It was a moment that has perhaps changed the complexion of this season; as Jordan Pickford charged into Virgil van Dijk late on in the Merseyside Derby, Liverpool fans were suddenly fearing the worst.
Why Virgil van Dijk Injury Blows the Title Race Wide Open
Van Dijk Injury
The Dutchman was not getting back to his feet and had pain etched all over his face. Liverpool have generally had good fortune when it comes to injuries to key players. But, now, without their star centre-half, they are about to be tested like never before.
The reaction to van Dijk potentially being out for the season with an anterior cruciate ligament injury tells the story. This is a man who transformed a Liverpool defence that had previously hindered their attempts to challenge for a maiden Premier League title. Since his arrival for £75 million in January 2018, van Dijk has missed just one Premier League game; his presence has delivered the Reds a total of 196 points – 97 in 2018-19 and 99 in their rampant title triumph last season.
Least Goals Conceded 2018/19
Further stats underline how important van Dijk is to the Liverpool cause. The Reds conceded just 22 goals in the Premier League in 2018-19 – the fewest of any club in Europe’s top six leagues.
Last season, they conceded 33, which was the fewest in the league. Furthermore, of players to have played over 50 games during this period, only Manchester City’s Aymeric Laporte and Kyle Walker averaged more minutes per goal conceded than the Dutchman.
Overall, Liverpool have conceded just 78 goals in van Dijk’s 95 Premier League starts, keeping 44 clean sheets in the process. In contrast, in the 95 league games before then, Klopp’s men shipped 117 goals, with only 29 clean sheets.
But it is results that count. Liverpool’s win rate with van Dijk (130 games) sits at an impressive 70%. Without him (13 games) it is 46%, according to BBC Sport.
Van Dijk’s Key Attributes
Van Dijk boasts a plethora of attributes that very few centre-backs in Europe can match. Firstly, his height, strength, pace and athleticism makes him an ominous presence for opposition attackers, particularly when it comes to one on ones. In 2018-19, he went over 1,000 minutes without being dribbled past once; he is the only player in Europe’s top five leagues to do this. In addition, his 74.4% success rate in one-on-one duels is the best of any player involved in more than 100 duels since his debut in 2018.
Another major attribute of van Dijk is his aerial presence. During his time at Liverpool, he ranks second for duel success rate in the air (74.6% of 622 duels). Only teammate Joel Matip (75.7% of 173) betters him in this metric. His height and commanding presence in the air has given Klopp’s side security from set-pieces, crosses, and long balls from opposition teams.
All the numbers emphasise the importance and influence of Van Dijk. But, his long-term injury now presents a serious challenge of defending their Premier League title in this most unpredictable season.
Carragher Says van Dijk Injury ‘Blows the Title Race Open’
“Every team has three or four players in every title-winning team or a team who think they can win the title,” Jamie Carragher told Sky Sports. “And if one of those players is missing, no matter how good your manager is, no matter how big your squad is, you can’t cover for them because they’re outstanding,”
“I think it blows the title race wide open, I really do. I still felt at the start of this season Liverpool were the team to beat. I think with van Dijk being out for what looks like the whole season now, I think it’s going to be all on for Liverpool. I think they certainly have to go into the market in January, and not just because of van Dijk’s injury, but Liverpool were weak in that area anyway. They lost (Dejan) Lovren before the start of the season now the other players in those positions are very injury prone.”
Van Dijk Injury: The Alternatives
As Carragher states, the option is there for Liverpool to add another centre-half in January. Yet, the Reds have eleven Premier League and numerous other cup matches until then to try and maintain a stable ship. The worry for Klopp and others, however, is that the current options are injury prone and unreliable.
Joel Matip, who made just nine Premier League appearances last season, picked up a knock in the draw against Everton on Saturday. Meanwhile, Joe Gomez has been inconsistent since recovering from a broken leg 18 months ago.
Even the usually positive Klopp is uncertain about the future. “We know our vice-captain and best centre-back in the world is not playing for us for a long time,” he said before Liverpool’s trip to Ajax. We will try to find solutions, but I have no idea how they will look.”
Matip and Gomez
However, stats show that, should they stay fit, Matip and Gomez could do a good job. As mentioned before, Matip possesses good aerial presence and has made far more tackles (135) in fewer games (87) than van Dijk (79 in 95) as well as making more interceptions (125).
Gomez is yet to make an error leading directly to a goal, while also boasting more tackles than van Dijk (111 in 76) and averaging an impressive 100 minutes per goal conceded in the Premier League.
There is also the option of Fabinho, who can use his reading of the game from central midfield to fill in when required.
Rhys Williams, Sepp van den Berg, Nathaniel Phillips and Billy Koumetio are younger, less experienced alternatives.
Yet, it will be hard for Liverpool to overcome the fact that they have lost their defensive leader, the Premier League’s best defender, and are short on back-up.
Liverpool now step into the unknown, and the defence of their Premier League title may well depend on how they cope with van Dijk’s injury and the cavernous hole he leaves in the squad.