This was already shaping up to be a very different title race to those of the last three years and the news that Virgil van Dijk will be out for several months only makes the picture more uncertain. He, above all others, is the player Liverpool could not afford to lose. Jordan Pickford’s wild lunge at him could become the defining image of the season – and the failure to send the Everton goalkeeper off the most mystifying failure of VAR.
The start to this campaign has been generally chaotic. None of the expected title contenders has looked quite ready, their various issues magnified by a truncated pre-season. After three seasons in which the title was won with 95+ points, the likelihood is that this season something in the mid-80s will be enough, the sort of figure that was usual before the financial stratification of the league allowed the very best sides to stretch towards three figures.
Liverpool had already looked fallible. There may have been something freakish about the three they conceded at home to Leeds on the opening weekend, but the 7-2 defeat at Aston Villa was remarkable not only for the scoreline but for the fact that Villa could easily have scored more. Liverpool’s high line is necessarily high risk – Jürgen Klopp’s acceptance of which led to his disagreement with Roy Keane after the 3-1 defeat of Arsenal; the issue felt generational as much as anything else – and that means that when things go wrong they can do so spectacularly. That shakiness added to concerning signs from the end of last season.
There is mitigation aplenty – the magnitude of their lead, the oddity of the environment post‑lockdown, a natural slackening once the title was confirmed – but the fact remains that Liverpool have won only 11 of their last 21 games from mid-February. It’s very early this season but in five matches Liverpool have dropped a third as many points as they did in 38 last. The loss of Van Dijk clearly exacerbates every doubt.
His arrival midway through 2017‑18 transformed Liverpool for a team who always looked vulnerable at the back, particularly from set pieces, to one that at their best seemed all but impregnable.
There’s an argument that what set Liverpool apart last season was their defensive excellence, at the heart of which was Van Dijk. Over his two full seasons at the club, Liverpool have won 75% of games he started and only 40% when he didn’t.
Last season Manchester City lacked an obvious leader on the field after the departure of Vincent Kompany, and also lost their best technical defender when Aymeric Laporte was injured. Van Dijk in effect fulfils both roles for Liverpool, being an organiser and projecting an authority as well as having that extremely rare blend of abilities demanded of the very best modern central-backs, being both comfortable on the ball and also possessing the more traditional defensive attributes of heading, marking and tackling.
His absence cannot but leave a hole and the timing couldn’t be worse. With the transfer window shut Liverpool could conceivably bring in a free agent but otherwise until January they are left with only Joe Gomez and Joël Matip as recognised senior central defenders, although Fabinho has successfully filled in there. The 23-year-old Nathaniel Phillips is yet to feature in the league for Liverpool, although he did start 16 games for Stuttgart on loan last season, or there’s the 18-year-old Sepp van den Berg, who began two League Cup games and the FA Cup win over Shrewsbury last season.
Gomez replaced Van Dijk on Saturday, operating to the left of Matip, but both are right-footed and would naturally prefer to be the right of the pair. Defensively that’s not insoluble but in terms of building moves from the back, having a central defender on the “wrong” side narrows the range of natural passing options.
Having leaked 13 goals already this season (they let in only 33 in the whole of 2019-20, and 12 of those came in the seven games after the title had been confirmed), there was need of a major reset in Liverpool’s defending, not only of the back four and the height of their line but also how the team as a whole press. With Ajax awaiting in the Champions League on Wednesday, they now have to do that with a central defence that lacks its leader and its best player.
For the first time in three years, there is an air of fragility about Liverpool. There is some consolation for them, perhaps, in the fact that City’s press has also been malfunctioning, that Chelsea have been shambolic at the back and that Manchester United remain heavily reliant on counterattacks. Perhaps one team will suddenly click into form and put together a title-winning run but, at the moment, every contender looks intriguingly flawed.