Liverpool’s best Merseyside Derby memories

Liverpool face ultimate test of Premier League defence as Virgil van Dijk absence exposes a new vulnerability

Van Dijk has been an ever-present in the Liverpool defence, with his sudden unavailability immediately enough to lift opponents and ramp up the scrutiny on Jurgen Klopp’s side

Melissa Reddy
Senior Football Correspondent
Monday 19 October 2020 08:42

On 6 January 2018, Jurgen Klopp rounded his squad in the dressing room at Melwood to deliver an important, incisive address.

Philippe Coutinho, the club’s “gold dust” and a very popular individual at the training complex, had finally sealed the £142m transfer to Barcelona that he had coveted for six months.

At the point of his departure, Liverpool were in a supremely positive moment and preparing for their first Champions League knockout fixture since 2009.

Mike Gordon, the Fenway Sports Group president, had spent the process leading up to the sale worrying that the uplifting feel around the club would turn to unrest over ceding a key player mid-season.

He was also concerned about the impact on the players of losing a reference point and part of the family; Coutinho had been at Anfield for five years and was significant to the dressing room dynamic.

Klopp, however, told Gordon and other senior executives to relax: this was a just a football transfer and if they made a fuss over it, that would encourage a problem. He strongly believed his players would step up in Coutinho’s absence and informed them as much when he gathered them together at Melwood.

His message was that they'd lost a great player and a friend, but they could not allow anyone on the outside to conclude that his exit has affected the club’s season. Liverpool are more than one player, he had told them and warned that the scrutiny on the team would increase, but they could handle it.

The ending to this chapter is well-known, the Merseysiders go on to reach back-to-back Champions League finals, winning in Madrid before then ending a 30-year wait for the domestic title by walking the division after going so close with 97 points.

One of the key protagonists to this Happily Ever After has been Virgil van Dijk: his addition prior to Coutinho leaving spread confidence amongst the squad, the staff and the supporters. Everyone figured he was good, really good - but he has surpassed all expectations.

The best defender in the world. So reliable that joy is derived from merely dribbling past him even if it doesn’t lead to a decisive action. Even on his worst days - the 7-2 annihilation at Aston Villa fresh in the memory - it serves as a reminder that he is mortal after all.

Liverpool will know Van Dijk’s absence makes them noticeably weaker in defence

After playing every minute of the previous 74 league matches for Liverpool, Van Dijk was forced off the pitch in Saturday’s Merseyside derby with less than double digits on the clock following a horrendous, unpunished Jordan Pickford challenge.

The centre-back damaged the anterior cruciate ligament in his right knee, which requires surgery. He faces an almighty battle to endure gruelling rehab and play again this season. The size of this setback for Liverpool cannot be understated. The club is not one player, but as Van Dijk has proven, he is not just any player.

He has missed just one top-flight match since his £75m switch from Southampton.

The 2018/19 PFA Player of the Year was also the first defender to pick up Uefa’s version of that accolade.

In that campaign, he was the only player to amass over 1,000 minutes in any of Europe's top five divisions without being dribbled past once.

He’s the duel king in the Premier League with a 74.4 per cent success rate, and is the best in the air - with the champions also set to miss his aerial ability in an attacking sense.

Virgil van Dijk is expected to miss between six and nine months due to a damaged ACL

In Van Dijk's 95 league starts for Liverpool, they have kept 44 clean sheets, conceding just 78 goals.

Across the same number of games prior to his arrival, the club let in 117 and denied the opposition on 29 occasions.

Van Dijk’s influence is obvious in the numbers, but also in the psychological effect he has both on his team and the opponents.

Still, Klopp will repeat the message he shared when Coutinho went: the squad could decide if people had the power to say Liverpool’s campaign ended with the result of that tackle, of that scan.

And the manager will believe that his roster will step up again and speak to their billing as ‘f*****g mentality monsters.’

There is no escaping the fact that this time, the task is more extreme, especially with Alisson, the club’s other ‘transformer,’ still sidelined.

When the offence surrendered Coutinho, it could still fire via Mohamed Salah, Sadio Mane and Roberto Firmino.

Liverpool have already been unsteady defensively this season and losing the spine of Alisson and Van Dijk will throw up all sorts of problems to solve in the most intensive campaign anyone has experienced.

Klopp may well have to tweak the team’s approach, returning to one fuelled more by controlled offensive chaos.

Van Dijk’s absence ramps up the pressure on Joe Gomez to get back to his best form

Joel Matip, who has just returned from a knee problem, and Joe Gomez, who hasn’t had a great start to the season, both dealt with Everton’s threats fairly well.

They have been accustomed to partnering Van Dijk, but now have to form a solid understanding with Fabinho also available to slot into the heart of defence.

Matip’s and Gomez’s respective injury woes are the most concerning factor. Van Dijk has clocked 8,436 minutes in the league and in contrast, the former Schalke man has managed 6,781 with Gomez on 5,718.

The positive news is that Jordan Henderson is back to be stationed in front of them and his commanding performance in the derby was a reminder of the aggression, control, tempo and tenacity Liverpool lost during his absence.

The captain has been crucial to shaping the mentality of the club along with Klopp - that defiance, the overwhelming determination to swing harder after setbacks.

The opposition will be encouraged sans Van Dijk, the scrutiny on Liverpool will be intense and it’s now up to them to direct how we discuss the unfortunate and gutting unavailability of the Netherlands captain.

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