The title race was already promising to be very different at the start of the season. Liverpool had conceded 11 goals ahead of the weekend’s Merseyside derby and the Reds defence looked fallible even with Virgil van Dijk in their team and now, they are without him.
Jordan Pickford made two very good saves against Liverpool in Everton’s 2-2 draw in the derby at Goodison Park. But the England goalkeeper’s telling contribution this season’s title race could be his rash challenge on Van Dijk, which resulted in a knee injury that could probably keep the Liverpool defender out of action for the rest of the season.
The red card worthy offence could change the trajectory of the season. Even with their inconsistency at the start of the season, Liverpool were the favourites to retain their Premier League title.
But that changed at Goodison Park on Saturday when Virgil van Dijk grimaced in pain on the turf and eventually hobbled off with a serious knee injury.
Virgil van Dijk is Liverpool’s most important player
The Dutchman had featured in every Premier League game since he joined Liverpool in January 2018 and was arguably the one player the Reds could not afford to lose. The attacking trio of Sadio Mane, Roberto Firmino and Mohamed Salah have been terrific but they can afford to lose one of those players due to injury.
Virgil van Dijk was close to irreplaceable before the summer but the departure of Dejan Lovren further eroded into Jurgen Klopp’s centre-back options. Liverpool’s defensive options were not strong enough to lose the Dutchman and now, he is probably out for the season.
Joel Matip and Joe Gomez are the only senior centre-backs left in the squad and while they are good defenders, the duo lack the aura or the consistency of Virgil van Dijk. Matip is also injury prone, which could further exacerbate the problem for Liverpool.
Fabinho can operate in central defence but the Reds would love to have his combative presence in midfield rather than drop him further back on the pitch.
While Liverpool have one of the most feared attacks in Europe, there is an argument to suggest that their defence won them the Premier League last season.
They etched out a number of 1-0s and Virgil van Dijk was more or less imperious throughout the season. Over his first two full campaigns at Liverpool, the Reds have won 75% of games he started and only 40% when he didn’t.
Virgil van Dijk was the modern defender every manager would love to have. He has a passing range that one needs in any modern centre-back but he is as good as anyone when it comes to basics of defending – tackling, marking, heading and reading the game from the back.
The Dutchman has one more that separates the best from the good – an aura. Van Dijk’s presence on the pitch gives confidence to the rest of his team-mates and a sense of doom for strikers wanting to find a way past him.
He has been the reference point for Liverpool’s defence and provided leadership to the backline. While there are numbers that could quantify the loss the Reds are likely to face without Virgil van Dijk, it is harder to quantify the psychological effect on the Liverpool players and the opposition his absence would have.
The Liverpool defenders will feel frailer and on the edge, and opposition teams would now fancy their chances against the Merseyside giants.
The timing could not be worse for Liverpool. The transfer window just closed and while they could bring in a free agent, but would it help? They are down to depending on Joel Matip, Joe Gomez and Fabinho marshalling the defence until at least January.
Liverpool are expected to look for a centre-back in January but are they going to get someone who would be able to take the place of Virgil van Dijk in the middle of the season? Finding quality centre-backs is hard, just ask Manchester City.
Will adding one more flawed centre-back would really help the Reds? This is a question the recruitment team at Anfield would have to answer in the next two months.
They have already leaked 13 goals 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) and there is a major need of a defensive reset of their back four and the defensive line.
With Ajax awaiting them in the Champions League, Liverpool are staring at a major defensive reshuffle without their leader and their best defender.
For the first time in three years, there is an air of fragility around Liverpool and teams could finally come to Anfield with the hope of getting at a Reds defence that lack its leader and the aura.
Liverpool are again looking like one of their challengers for the Premier League title – an intriguingly flawed team.