Virgil van Dijk: Can Liverpool replace the irreplaceable?

OLLIE KING looks at how Liverpool go about replacing the irreplaceable, with the Reds’ defensive linchpin Virgil van Dijk ruled out for the season.

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It was the news that every Liverpool fan was dreading. Amid all the rumours and uncertainty following Saturday’s Merseyside Derby, it was confirmed that Virgil van Dijk is likely to miss the remainder of the season through injury.

This was the biggest tragedy of an overwhelmingly miserable day for the Reds, with the ever-controversial VAR system also looming large over an otherwise pulsating game.

Whilst trying to ignore all the noise surrounding the game, Jürgen Klopp and co were forced to take a step back and look at the bigger picture once the full-time whistle had blown. 90 minutes of error-strewn woe that could ultimately put both domestic and European success at risk.

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Losing the Dutchman so early on is likely to prove problematic – after all, he was pivotal during the club’s maiden Premier League winning season. Klopp would have seen this situation as unthinkable, yet here he is, tasked with the job of replacing the irreplaceable or risk losing their English crown after the briefest of returns.

It’s a situation that has proved costly to teams in recent times, with our closest challengers last year suffering a similar setback this early on last season. Aymeric Laporte was the standout defender for Manchester City during their 2019/20 season, and his absence cost Pep Guardiola’s side dearly as their defensive mishaps allowed the Reds to run away with the title.

But despite this, Liverpool have the squad depth to ensure they are able to cope without van Dijk. Their commanding breeze to the title was credited, in part, to a relative lack of injuries, as well as the scintillating football and 17 straight victories.

The injury argument doesn’t quite fly. Much as Virgil was an ever-present, Alisson missed 14 games through injury and suspension, Fabinho was sidelined for two months over the busy Christmas period, and Naby Keita, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and Joel Matip all missed significant periods during the Reds’ journey to title number 19.

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That said, this season’s injury woes have taken on a more intense feel, not least because of coronavirus. A mixture of self-isolations and injuries have robbed the Reds of Sadio Mané, Thiago, Matip, Henderson and Oxlade Chamberlain in the opening part of the season, with the latter not yet featuring at all.

Whilst performances have shown the Reds’ ability to adapt, the statistics make for grim reading when van Dijk has been absent from the starting XI.

Since joining the Reds, the 29-year-old has missed just one Premier League game. His two full seasons brought a total of 196 points – 97 in the runners-up season of 2018/2019 and 99 last season as they breezed to the title. The 2018-19 season ended with two personal accolades for the Dutchman – he was the PFA Player of the Year in England, as well as the first defender to pick up UEFA’s Player of the Year award.

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An incredible set of statistics and a player that has changed the one position Liverpool were so fragile in for so long.

In van Dijk’s 95 Premier League starts for Liverpool, they have conceded just 78 goals and kept 44 clean sheets. By comparison, in the 95 league games before his debut, they let in 117 goals and shut out the opposition just 29 times.

Since his first Liverpool appearance, Van Dijk ranks top for the most Premier League clean sheets. Only Manchester City goalkeeper Ederson can match his tally of 43. The Netherlands captain played a big part in that record because he is so hard to beat. In 2018-19, he was the only player to figure for more than 1,000 minutes in any of Europe’s top five leagues without being dribbled past once.

And since he joined Liverpool in January 2018, he also has the best success rate – 74.4% – of any player involved in at least 100 duels in the Premier League, competing in 812 and winning 604. He also ranks second best in aerial duel success rate. Team-mate Matip edges him out of top spot there, by 75.7% to 74.6%, though van Dijk has contested far more aerial challenges – 622 to Matip’s 173.

As a better comparison, Manchester United and England centre-back Harry Maguire is fourth on the list over that period, having been involved in 486 aerial duels – winning 359 to van Dijk’s 464 – for a success rate of 73.9%. But it is results that count. So, it is perhaps most telling of all that, across all competitions, Liverpool’s win rate with van Dijk (130 games) stands at 70% – while without him (13 games) it is 46%.

The concern now for Klopp is whether his available defenders can step up and fill in. Both Matip, 29, and Joe Gomez have shared partnership duties alongside van Dijk in recent times, but may now be called upon to operate side-by-side. Matip made 22 Premier League appearances in 2018-19 but just nine last term, while Gomez played 28 times last season following his 16 games the season before.

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In five league matches so far this term, Gomez has started three and Matip one. These two seem like the strongest partnership for the Reds, but with the return of Jordan Henderson, Klopp may look to operate Fabinho as a centre back. The Brazilian put in a man of the match performance away at Chelsea in September and could be used in Liverpool’s away trip to Ajax with Matip missing training this week, another victim of the Merseyside Derby.

At a time when Alisson’s sidelines spell goes on, the inability to field van Dijk has come at an inopportune time for Klopp. They can ill-afford to be without both for a sustained spell, but this may not be the end for potential success during this season.

Injuries, despite what some rivals may suggest, have bitten before and the evidence suggests this Liverpool squad is pretty shock absorbent.

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