Liverpool has been one of the best teams in Europe over the last three seasons, reaching the Champions League final in 2018, winning the Champions League in 2019 and securing their first ever Premier League title in 2020. During this spell, they have largely played the same team: Mohammed Salah, Sadio Mané and Roberto Firmino up front; Jordan Henderson and Gini Wijnaldum in the midfield; and Trent Alexander-Arnold and Andy Robertson at full back.
The man who makes it all tick is Liverpool’s rock-solid center back, Dutchman Virgil Van Dijk. Liverpool signed Van Dijk in January 2018 after a months-long courtship that ended with the Reds paying a £75 million transfer fee, the most expensive price for a defender at the time. Van Dijk had a dream debut, scoring a late winner in an FA Cup tie against hated crosstown rival Everton, and fans heralded his arrival as the beginning of something special at the club.
They were right. Van Dijk’s presence instantly boosted Liverpool’s stability at the back, helping the club reach its first Champions League final since 2007. Although Liverpool lost 3-1 to Real Madrid, Van Dijk led them back to the final in 2019, where they beat Tottenham 2-0. That same season, Liverpool finished just a point behind champions Manchester City in the Premier League, with Van Dijk being selected as Player of the Year. This past year, Liverpool won their first Premier League behind another excellent season from Van Dijk, who was selected in the Team of the Season lineup.
It is nearly impossible to overstate the Dutchman’s importance to the Liverpool team. Since he came in in January 2018, Van Dijk has played every minute of all 93 Premier League games Liverpool have had, winning 72 and losing only seven of those. In that time he has scored 10 goals and only picked up four yellow cards, and has also never been sent off. Van Dijk’s vision, quickness, passing ability, composure on the ball and aerial dominance make him one of the best defenders in the world, if not the very best.
Van Dijk is the glue that holds together Liverpool’s lineup and their tactics. Liverpool play a notoriously high line, with their wing backs pressed high up the pitch. Having Van Dijk at the back gives Alexander-Arnold and Robertson the confidence to go forward without worrying about leaving space behind them, because Van Dijk can reliably mop up any counterattacks the opposition might generate. This also allows Liverpool’s midfielders to stay up the pitch when Liverpool press to regain possession, which is a key piece of manager Jurgen Klopp’s tactics. When Liverpool themselves are pressed, Van Dijk’s patience and composure under pressure allows the team to absorb the press and pass their way out of it.
After Liverpool’s 2-2 draw with Everton in this season’s first Merseyside Derby, the club has to face live without Van Dijk for the first time in over two years. The Dutchman suffered damage to his ACL in the first half after a dangerous challenge from Everton’s goalkeeper Jordan Pickford, who avoided seeing a red card because VAR ruled that Van Dijk had been offside during the play.
Preliminary estimates place Van Dijk’s recovery time at six to eight months, meaning the star center back will likely miss the rest of the Premier League season, as well as the Champions League and FA Cup seasons as well. Retaining the Premier League title is always a difficult task, but to do so without a team’s probable best player is virtually impossible.
Liverpool’s defense has already looked shaky this season: the team conceded three goals at newly-promoted Leeds on matchday one, and then shipped seven to Aston Villa two weeks ago in what was the worst ever loss by a reigning Premier League champion. With Van Dijk playing in both of those games, it’s hard to imagine how much trouble Liverpool is in at the back.
It’s likely the Reds will start a center back pairing of Joe Gomez and Joel Matip, who have both only featured alongside Van Dijk and have never started a match together. There are further concerns if either Matip or Gomez gets injured, since Liverpool have no other center backs on their roster. Defensive midfielder Fabinho can fill in that role, and did so this season against Chelsea, but, as Manchester City showed last year, playing a defensive midfielder at center back all season is never ideal.
Beyond the obvious impacts of Van Dijk’s absence as an individual talent, there are tactical concerns as well for Klopp. Matip and Gomez are not reliable enough as defenders for Alexander-Arnold and Robertson to maraud forward as they so often do. Either they’ll continue to go forward and Liverpool will concede more, or they’ll stay back and damper Liverpool’s offense. Liverpool are also more vulnerable when pressed now, since neither Gomez nor Matip possesses Van Dijk’s calmness and passing ability.
Liverpool might consider switching to a back three or deploying a 3-5-2 formation instead of their usual 4-3-3. This would require starting Fabinho at center back, but it would give the team more defensive cover than having two center backs while allowing Alexander-Arnold and Robertson more license to barnstorm on the wings. Additionally, by moving Fabinho into the backline, Liverpool would solve their midfield dilemma of trying to fit four excellent midfielders into three starting spots; Fabinho would play as a defender, and the midfield would consist of Wijnaldum, Henderson and newly signedThiago Alcantara. Up front, Mohammed Salah and Sadio Mané would play as the two strikers, dropping Roberto Firmino to the bench.
Even if Klopp does change the tactics and formation to cover for Van Dijk’s absence, there is little doubt that Liverpool’s season has become substantially more difficult. Their biggest competitors for the title, Manchester City, spent over £100 million during the summer on center backs and have the squad depth and attacking talent needed to sustain a title run. Liverpool’s attack and midfield are too potent for the club to finish outside the top three, but with Van Dijk gone, the title is now Manchester City’s to lose.