“The first name on the team sheet.” It’s an infuriatingly overused cliché. The sort of thing that makes you grimace when it is parroted by unimaginative co-commentators or mundane pundits. Or maybe that’s just me.
But there’s no denying that it’s an apt way to describe some players who are so vital to their team’s success. In Liverpool’s case, the “first name on the team sheet” is Virgil van Dijk.
I can’t say anything about him that hasn’t already been said by thousands of other writers and fans – the man is simply a colossus who has transformed the entire Liverpool defence and played a huge role in the Reds’ incredible recent success.
He has played in every game and almost every minutes of the Reds’ last two Premier League campaigns. In that time, one title was won, another was lost by just one points, 196 points were earned and only 55 goals were conceded.
Of course, those around him played their parts too. Alisson has been a reassuring presence between the sticks, while Joe Gomez and Joël Matip have been confident and capable sidekicks for the giant Dutchman.
While the pair have shared the role of starting centre-back well – the former Charlton Athletic man has played in 44 games over the last two seasons while the Cameroonian has appeared in 31 – questions remain over which of them, if either, will be able to make that spot their own on a more permanent basis.
Gomez, of course, is a more long-term option. Aged 23, he is already frighteningly good for his tender years – his pace and physicality make him a valuable asset for the Reds. With a little luck, there’s no reason why he can’t continue to perform at the peak of elite football for the next decade.
The 29-year-old Matip is in a later stage of his career, very much in his prime. After his free transfer from Schalke in 2016, he proved himself to be a dependable member of a team still very much adapting to Jürgen Klopp‘s style of football.
What is really impressive about Matip is that, despite falling behind Gomez in the pecking order, he kept pushing and very much took his chance when the Englishman picked up a long-term injury at Turf Moor in December 2018.
He even started the title-winning season brilliantly, cementing his spot early on and even proving his worth at the other end by netting against Arsenal after scoring another in the Community Shield against Manchester City.
But then injury troubles of his own limited him to a total of just nine Premier League appearances last term, with just two of those coming in 2020 and only one after lockdown – he managed 75 minutes in the goalless draw at Everton.Embed from Getty Images
And therein lies the problem for our pair of our superb second choices. While both are excellent partners for van Dijk and undeniably have a lot of talent, getting them on the pitch on a regular basis has proven impossible thus far. They have seen far too much of the treatment table.
So what does that mean for next season? Dejan Lovren had his faults – we all knew it – but as far as fourth-choice options go he was a pretty good one. Now he has left for Russian shores, does the squad have enough cover in the middle of defence?
Ki-Jana Hoever, Sepp van den Berg, Nathaniel Phillips and even Billy Koumetio are options from the youth setup, but it’s highly unlikely that any of them would be considered ready for a run in the first team should disaster strike.
If the right option presents itself, then Klopp would no doubt want to dip into the transfer market to replace Lovren. Gomez and Matip’s respective injury records suggest that another body is needed in that position, but Liverpool will not overspend on any player who is likely to be fourth in the pecking order.Embed from Getty Images
The £11m raised by Lovren’s sale to Zenit St. Petersburg has already been reinvested in Kostas Tsimikas, while it’s becoming more and more apparent that the only way the Reds will stump up the cash to buy Bayern Munich midfielder Thiago is if Georginio Wijnaldum is moved on first.
This suggests that, before another central defender is signed, someone else in the squad may have to be moved on. There is no shortage of fringe players who could be used for that purpose, with the likes of Harry Wilson, Marko Grujic and Xherdan Shaqiri all up for sale for the right price this summer.
Turkish defender Ozan Kabak is said to be on Liverpool’s wanted list, but the funds would likely have to be raised before he follows Matip from Schalke to Anfield. That’s presuming that the 20-year-old would be happy to be a backup member of the squad.
With a huge question mark remaining over the Reds’ recruitment plans this summer, chances are van Dijk’s partner for the next season will be whoever of Gomez or Matip can stay fit.
And, if neither of them can, then the defending Premier League champions might find themselves in a difficult position.
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