It’s a long way for Liverpool without their talisman defender Virgil van Dijk, but in the immediate aftermath of his likely seasonal injury, there are grounds for cautious optimism at Anfield.
In the seven games after Van Dijk was left at Goodison Park, Liverpool conceded just three goals. In Van Dijk’s seven other appearances of the 2020-21 season, Liverpool gave up 14.
It’s so common in football: a team loses its star player and the squad acts so efficiently that there are even signs of improvement. It’s ridiculous to suggest that Liverpool are better without Van Dijk, but what’s behind the statistics showing how the squad has performed in his absence? Sportsmail takes a look.
Liverpool reacted impressively since Virgil van Dijk sustained a serious knee injury at Everton
ALISSON TO THE RESCUE
In three of Van Dijk’s seven games this season, he was without Liverpool’s number 1 goalkeeper Alisson behind him. Two of those were EFL Cup appearances, where the Brazilian alternated with Adrian while he was sidelined from injury due to the nasty 7-2 defeat to Aston Villa.
Alisson adds so much more than a few safe hands to the Liverpool team. His role as a sweeper-keeper is so crucial in how Liverpool turn the game from defense to attack and there were notable opportunities against Leicester at Anfield on Sunday where his quick speed off his line helped nullify Jamie Vardy’s threat.
He returned to the Liverpool first team a week after Van Dijk’s injury against Everton, meaning their 1-0 away win against Ajax was the only match in which Liverpool didn’t have two defensive lynchpins. Alisson’s condition for the rest of the season will be even more important to Liverpool’s fortunes now that Van Dijk has been out for so long.
The return of Alisson, shortly after Van Dijk’s injury, is a big boost for Liverpool this season
His contribution to the Liverpool game extends well beyond a few safe hands in goal
Yes, he has been injured with a hamstring problem for part of the time following Van Dijk’s absence, but looking at the bigger picture, there can be no doubts about Fabinho’s ability to fill in at the heart of the defense.
He flourished there for Liverpool alongside Van Dijk in Liverpool’s 2-0 win over Stamford Bridge against Chelsea and excelled in the win at Ajax. His return on Sunday in time for Leicester was a big boost for Jurgen Klopp.
But his return to full fitness will have to be carefully managed, with games coming thick and fast in the coming weeks. His absence from midfield is also a blow to Liverpool – he adds as much to the backbone of Liverpool’s game as he gets higher on the field.
But Liverpool have a range of alternative midfield options. Fabinho’s defensive nous could well be one of the team’s greatest assets over the course of the campaign.
Fabinho has proven to be a super option to replace at the center of Liverpool’s defense
THE YOUNG PIGEONS STEP ON
Of course, it’s not just Fabinho who helped ease fears about life without Van Dijk – and Joe Gomez. The credit should also go to Rhys Williams and Nathaniel Phillips, who will also be playing in the coming weeks and months.
Williams’ rise from Nations League to Champions League has been well recorded and he also had precious minutes alongside Van Dijk in two EFL Cup games against Lincoln and Arsenal.
Phillips also covered bravely and fell in against West Ham when Joel Matip was still offside. Phillips was loaned out to Stuttgart last season, but a Premier League match is a step up from the German second tier and he adapted brilliantly.
Rhys Williams has performed brilliantly for Liverpool in the Champions League this season
Nathaniel Phillips (center) also produced an excellent showing as Liverpool beat West Ham 2-1
THE DEFENSE STANDS BACK
A major topic of conversation earlier this season was Liverpool’s high line of defense. Leeds have done a great job of joining Liverpool in the opening game of the season, a rough 4-3 win for the Reds at Anfield. The back line was clearly a disaster against Villa, while their first out of the season was against a Chelsea side that played 45 minutes with 10 men.
While there hasn’t been a world of change since Van Dijk’s injury, Liverpool seems to be defending a little deeper since the Dutchman was offside. A little more caution to their defensive organization seems to have come a long way – in the games following Van Dijk’s injury, Liverpool faced an average of 3.3 shots on target per game, down from 4.5 with Van Dijk.
Liverpool got on average fewer shots on goal in the games since Van Dijk was injured
ROBERTSON IN EXCELLENT FORM
There were a slew of contenders for the man of the match on Sunday evening after such an impressive victory over a team as good as Leicester.
Diogo Jota cemented his own place in Liverpool history by becoming the first player to score in his first four Anfield games. James Milner bravely filled in for right back before moving into midfield to cover Naby Keita, while Roberto Firmino finished a cunning game with a well-deserved goal.
Andrew Robertson has been in fantastic form in recent appearances for Liverpool as a left back
But it was tireless Andy Robertson who was named star man in what was an exciting start to the season from left back. He helped Jota’s goal to beat another menacing screen down Liverpool’s left flank.
His workload will also have to be carefully managed by Klopp. Scotland worried about a hamstring problem with Robertson in the recent international break and the Reds boss now has a true left back to rotate him with Greece international Kostas Tsimikas.
As long as Robertson stays fit, he is a huge contributor to both the defensive and offensive patterns of the Liverpool game. It cannot be underestimated how good and important he is to the Liverpool game.