When it was announced two weeks ago after the Merseyside derby that our defensive talisman Virgil van Dijk’s season was all but over, many were prophesising the end of Liverpool’s 2020-21 campaign. Most, you will remember, were rival supporters high on schadenfreude, but there were plenty of Reds who bought into the claims as well. After all, what side wouldn’t be affected by the loss of the best defender in the world?
Yet, Liverpool’s form since that tumultuous stalemate at Goodison has been more or less impeccable. The record stands at five wins in five since Van Dijk’s injury, including three clean sheets to go with. The recent run can probably be attributed to the Reds’ (sort of) new-look attack more than anything else; Diogo Jota has, quite simply, been a revelation. Whether he’s been on the left, right, or playing through the centre, Jota has been banging in the goals left, right and centre. His movement and finishing has been too much for defenders to handle in addition to Sadio Mane and Mohamed Salah’s trickery.
Another face behind the recent run has been an unlikely one – the forgotten man Xherdan Shaqiri. Having fallen out of favour after some stellar performances at the end of 2018, many thought that the Swiss playmaker would be on his way out of Anfield this summer. Commendably, however, Shaqiri opted to stay and fight for his place here, a decision which has already borne fruit. He has already provided two match-winning passes in the last three games, including an absolute worldie for Jota late against West Ham. With the returns of Naby Keita and Thiago Alcantara impending, Liverpool’s attack could yet become stronger than it ever has been since Jurgen Klopp’s arrival.
Defensively, however, the hole left by Van Dijk is still fairly eminent, as the cheap goals conceded against West Ham and Sheffield United will tell you. Even during last night’s 5-0 route against Atalanta, the Italians were able to get in behind on multiple occasions and were probably unfortunate not to score. Rhys Williams’ and Nat Phillips’ performances so far have warranted enormous credit, but they simply cannot replace the composure and command that the Dutchman offers at the back – not that anyone expected, or can expect, them to. Sunday’s visit to the Etihad will prove the biggest test yet of Liverpool’s makeshift centre-back partnership, and could also be telling of how we will fare against the big boys in the Champions League knockout rounds without Van Dijk.
The early signs are good, but it’s a long season. There will be days when we don’t miss Van Dijk at all, and there will be days we ache for him like a heartbroken ex. But the fact of the matter is that Liverpool still have a world-class team. Defending our domestic crown and/or taking back our European one will prove to be uphill tasks, but there’s no reason either can’t be done.