The general consensus appears to be that Liverpool’s season is finished with Virgil van Dijk set to miss its remainder, but opposition teams will do well not to write the Reds off throughout the season.
Van Dijk is a vital piece of Liverpool’s team, arguably the best centre-back in world football and a key leader in the dressing room and his impact on the side in all areas will be felt in his absence.
Fabinho has been Jurgen Klopp’s vindication already this season with two stellar performances at centre half, while Joe Gomez and Joel Matip will relish in the opportunity to assert themselves as next in line to take over the defence.
Van Dijk’s ever-presence in the side has coincided with their ascension to the heights of the European game as he played every minute of the Premier League-winning season last term while starting every game and missing only 35 minutes the campaign previous.
The same can be said in Europe as the no.4 missed just one game through suspension on the way to Liverpool’s victory in Madrid in 2019 and completed every match in last year’s brief Champions League campaign.
It is difficult then to measure the perils of van Dijk being out of the side as it doesn’t happen too often, especially when the games that he has missed have been in cup competitions where second-string sides have been fielded.
That said, the period before his arrival at Anfield gives an insight into how influential he was in the team’s transformation and what Klopp might be missing without him on the pitch.
In the first 31 league and Champions League games of the season, Liverpool conceded 37 goals, going at more than one per game.
Liverpool lost 1-0 to Swansea City on van Dijk’s league debut, from where he missed just one game in each competition, both of which actually resulted in clean sheets for Liverpool – a 3-0 win over Huddersfield Town and a 0-0 draw at home to Porto.
Even after his arrival, Liverpool still averaged a goal against per game with 20 concessions in as many fixtures, but ultimately steadied the ship after a bumpy opening to reach the Champions League final in Kyiv and secure a top four place in the league.
Further improvement came with the signings of Alisson and Fabinho the season after, as Liverpool conceded just 22 league goals and essentially defended their way to a win in the Champions League final against Spurs, with van Dijk claiming PFA and UEFA Player of the Year honours.
The Dutchman was nominated for PFA Player of the Year again last season as he helped Liverpool to the best defensive record for the second season running, although with an increase of 11 goals conceded.
This season has proven unpredictable and somewhat out of left-field, perhaps down to a lack of fans and the packed schedule, but nonetheless Liverpool have conceded 12 goals in four games in the league with van Dijk, including of course the seven at Aston Villa.
He was even culpable for one of those 12, with an errant clearance playing in Patrick Bamford for Leeds United’s second equaliser on opening day at Anfield, so it hasn’t all been quite the smooth sailing we have come to expect.
This is all eerily resemblant of Manchester City losing Aymeric Laporte early into last season, proving to be a big loss as they fell well short of the Reds in the title race.
The key differences there are that the loss of Vincent Kompany, who left the club for Anderlecht, was equally as impactful as well as the fact that only one player played more than 20 games at centre-back all season - a midfielder in Fernandinho.
Six players started at centre back for the Citizens last season with only two of them actually playing more often than Laporte, who only made 14 appearances.
In Gomez and Matip, Liverpool have two centre backs that are better than each of City’s other options from last season and, provided they achieve the consistency Pep Guardiola missed from his selection, they are more than capable of steering the Reds to success.
Statistically, those two are very similar to van Dijk both from a defensive standpoint but also, and quite importantly, offensively as ball carriers to start the build-up and as set piece threats, although the Dutchman is quite dominant in that area.
Van Dijk as an attacking threat compared to Gomez and Matip
|Stat||Van Dijk (19/20)||Gomez (19/20)||Matip (18/19)|
|Shots per 90||1||0.5||0.5|
|Touches per 90||94.4||99.1||92.6|
|Passes per 90||84.8||88.4||78.8|
|Long balls per 90||10||9.8||7.4|
|Pass completion %||89%||88%||87%|
|*League minutes only|
Liverpool have built their philosophy on intensity and defending from the front, but this season the likes of Roberto Firmino up front and Naby Keita in midfield have failed to meet expectations with regards to their pressing and defensive statistics.
This period and the difficulty they have encountered with the press could provide an opportunity for Klopp to tinker with the system, perhaps reverting to a double-pivot midfield to provide extra rigidity in front of the two centre-halves and to free a midfielder higher up in the first phase of the press.
Even a three-at-the-back formation, while unlikely, wouldn’t be such a strange idea. With the full-backs bombing forward, an extra number in defence could help the side remain compact and stem the threat of counterattacks without compromising attacking impetus.
Liverpool will surely be considering a move in the January window, but that is still more than two months away and they will have to navigate 11 league games and the entire Champions League group stage at the very least before any potential new arrival.
Early signs of Liverpool’s response in the meantime were positive as they shut out Ajax on Wednesday night, with Fabinho proving a particularly adept fill-in, and Alisson's imminent return is set to provide another boost.
There is no doubting van Dijk’s absence will be felt and it will make retaining the Premier League and challenging in Europe a much more difficult task.
But with Klopp at the helm and the tactical and mental potential of a squad full of world-class players, Liverpool are very much still in the race for major silverware and remain a feared opposition without their big no.4.