When Virgil van Dijk limped out of Liverpool’s Merseyside derby clash with Everton on Saturday just five minutes into the 2-2 draw, following a shocking challenge by goalkeeper Jordan Pickford, it brought an incredible personal record to an end.
In between an injury-enforced substitution against Southampton at Anfield in September 2018 and the Pickford incident, which has left Van Dijk with a cruciate ligament injury that could force him to miss the remainder of the 2020-21 season, the 29-year-old had played every single minute of the 74 Premier League games contested by Jurgen Klopp’s team.
That run amounted to a staggering 6,665 minutes of consistency for Van Dijk until it was brought to a shuddering halt by Pickford, which went unpunished by the officials. In that time, Liverpool lost just five Premier League games. They also won the Champions League, the FIFA Club World Cup and ended the club’s 30-year wait for a domestic title by winning the Premier League last season.
Van Dijk has been a colossus at the heart of their defence throughout that period and it is impossible to overstate his importance to Klopp’s team. But, if anyone is still to be convinced by his influence on the Premier League champions, the months ahead will show us just how big a player he has become at Anfield. Quite simply, the loss of Van Dijk is the nightmare scenario for Klopp and Liverpool. There is no silver lining on this cloud.
Since arriving at Anfield in a £75 million transfer from Southampton in January 2018, which made him the most expensive defender in world football at the time, Van Dijk has been the glue that held everything together at the back for Klopp’s team. Liverpool were inconsistent and unconvincing before Van Dijk arrived, but his presence, reading of the game and calmness were transformative. The results and achievements since are a testament to that.
In Premier League history, perhaps only Eric Cantona’s impact at Manchester United, following his move from Leeds to Old Trafford in November 1992, can compare to that of Van Dijk at Liverpool. Both players walked into their respective clubs and acted as a catalyst for success that had begun to seem elusive. Yet when a player is so important to a team, his absence can leave a hole that no other can fill and that is where Liverpool are right now without Van Dijk — and it could already have ended their hopes of retaining the title.
United were unable to overcome the loss of Cantona in the 1994-95 season when, after jumping into the crowd with a flying kick to a fan at Crystal Palace, he was banned for eight months. The Frenchman missed the final four months of that season and Blackburn Rovers pipped United to the title.
In the September of the 1997-98 season, Roy Keane suffered a season-ending cruciate ligament injury against Leeds United and, without their captain, United were overhauled by Arsenal and the Gunners claimed the title at the end of the campaign.
And last season, the cruciate ligament injury suffered by Manchester City defender Aymeric Laporte at the end of August, which sidelined the France international for almost five months, cost Pep Guardiola’s team their best defender and triggered a run of poor form which put them out of the title race before it had properly begun. City lost five of 20 Premier League games while Laporte was unavailable and were 16 points behind Liverpool when he returned to action. The challenge for Liverpool now is to ensure that the loss of Van Dijk does not spark a similar run of damaging results.
There are close parallels between the Laporte and Van Dijk situations because City’s solution — using a key midfielder to plug the gap at centre-half — is what Liverpool and Klopp are likely to adopt.
When Laporte was injured, City were already without Vincent Kompany following his move into management with Anderlecht at the end of the previous season. City failed to replace their long-serving captain and defensive rock and, with Laporte also missing, found themselves without a convincing pairing at the back. Guardiola did not trust John Stones and Nicolas Otamendi to form a reliable partnership and youngster Eric Garcia was still unproven, so the City manager switched Fernandinho from defensive midfield to play in central defence. Fernandinho gave City some assurance and reliability at the back, but his absence from the midfield simply created a hole there and that was one that Guardiola failed to fill.
Without Van Dijk, Liverpool have just two senior centre-backs — Joel Matip and Joe Gomez. Dejan Lovren, experienced cover last season, has not been replaced since moving to Zenit St Petersburg during the summer. So Klopp is likely to turn to Fabinho to play the same role that Fernandinho performed at City because a partnership of Gomez and Matip lacks the authority that Van Dijk, or Fabinho, can offer. The Brazilian has already played that role this season, when he produced an outstanding display at centre-half against Chelsea.
But Liverpool are worse off for not having Fabinho in midfield, though perhaps not quite as much as Fernandinho’s switch hurt City. Klopp has the likes of Jordan Henderson, Thiago Alcantara, James Milner and Georginio Wijnaldum available, but none of them offer Fabinho’s dynamic qualities.
Last season, a recurring gripe from City supporters was that Liverpool were lucky with injuries and that even they would struggle to cope without their best defender for a lengthy period. Well, the tables have now turned and Liverpool must work out a way to avoid suffering the same fate that befell City in the wake of Laporte’s injury last season.
One big injury has potentially created two problems for Liverpool. They simply have to work out how to deal with them better than City did 12 months ago.