijk; now, he must do it again in the absence of the Dutchman as he tasked with taking centre stage to guide the Liverpool defence towards another league title.
Fabinho the Key
Whether it be at the base of midfield, or, as seen against Chelsea, the heart of the defence, Fabinho often proves to be Mr reliable in a Liverpool shirt. And now, more than ever, he’ll be asked to live up to that title.
With Thiago Alcantara, Jordan Henderson and Georginio Wijnaldum, alongside many others capable, left to battle it out in midfield, too, the Brazilian has the opportunity to solve Jurgen Klopp’s fast approaching centre-back problem.
He possesses similar traits to that of Van Dijk, too. His passing, often pristinely distributed, can replace the Dutchman’s searching long balls into the likes of Mohamed Salah, whilst, his overhanging frame should provide the aerial cover needed, especially if placed next to Joel Matip.
It will be a tough ask to replace Van Dijk, but it is clear that Fabinho has the ability to, at the very least, provide adequate cover for his absent teammate. Jurgen Klopp could use this as the perfect opportunity to inadvertently add another world-class centre-back to his ranks.
Make or Break for Joe Gomez
Since the start of the season, it is fair to say that Joe Gomez has been inconsistent with outstanding performances against the likes of Arsenal followed by a complete capitulation against the likes of Aston Villa. Next to Virgil van Dijk, the inconsistencies were well hidden for the most part. Now the Dutchman is out for the season, though, those inconsistencies could be laid bare for all to see.
The truth is, too, that the Englishman’s position in the Liverpool backline was under threat upon Joel Matip’s return. An injury to Van Dijk may have thrown him back into the deep end, but, with Fabinho an option for Klopp to consider, the next seven months could be make or break for Joe Gomez and his Liverpool career.
If form is anything to go by, Liverpool will look towards the more recently reliable Fabinho to fill the gaping void left by Van Dijk. The chance is there for Gomez to become a star if he performs, however, but recent form suggests the Liverpool defence is all too vulnerable with the Englishman at its heart.
Liverpool Must do What Manchester City Couldn’t in Absence of Virgil van Dijk
To replace Van Dijk’s imperious presence in the backline, Jurgen Klopp and Liverpool must do what Manchester City failed so miserably at doing last season. Aymeric Laporte’s season-ending injury proved all too defining for Manchester City’s title hopes; defensively, they failed to provide adequate solutions and, ultimately, never recovered.
Liverpool must avoid a replication of Pep Guardiola’s shortcomings last season; players, in Van Dijk’s absence, must step up where Manchester City’s men didn’t. It’s easier said than done, yes, but the Liverpool squad is more than one man; the title winners are a team not just consisting of one individual.
The injury must not become one which defines the Liverpool title defence, but one which unlocks a hidden solution to take Jurgen Klopp’s men to glory once again. Whether that solution is Fabinho, Joe Gomez, Joel Matip or a combination of all three, Liverpool must find it, and quick.
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