Injuries have plunged Liverpool into a defensive crisis which threatens their Premier League title defence.
Virgil van Dijk’s knee ligament injury, suffered in October’s Merseyside derby, was worrying enough, but a subsequent injury to Joe Gomez while on international duty with England has rocked the defending champions.
Gomez has undergone surgery to repair a tendon in his left knee and, although there is no definitive prognosis yet, he is “likely” to miss a “significant part” of the rest of season according to his club.
When the more short-term problems for Fabinho (hamstring) and Trent Alexander-Arnold (calf) are factored into the equation it is clear manager Jurgen Klopp has been dealt a difficult hand.
Along with other managers like Pep Guardiola and Gareth Southgate, Klopp has bemoaned the condensed schedule which is putting players at increased risk of injury. But with the damage done, he now needs to focus on patching up his defence.
Despite the loss of their first-choice centre-back pairing, Klopp does still have five fit players left in that position.
Joel Matip is the only senior centre-back left standing, making him absolutely vital to Klopp. The 29-year-old returned from injury to play the full 90 minutes in Liverpool’s 1-1 draw with Manchester City last weekend and is likely to be the bedrock of the Reds’ defence this winter.
The problem is that Matip has struggled to stay match fit throughout his time at the club. He has completed 90 minutes in the Premier League just eight times since the start of last season.
If he can stay fit then Matip’s most obvious partner, barring a swift return of Fabinho, is Nathaniel Phillips, who impressed Klopp in the 2-1 victory over West Ham on 31 October.
“He’s a brilliant guy, smart guy, intelligent, everything,” Klopp said. “He’s not easy on the eye, he’s not Messi but who cares? In the air he’s a monster.”
Rhys Williams, 19, has already made five appearances this season, with his showing in the 5-0 win over Atalanta described as “exceptional” by his manager.
Then there are the untested youngsters Billy Koumetio and Sepp van den Berg, both 18. They were previously looked at as ones for the future, but Liverpool’s dire circumstances mean they could well have their careers put on fast-forward.
Away from specialist centre-backs, there are alternatives. Fabinho has already proven himself a more than capable fill-in, while Klopp has highlighted Andy Robertson, Jordan Henderson and James Milner as potential options.
“They are all not smaller than Javier Mascherano, for example, and he played pretty well in that position,” he said. “So yes, we still have one or two options and one of them we will choose.”
The need for speed
This period is where Klopp will really earn his wages. Now, not only will he have to manage, motivate and train world-class players, but he will also have to instil confidence in and improve young unproven ones, too.
Starting with Leicester on 21 November, Liverpool have 12 games in 43 days to get through across the Premier League and Champions League. That equates to roughly one in every three-and-a-half days until the January transfer window is in full swing and offers the potential solace of bringing in reinforcements.
It is not going to be easy. Not only are they down on numbers, they will also have to run the gauntlet of further injuries and the challenges presented by the coronavirus pandemic.
He may not see it now, but there is one positive for Klopp. The current international break has at least given him time to work with Milner, Matip and Phillips intensively before next weekend’s Premier League game against the Foxes at Anfield.
While he is without Scotland’s Robertson, Brazil’s Alisson and Greece’s Konstantinos Tsimikas, he will still be able to train with those he does have.
One obvious area to address is the lack of pace a pairing of Matip and Phillips would have. Facing an in-form Leicester side who have won their last six games in all competitions while scoring 15 goals is a tough start, especially considering the pace of Jamie Vardy and Harvey Barnes.
Klopp will need to devise a system which doesn’t expose Matip and Phillips to runs in behind. He may choose to double-down on his intensive pressing, which has seen them win possession back in the opposition third a league-high 5.3 times per game this season.
Or if he is worried about leaving space behind his less mobile back line, he might opt to drop deeper when out of possession.
The loss of Van Dijk and Gomez not only affects Liverpool’s defending against the ball, but also their use of it.
Liverpool’s first-choice pairing are canny operators on the ball who are tasked with shifting the opposition across the pitch and building attacks. While their short passing to full-backs Robertson and Alexander-Arnold and into midfield is generally sharp and incisive, it is another factor which catches the eye even more.
With Van Dijk in the side, not a Liverpool game goes by without a perfectly-measured raking long pass out to the flanks or attack, a facet noted by Arsenal manager Mikel Arteta.
“They have different weapons,” he said after Liverpool’s 3-1 win in September. “When you go to the opposite side and do the high press perfect, they have Van Dijk and he plays a 60 yard pass into Salah’s chest and they are out. That’s quality.”
