There were no winners in a crazy Merseyside Derby last weekend as Liverpool lost their defensive rock Virgil van Dijk to a long-term injury after a dangerous tackle from Jordan Pickford. Sam Broad explains what affect the Dutchman’s absence could have on the Reds and the league this season.
Virgil van Dijk is set for a lengthy spell on the side-lines after Liverpool’s 2-2 draw to Merseyside rivals Everton.
The Dutchman is due to undergo surgery on his knee because of a rough challenge from Everton goalkeeper, Jordan Pickford. They deemed the ferocious tackle unworthy of a penalty. VAR ruled the passage of play offside, meaning Pickford kept his place on the pitch. While van Dijk looks in serious doubt for the rest of the season.
Can Liverpool retain the Premier League title?
Liverpool’s hope of retaining the Premier League title looks unlikely. Alongside goalkeeper Allison, Virgil van Dijk was the big money signing that propelled Liverpool to the next level.
Early on in Jurgen Klopp’s reign, Liverpool was an erratic team that attempted to outscore the opposition. Since Virgil van Dijk’s arrival, Liverpool has steadily developed into a mature side that plays with class. They still play with an unrivaled amount of flair going forward but have also shown real patience when looking to break the deadlock in a game.
How does van Dijk improve Liverpool?
Virgil van Dijk has been a leader from the heart of defence. A central defender who has all the qualities of a world-class player. In fact, he’s a unique defender that is tough tackling and strong in the air. While also being quick and composed on the ball, traits that are now universally expected of the modern-day defender.
This has suited Liverpool tactically. Full backs, Andy Robertson and Trent Alexander Arnold are encouraged to join the attack regularly, providing a threat from wide areas. This has made perfect sense, as the two full-backs have arguably been celebrated more for their attacking ability, not for performing their defensive duties.
Virgil van Dijk’s pace has also allowed Liverpool to press extremely high up the pitch. The Dutchman was key in eliminating any threat of a counterattack before it could develop into a scoring opportunity.
Arguably the tactic of playing with a high line had been figured out when Aston Villa beat the champions 7-2. The scoreline is obviously an anomaly. Whether there are more defeats of this nature, where the opposition can repetitively crack through the high line hangs in the balance.
How will Liverpool adapt?
Playing a high line without the presence of Virgil van Dijk is risky. Even outright dangerous as more opposition teams are going to play with confidence against the replacement centre back pair.
Although, Liverpool has two competent central defenders in Joe Gomez and Joel Matip. It has always been a question of which player will settle next to Virgil van Dijk at the heart of defence.
In recent years, a Liverpool defence without the looming presence of Virgil van Dijk hasn’t been comprehendible. There is no doubt Liverpool still has the overall magnitude of quality to challenge for the Premier League title.
However, for this to be realistic, they must adapt their tactical style of play to cover for their missing link in defence. They must put the emphasis on developing a reliable centre back partnership. Providing both players can stay injury-free in the long term, this would most likely be Joe Gomez and Joel Matip.
Attacking full-backs, Andy Robertson and Trent Alexander Arnold now also have a heightened responsibility. Their defensive duties have become more important. They must become part of a defensively coordinated back four, as Virgil van Dijk is no longer available to sweep up behind them.
Who is Liverpool’s biggest competition?
Three games into the Premier League season, many were satisfied to sign off Liverpool as the only team capable of winning the league title. Although, they recorded positive wins against Leeds, Chelsea, and Arsenal. The real reason for such an early declaration of the Premier League becoming a one-team league was Manchester City’s poor form in their opening games. As Manchester City has been the only team to rival Liverpool’s incredible quality in recent seasons, it is hard to comprehend another team having the consistency to challenge Liverpool for the Premier League title.
Manchester City’s 5-2 thrashing by Leicester City was the result that noticeably shifted all the accolades onto Liverpool far too early in the season.
Manchester City isn’t the only team that poses a threat to Liverpool’s Premier League title retention. Everton remains undefeated in the Premier League this season. It seems if Carlo Ancelotti is in charge, Liverpool’s Merseyside counterparts will be an ongoing challenge. Aston Villa is the only team to have won all their Premier League games so far.
While the likes of Aston Villa and Everton aren’t usually in the hunt for the Premier League title. Their invigorated form only put Liverpool under more pressure, especially without the reassurance of Virgil van Dijk.
As most of the big six are yet to find their form this season, Liverpool’s concern will be when these clubs inevitably start displaying their quality.
Suddenly, the top half of the Premier League looks stronger than ever. With each club feeling, they can knock Liverpool off their perch.
Without Virgil van Dijk, Liverpool is no longer the complete team that has become accustomed to dominating the Premier League. Playing a high press with a new defensive unit could prove costly for Liverpool’s aim of retaining the title. The focus will now shift to Jurgen Klopp to see if he can adapt the team’s tactics to encourage Liverpool to continue striving forward.
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