At the moment, we still do not know how impactful Vigil van Dijk’s knee injury will be on Liverpool’s season. However, losing the world’s best defender is going to leave Jurgen Klopp with quite the conundrum over the next few months.
There might be some activity in January to bring in a replacement, but decent centre-backs are at a premium at home and abroad right now. Jamie Carragher recently cited Dayot Upamencano as the perfect signing to fill the void left by Van Dijk. He reasoned that Liverpool would have had a centre-back as a priority next summer anyway, so they should just pull the trigger in January by doing the business early.
That seems a bit fanciful to us, but even if Upamencano to be unveiled on 1stJanuary, Liverpool have 17 Premier League and Champions League fixtures between now and then. We don’t need to stress the fact that titles can be won and lost in that period.
We can’t gloss over the fact that Van Dijk’s absence could be detrimental to the Reds’ title chances. The news he was going under the knife shifted the odds in the betting for Premier League glory in Manchester City’s favour much more than Liverpool’s 7-2 defeat against Villa. It’s a very big deal – all Liverpool fans know this.
Van Dijk facilitates the high press
But Van Dijk’s absence is not just the loss of a good player, as the big Dutchman has been central to Jurgen Klopp’s tactical plans for the time he has been at the club. The high press and the high defensive line – yes, it was dismantled against Villa – are only possible due to the insurance policy Van Dijk offers.
His pace and presence are huge factors for Liverpool, and they allow the team to take more risks going forward. His range of passing, too, will be sorely missed. Liverpool are as far away as you can get from being a long ball team, but Van Dijk’s ability to execute long passes – bypassing the oppositions’ midfield – is an underrated weapon at Liverpool’s disposal.
Nevertheless, Liverpool will have to cope without Van Dijk for the foreseeable, leaving Joe Gomez, Joel Matip and Fabinho as the three ‘senior’ centre-halves. There might be some clamouring to get teenage sensation Billy Koumetio a bit more game time, but we think that Klopp will largely resist the urge and stick with the experienced trio, certainly in important games.
Thiago may get creative
Having Thiago Alcantara as an option in midfield will certainly help matters, and it’s not only about affording Klopp the luxury of playing Fabinho in defence. If the backline sits a little deeper, which Van Dijk’s absence will almost certainly ensure it does so, then it’s going to be much tougher for Alexander-Arnold and Robertson to “set the trap”, as it were, from Liverpool’s high press. In simple terms, the midfield is going to be more important in attack because the full-backs won’t be able to get forward as quickly.
And, that’s where Thiago could come in handy. The Spaniard is injured at the moment, but he should be back sooner rather than later. We could see Liverpool reverting to a more traditional back four, perhaps with Henderson providing a bit of screening, and that would allow Thiago to get a bit more creative in the final third. Of course, Trent Alexander-Arnold and Andy Robertson won’t be redundant, but the shape will naturally push them to being a bit more conservative.
All of this supposes that Klopp will act a certain way. Perhaps we are wrong, and he will command his centre-backs to keep the high-line to facilitate Liverpool’s famed high-press. Liverpool’s midfielders are better than being termed ‘spoilers’, but that is still their main function in the press. Klopp might keep that priority, but we believe he will have no choice but to change it. In Van Dijk, he is not losing a defender, but a player who is central to “the Liverpool Way”.
We will be intrigued to see how the boss manages it.