Liverpool showed against Southampton they need Virgil van Dijk but still have work to do before they can get him

Perhaps if Liverpool had Van Dijk – someone who when fit hoovers up defensive space with his pace – Liverpool would be going for it a bit more, leaving more gaps in pursuit of goals

Simon Hughes
Sunday 07 May 2017 16:15 BST
Liverpool have their eyes on Virgil van Dijk this summer
Liverpool have their eyes on Virgil van Dijk this summer (Getty)

Liverpool is a city of taxi cab talk, where it is not uncommon for rumour to be presented as irrefutable fact. Perhaps no tale was more unlikely than the sighting of Zinedine Zidane in the weeks after his wife Véronique claimed she was tired of land-locked Turin and wanted to live by the sea. Zidane was promptly spotted at Formby Point, the pinewoods and then any other landmark in the area where Merseyside’s footballers tend to spend their time.

It is uncertain what came first: the story about Liverpool having lots of money to spend this summer should they confirm a place in next season’s Champions League and it being revealed that, at £50million, Virgil van Dijk was the club’s primary target, or, indeed, the sightings of Van Dijk checking out property on Victoria Road, Formby’s millionaire row – the tree-lined boulevard where Jürgen Klopp lives.

Van Dijk’s damaged ankle meant he wasn’t available for Southampton at Anfield and there are understandable questions to be asked about the virtues of Liverpool wanting to commit so much money to someone who has been injured for so long, especially since the defender’s performances had improved playing for a manager in Claude Puel whose sides are known for caution and ability to stifle opponents just like Liverpool. In their dark shirts here, Southampton’s players operated with the diligence and efficiency of dung beetles. Four times they have stopped Liverpool from scoring this season. That’s 360 minutes of football.

Klopp had warned that he would tailor Liverpool’s approach in the final weeks of the campaign, with results reflecting a more pragmatic patterns, results like 2-1, 1-0, 1-0, 1-2, 1-0 and now, 0-0. Perhaps if Liverpool had a striding figure such as van Dijk – someone who when fit hoovers up defensive space with his pace – Liverpool would be going for it a bit more, leaving more gaps in the pursuit of goals.

Without Sadio Mané’s pace and without Jordan Henderson’s setting the tempo Liverpool’s midfield needs in order to overwhelm, it seems as though Klopp has decided that patience could just about get Liverpool the outcomes they require to achieve campaign objectives.

It is a risky strategy but it might just work because games are running out for the teams chasing Liverpool, who might still be able to secure Champions League football as early as next week with a victory at West Ham.

If that were to happen, it will mean that Liverpool will have limped towards their target and that – even with disappointments like poor home results against Swansea City, Bournemouth, Crystal Palace and Southampton – will represent progress, without inflating expectation to such unreasonable levels that it eventually crushes the players later on. Liverpool will have never done it this way around: to seem like they could be champions, to fall away – but still move forward and get roughly to where they want to be.

Fail, though, and parallels might be drawn with Gérard Houllier’s first full season in charge, 1999/2000. Like Klopp, Houllier was also attempting to shift perceptions about the determination and resilience of his players and like Klopp, Houllier had taken full control of the team eighteen months before.

Under Houllier, Liverpool had been second with five games left to play but the goals dried up and when the season drew to a conclusion, Liverpool had failed to score again.

One of the opponents in that miserable run was Southampton who left Anfield with a 0-0 draw. Similarly, Liverpool faced a team with the spectre of relegation looming over their shoulder on the final day in Bradford City.

Two weekends from now Middlesbrough visit Merseyside and though they are almost down, they do not know they are down yet. And so, Middlesbrough could be the difference between Liverpool's ability to sign van Dijk or not.

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