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Liverpool’s 6 months without Van Dijk: Extra setback, transfer fail & new target

It was interesting that Liverpool refused to put a timescale on it at first.

That was probably more in hope than anything.

When the Reds announced that Virgil van Dijk had “damaged knee ligaments” in what they perhaps pointedly called “an incident involving Jordan Pickford” at the previous day’s Merseyside derby, they were at great pains to point out that they didn’t want us to report that he was out for the season, or even the full extent of the damage.

But we all knew that he wasn’t coming back any time soon.

Six months on from the day that Van Dijk ruptured his anterior cruciate ligament, Liverpool are down in sixth place in the table, out of the Champions League and facing a fight to get back in it next season.

Pickford’s challenge on Van Dijk proved so damaging to Liverpool’s season

How did it come to this? Fairly chaotically, in truth.

Anger, recrimination and relief

The fact that it was Everton meant that this wasn’t going to go away quietly.

Fume erupted online at the nature of Pickford’s challenge on Van Dijk – something match referee Michael Oliver would later admit he should have sent the goalkeeper off for.

Within the Liverpool camp there was anger too.

“Of course we are upset. The way Pickford went in was completely stupid in my opinion,” said Van Dijk’s Dutch compatriot Gini Wijnaldum.

“I don’t believe he wanted to injure Virgil but the way he made the tackle he didn’t care about what happened after the tackle. It’s happened a lot in games against Everton.

“In my opinion they take it too far in the games we play against them.”

Wijnaldum was left angry at the challenge on his friend Van Dijk
Wijnaldum was left angry at the challenge on his friend Van Dijk

Jurgen Klopp joined in as well.

“A couple of days ago something happened which should not have happened in a football game,” he said.

“Both challenges [Liverpool were also angry about the Richarlison lunge on Thiago that would keep the Spanish midfielder out for over two months] were difficult to accept. It’s hard for us because Virgil is our boy.

“Usually, players try to play the ball but not in these two challenges.”

Amid the fume though, a bit of relief.

Liverpool still had the rest of their centre-backs fit, with their number swelled by the unlikely figure of Nat Phillips, who was disappointed to see a deadline day move to Swansea fall apart just days before Van Dijk’s injury.

He stayed at Liverpool, albeit way, way down the pecking order.

Initial optimism

The Gomez and Fabinho partnership impressed as they came together
The Gomez and Fabinho partnership impressed as they came together

Perhaps fuelled by what they felt was the injustice of the Van Dijk injury, Liverpool responded well and won their next five matches.

Joe Gomez and Fabinho were the starting centre-backs in the first three of those, before the Brazilian picked up a hamstring injury in the Champions League, and with Joel Matip also out injured then the issues that faced the Reds were suddenly laid bare.

Phillips, who was ineligible for the Champions League because Liverpool thought he was leaving, and Rhys Williams were suddenly getting some game-time, although Matip did return for the creditable 1-1 draw at Manchester City.

Perhaps Liverpool could just get through this if he remained as Gomez’s partner?

The cruellest of extra setbacks

Joe Gomez was injured on England duty
Joe Gomez was injured on England duty

Then, chaos.

The similarly severe injury picked up by Gomez on England duty was one that was tough for Liverpool to take, with Jordan Henderson later admitting that he found it difficult to deal with.

The Reds were now without the two centre-backs that marshalled their Premier League triumph for an unspecified, but clearly long amount of time.

Matip and Fabinho was the new first-choice partnership until the end of the year at least, but the Cameroonian could never really be relied upon to string a run of games together, and with Thiago absent it was already becoming apparent that the Brazilian was missed in midfield.

Phillips and Williams would do their bit but the gap in quality was obvious.

All eyes had turned to the transfer window as the Reds tried to make it through December without any more issues, but then at home to West Brom on the day after Boxing Day Matip went down again.

Belief seemed to drain away and Liverpool only drew the game. A one-off bad result or the start of something more?

Yep, it was the latter.

The downward spiral

As 2021 began with Henderson and Fabinho as the centre-backs for the 1-0 defeat at Southampton, the Reds embarked on a sorry run that would see them lose their proud unbeaten home record, their place in the FA Cup and ultimately their grip on the Premier League title.

Repeated calls for a move in the transfer market were not being heeded, and Klopp appeared irritable.

“I am not a five-year-old kid any more and if I don’t get what I want I start crying,” he said.

“Most of the time in my life I didn’t get what I wanted, so pretty much used to that. We talk about a centre-half, and yes, it would help 100 percent.

Henderson and Fabinho were now together in the heart of defence
Henderson and Fabinho were now together in the heart of defence

“We discuss the situation pretty much on a daily basis, and I make recommendations.

“But I cannot spend the money. I don’t make these decisions. There are people who are responsible for the whole thing, and I cannot make their decisions.”

There proved to be a breaking point though, and that was when Matip broke.

Having been taken off at half-time in the 3-1 win at Tottenham – second half centre-backs, Henderson and Phillips – the Cameroonian’s injury meant Liverpool couldn’t put off the inevitable any longer.

They had to act.

Deadline day deals

Ben Davies was the surprise new arrival
Ben Davies was the surprise new arrival

There was some frantic Googling among much of the fanbase when it was announced during a win over West Ham that the Reds were going to sign Preston’s Ben Davies, with Klopp deadpanning it after the match and simply referring to the Tottenham and Wales version.

Davies was snapped up the following day for little over a £1million, but it soon became clear that was something of an insurance policy as the Reds chased another defender.

Marseille’s Duje Caltea-Car was in the picture, but the agreement of a no obligation loan deal for Schalke’s Ozan Kabak, a player first linked the previous summer, looked to be something of a steal.

Suddenly the Reds had reinforcements.

The unlikely lads

Phillips and Kabak have become Liverpool's unlikely partnership at the back
Phillips and Kabak have become Liverpool’s unlikely partnership at the back

Not that they went straight into the team of course.

Henderson and Fabinho were still back there, with Phillips as cover as the raw Williams was largely stood down.

But then Fabinho got injured. And Henderson did too.

Suddenly it was Phillips who was the senior partner, joined by Kabak as he sought to find his feet in English football. Davies still hasn’t played.

The results have been up and down, but in the Premier League at least the partnership have impressed. In four league starts together, Liverpool have won all four.

“It’s good. Things have to develop, players have to get used to each other,” said Klopp of the partnership on Saturday.

“There was never a question about quality. Ozan and Nat have done really well. Hopefully it will stay like this.”

The pair struggled in the Champions League loss at Real Madrid that ultimately led to Liverpool’s elimination, but there is now an evidence-based hope that they can steer the Reds through the final weeks of a disjointed season and into a top four finish.

The future?

Ibrahima Konate is strongly linked with the Reds
Ibrahima Konate is strongly linked with the Reds

The great unknown is, of course, just how Van Dijk will look when he returns from his injury.

There have been numerous upbeat social media videos and suggestions that he’ll be fine for the Euros in the summer, but nothing concrete. And the same can be said for Gomez.

With such uncertainty abound then Liverpool simply have to sign a proven centre-back in the summer to cover for what could go wrong, perhaps even in addition to a permanent deal for Kabak.

Leipzig’s Ibrahima Konate is the new name doing the rounds as the most solid link, with some watchers even likening him to Van Dijk.

Liverpool will still want the original back though, with the first game of next season surely the target.




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