The Dutchman has trademarked accurate switches of play and neither Matip nor Phillips can match his long-range distribution.
Matip is by no means a poor passer, and he can step up with the ball, but he is much less confident than Van Dijk. Phillips, meanwhile, was commanding in the air against West Ham but completed just two of his 11 attempted long passes.
To continue to be successful in possession Klopp might have to alter his system, perhaps asking a midfielder to drop deeper and take charge of distribution. If Thiago Alcantara is fit to return for the first time since the Merseyside derby, he would be the ideal man for the job.
The fixtures to come before January transfer window:
- 21 November. Leicester City (H), Premier League: An immediate acid test of Liverpool’s new makeshift defence as Jamie Vardy and in-form Leicester come to Anfield. Victory would reassure Klopp of his options and could send Liverpool top of the table.
- 25 November. Atalanta (H), Champions League: Liverpool may have beaten the Italian side 5-0 away, but they know this won’t be a walkover. Atalanta are a dangerous, unpredictable side who, on their day, are capable of sieging the goal. Victory would guarantee qualification for Liverpool and take the pressure off their final two group games.
- 28 November. Brighton (A), Premier League: Despite some bright performances, Brighton have managed just one win from their first eight league games and Liverpool should be confident of recording a win.
- 1 December. Ajax (A), Champions League: If Liverpool are victorious against Atalanta on matchday four, this game could be reduced in significance. If not it has the potential to be a top-of-the-table showdown in Group D.
- 5 December. Wolves (H), Premier League: Liverpool have won their last three games against Wolves but know that Nuno Espirito Santo’s side are likely to pose a tough test.
- 9 December. Midtjylland (A), Champions League: Hopefully a dead rubber in which Klopp can rotate as required and not worry about the result in Denmark.
- 12 December. Fulham (A), Premier League: Liverpool have won the last six league meetings between these two sides, scoring 18 goals in the process. They will be confident of extending that record.
- 16 December. Tottenham (H), Premier League: Probably the hardest of all these fixtures. A trip to White Hart Lane to face Jose Mourinho’s side could be a top-of-the-table clash.
- 19 December. Crystal Palace (A), Premier League: Their last match before Christmas, as the fixtures really begin to pile up. Another team Liverpool have beaten six times in a row.
- 26 December. West Brom (H), Premier League: Boxing Day will be spent playing the Baggies, who could well be without under-pressure manager Slaven Bilic by then.
- 28 December. Newcastle (A), Premier League: Liverpool travel to Newcastle between Christmas and New Years’ Eve. Guess what? They’ve won their last five against them and haven’t lost since December 2015.
- 2 January. Southampton (A), Premier League: The gruelling period ends on the south coast against Ralph Hasenhuttl’s Saints. Klopp will be able to reassess his side and consider recruitment in the January transfer window.
Potential options transfer targets:
January is never the best time to recruit new players, but it might be that by the time 2021 comes around Liverpool have little choice.
Sporting director Michael Edwards, head of recruitment Dave Fallows and chief scout Barry Hunter have a fantastic recent record behind them in the transfer market and will no doubt have a long list of centre-backs. The question will be whether any are available and for what price.
A repeat of the loan deal which brought Steven Caulker to Anfield in January 2016 is unlikely and Liverpool will be loath to buy anyone approaching the end of their career.
Here are a few options.
The 22-year-old has long been touted for a transfer away from RB Leipzig, where he has caught the eye with his strong performances in the Bundesliga and Champions League. The Athletic report that Liverpool already planned to move for the Frenchman, whose £40m release clause kicks in next summer, but could bring that pursuit forward due to injuries.
The Brighton defender was the subject of prolonged negotiations with Leeds United in the summer following a hugely successful loan spell with Marcelo Bielsa’s side, but ultimately the south coast side held onto him. The 23-year-old is good in possession and would be available for around £35m.
Schalke’s 20-year-old centre-back is another reportedly on Liverpool’s radar. The Turkish international, who has previously attracted interest from Manchester United and Juventus, is aggressive in the tackle, strong at set pieces and comfortable on the ball.
The Torino defender is another who reportedly looks good to Liverpool’s data-driven recruitment department. The Brazlian is a 23-year-old left-footed centre-back who joined the Italian club from Atletico Mineiro in 2018. He is considered an intelligent reader of the game who would fit into Liverpool’s style of play.