Graham Ruthven reflects on the implications of defending Premier League champions Liverpool losing Virgil van Dijk to a long-term injury.
For 79 minutes of Saturday’s Merseyside derby, an illustration was provided of what Liverpool without Alisson Becker and Virgil van Dijk look like. The Premier League champions were leading 1-0 at the time of the latter’s withdrawal due to injury. By full time, they had been pegged back to 2-2.
Everton might have scored a third or even a fourth had Richarlison been more clinical.
It would be overly simplistic to put the defensive vulnerabilities Liverpool suffered from on derby day down to Van Dijk’s absence, but the Reds almost certainly would have stood a better chance of stopping both Everton goals with the Dutchman still on the pitch. Both goals came from crosses into the area of the pitch he would have occupied.
Van Dijk now look set to miss the majority, if not the entire, season after the club confirmed he damaged his anterior cruciate ligament when Jordan Pickford crashed into him just minutes after kick-off.
Liverpool have already had to absorb an injury to Alisson early on this season, with the Brazilian goalkeeper out for another month. The drop off in quality between Alisson and his deputy, Adrian, is drastic, as demonstrated by the errors made in the 7-2 capitulation against Aston Villa before the international break.
Liverpool simply can’t count on Adrian like they can Alisson.
The six month period which saw Liverpool sign Alisson and Van Dijk in successive transfer windows proved to be a turning point in the club’s recent history, certainly in their development under Jurgen Klopp. Liverpool were revered for their exhilarating attacking play, but targeted for their frailty at the back. The Reds addressed this by capturing the best goalkeeper and centre back on the market.
In Diogo Jota, Takumi Minamino and Divock Origi, Klopp has depth to provide cover for Roberto Firmino, Sadio Mane and Mohamed Salah should any of his first choice front three be unavailable. That depth doesn’t exist behind Alisson and Van Dijk and Liverpool could pay for that over the coming weeks.
Van Dijk’s injury has the potential to be as disruptive to Liverpool’s season as Aymeric Laporte’s was to Manchester City’s last term. Coupled with the absence of Alisson, Liverpool’s defensive foundation has been ripped out from underneath them. We will now discover whether the rest of their team can stand on its own.
City found out just how important Laporte is to them last season, with the Frenchman missing the majority of the campaign.
Not only is Laporte Pep Guardiola’s strongest defensive presence, he is the one who frequently starts Manchester City’s passing moves from deep. Without him, they also lacked their first line of attack.
There are distinct similarities to draw between the role Laporte plays for City and the one Van Dijk performs for Liverpool. The Dutchman was the Reds’ most prolific long passer last season, averaging 5.4 long balls per 90 minutes. Van Dijk’s balls from deep into Mane and Salah give Liverpool a different dimension and keep them from becoming predictable.
Klopp could deploy Fabinho as a centre back in Van Dijk’s absence to ensure his side retain this dimension, but the Brazilian is a midfielder by trade. There would be a trade off in terms of Fabinho’s inferior defensive instincts. In the big games against the best opponents, Liverpool might find themselves exposed.
With tricky games against Ajax, Atalanta and Man City on the horizon over the next month, Liverpool now face a defining stretch in their season.
Without Alisson and Van Dijk, Klopp may have to devise a new game plan rather than hope second rate replacements can allow his team to keep using the strategy that has worked so well for them over the last two campaigns.
For the neutral, this bodes well. A tighter race at the top of the Premier League could well be the result of all that has recently afflicted the defending champions.
Alisson and Van Dijk turned Liverpool into title challengers, so can they still be title challengers without them? We are about to find out.