Following a horrific challenge from Jordan Pickford in Saturday’s Merseyside Derby, Liverpool have confirmed that star centre-back Virgil van Dijk will need to undergo surgery due to damage to his knee ligaments.
While they refused to confirm the timescale of the Dutchman’s recovery, it has been reported that van Dijk now faces a fight to play again this season, with his type of ACL injury usually seeing a layoff of between six to twelve months.
That no doubt weakens Liverpool’s chances of successfully defending the Premier League title; few teams in world football would be able to lose such a talented player without suffering adverse effects.
But what other consequences could there be for the Reds should van Dijk be sidelined for as long as expected? Below, GIVEMESPORT outline six things that could happen as a result of the Liverpool lynchpin’s prolonged absence…
Teams target the core of Liverpool’s defence
You can count on this one from the moment Liverpool kick off against Sheffield United this weekend – Premier League teams will be desperate to see how the heart of the Reds’ defence holds out in van Dijk’s absence and will target it early on in the hope it quickly emerges as a soft underbelly for the reigning champions.
We’ve already seen teams hit Liverpool down the channels to good effect this season, most notably Aston Villa in their shock 7-2 romping, so now the Anfield outfit are without their star defender, they can expect more pressure between centre-half and full-back, as well as long balls testing Joe Gomez and Joel Matip face-on to see if the ad hoc pairing are organised enough to handle direct play.
Of course, it would be a disservice to Gomez and Matip to suggest they can’t handle that kind of attention; they’re both talented centre-halves in their own right. But van Dijk’s leadership, organisation and dominance in the air does create a void that teams will look to take advantage of while the Liverpool duo are still getting to grips with how exactly they fill it.
End of the high line
For the reasons mentioned above, Liverpool’s high line already looks a little suspect. For all the advantages it gives them when they win the ball back in more progressive areas of the field, it has left their centre-backs far too exposed at times this season.
When van Dijk’s been at the top of his game, Liverpool on the most part have managed to get away with it. But whether they’ll be able to do the same in the Dutchman’s absence, without a defender as confident in one-on-one situations or as naturally imperious in all-round play, ultimately remains to be seen.
That may well force Klopp into a tactical compromise, instructing his defence to set up a little deeper and give themselves a better chance of avoiding sweeping counter attacks by keeping more bodies goal-side.
Liverpool certainly have the pace up front to play 10 yards further back and give Sadio Mane and Mohamed Salah more space to run into, but it will mean more work for the midfielders in between.
Fabinho used more sparingly
Having failed to add an experienced centre-back to their squad this summer, at this moment in time Fabinho for all intents and purposes is Liverpool’s third-choice central defender. It’s a role the Brazilian has played before – starting there five times for the Reds according to Transfermarkt – and Klopp will trust him to do a decent job in the heart of defence.
It could even be argued his ability to build play from the back is superior to Matip and Gomez’s, and at least when Liverpool are in possession, he could therefore actually be the better candidate to fill van Dijk’s void.
But with such a key player missing for such an extended period and Liverpool’s next best centre-back options being youngsters Rhys Williams and Sepp van der Berg, the Anfield gaffer might well feel obliged to use Fabinho sparingly, regardless of the role he’d be taking up in the starting XI.
Should the worst happen, Liverpool would be left woefully short at centre-back – just imagine Gomez serving as the more experienced defender alongside van der Berg or Williams – so heeding caution by only playing Fabinho in the games he’s truly needed for may be deemed necessary.
Unfortunately though, that does take something away from Liverpool’s midfield and creates a new kind of problem. As Liverpool’s only out-and-out holding midfielder, resting Fabinho actually reduces the protection the defence receives, and forces Klopp to play another middle man in a less preferred role.
Gomez and Matip given chance to build partnership
Of course, not every consequence has to be negative and when key players are either sold or suffer injuries, it gives other members of the squad a chance to step up and fill their void.
And if there’s one silver lining for Liverpool’s defenders, it’s that they now know – barring another serious injury – exactly what the back four will look like for the rest of the campaign, eliminating the slight ambiguity around who’ll be van Dijk’s partner with Gomez and Matip already trading places at times this season.
Indeed, Liverpool’s defence for the majority of their games is now set in stone, and that does come with one huge advantage in the level of familiarity it provides. Gomez and Matip will be given the time to truly gel as a partnership, while Andrew Robertson and Trent Alexander-Arnold, in turn, can work alongside them to perfect the structure, organisation and offensive timing of the back four.
Considering how formidable the back four already is, even with some rotation here and there, it shouldn’t take them long to benefit from playing week-in, week-out and after a few months that new-found consistency might be just as influential as van Dijk’s qualities as an individual.
A new centre-back arrives in January
It was something of a surprise that Liverpool didn’t sign a centre-back during the transfer window, with a fourth option being one of the few obvious gaps in what is otherwise a pretty well-stacked squad.
Liverpool have a strong record in the transfer market and Kopp and Michael Edwards have shown nothing in their time together if not a willingness to be patient and bring in the right players at the right time, however the injury to their star centre-back does force the club’s hand.
They simply need another experienced body in there – the 2020 equivalent of Ragnar Klavan, if you will – to ensure the defence can cope if injury strikes again. Jamie Carragher has already mooted Conor Coady as a potential addition and considering his combination of passing range, defensive nous and Premier League experience, he’d certainly be a decent option should Wolves be open to selling.
Aside from that, Liverpool scouts reportedly kept tabs on Brighton’s Ben White during his loan spell at Leeds last season and he’s the kind of mid-season signing who’d provide immediate cover plus the potential to develop into a first-team star in the future.
Rhys Williams gets Champions League run-out
There are no easy games in the Champions League but in Group D rivals FC Midtjylland, Liverpool face one of the competition’s biggest underdogs.
And seeing as they’ll travel to Denmark in the final match day of the group stages, there’s a very real possibility that Liverpool will have their advancement to the knockout rounds tied up by then – Atalanta are an incredibly potent side but remain inexperienced at Champions League level, while Ajax always boast quality but look a lot less imposing now Donny van de Beek and Hakim Ziyech have moved on.
That, in turn, may well pave the way for the aforementioned Williams to make his Champions League debut for the Mersysiders, having been included on their B list for the tournament. He was given a long-term contract in September and played the full ninety minutes in Liverpool’s scoreless EFL Cup draw with Arsenal (which they lost on penalties), so Klopp clearly rates him.
An outing on the European stage in a dead rubber might be the next step in his development and van Dijk’s injury allows the opportunity for that.
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