Virgil van Dijk looks set to return to Liverpool team training when their pre-season begins on Monday, July 12. It’s an exciting prospect – and an interesting one. Will minutes need to be managed? Who will he be playing alongside most often? Intrigue grows by the day.
Saturday, October 17 of last year was the day van Dijk sustained the cruciate ligament injury that kept him out of the remainder of 2020/21 and this summer’s Euros, after he was caught by a disgraceful Jordan Pickford challenge early in the 2-2 Goodison Park draw with Everton.
Now, 268 days later, the Reds’ July 12 pre-season start should mark the No.4’s first session alongside his teammates since.
His absence both hit Jürgen Klopp’s side hard and saw them come up with some exciting solutions which could yet render long-term, potentially unforeseen, benefits.
His return, then, should open up further possibilities on numerous fronts. Possibilities individual and collective. Possibilities in performances and the results that they could render.
That is because of the player van Dijk is, and the person he is. He is a leader and a tone-setter. He directs. He exemplifies. He takes responsibility.
Simultaneously, he tends to spread a sense of calm and assurance. One that has grown throughout the team and still felt present, in a sense, throughout his absence – such is the positive impact he has had on those around him.
Those around him. Every Liverpool player he has played with could fall under that umbrella. Most prominently though, of course, you think of his fellow centre-backs.
Lovren may have left last summer for Saint Petersburg pastures new but Gomez and Matip remain, of course – and they could well both renew their fruitful partnerships with van Dijk in this coming campaign.
Because of the range of traits he has shown in his time in the Bundesliga – the reading of the game, the on-ball capability, the strength and speed – and because of the prospect of him lining up alongside the Dutchman in the centre of defence.Embed from Getty Images
There are parallels within their skill sets, leading to a sense that van Dijk could be an ideal partner and mentor figure to the French u21 international and that such a partnership could further enhance the Reds’ system.
It is an imposing, exciting image. It is one, though, that may require a degree of patience.
The length of the vice-captain’s absence and nature of his injury may mean that he needs to be eased back in to some extent. That is a process that should be significantly helped by, all being well, a full pre-season being behind van Dijk come the competitive kick-off.
He should have a similar foundation of fitness to those around him. It shouldn’t be too much of a case of catch-up. A certain level of caution still feels sensible, nonetheless. The rhythm of elite level competitive football is, needless to say, a distinctive form of intensity.Embed from Getty Images
The extra defensive depth offered by Konaté, though – and the on-field relationship already built by van Dijk with both Gomez and Matip – should help further smooth out this re-introductory process, at least.
Gomez and Matip are, of course, themselves working their way back from long-term injury lay-offs that have kept them out since November and January respectively.
It is not an ideal scenario, but it is certainly a workable one. Klopp will doubtless be aiming to maximise this context. There is better strength in numbers than at the start of 2020/21. Something added to by the experience gained by the likes of Nat Phillips and Rhys Williams last season.
Their 2021/22 roles remain somewhat unclear but they are, crucially, options.
There are, clearly, questions to answer and hurdles to jump on the fitness front – but the possibilities beyond that are hopeful and exciting.
The No.4’s unique set of skills give Klopp’s Liverpool some superb extra dimensions. His recovery pace – which, in itself, may need some time to recover – helps that defensive line stay positively high.
His range of passing and intelligent use of possession also allows the Reds’ attacks to take on numerous angles and patterns.
There is also his considerable set-piece presence, in both defensive and attacking scenarios. He enhances strengths – and possibilities – on several fronts.Embed from Getty Images
It will, indeed, be interesting to see who he plays alongside most often in 2021/22. The partnerships with Gomez and Matip have been strong ones that have contributed sizeably to the Champions League and Premier League successes of recent times, but both have been somewhat fractured by injuries – most often to van Dijk’s partners, prior to October.
It will be intriguing to see if a more consistent run of games can be strung together with any of Konaté, Gomez or Matip in the new season.
Konaté’s injury-proneness has been queried in moments. Time will tell, of course, on that front, but there is a sense that his fitness record is stronger than some may think or that certain statistics may imply.
After a long wait, there are inevitable questions and uncertainties.
Yet, perhaps more significantly, there are also solutions, options and possibilities.
That, as much as anything, is something to be excited about as pre-season beckons.
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