It was a moment which had the potential to derail Liverpool’s entire season. A Merseyside derby defined not by football, but by controversy. A wild lunge from Jordan Pickford and a serious injury for Virgil van Dijk. An afternoon of frustration and anger, of sadness and regret. Costly, in more ways than one. Never mind the two points dropped.
They paled into insignificance once news of Van Dijk’s misfortune arrived, a few hours after the final whistle at Goodison Park. It was a bad one, a ruptured anterior cruciate ligament. The Reds would be without their talisman, without the world’s best defender, for months. It hit them hard.
And things got worse soon after, with Joe Gomez damaging his knee, badly, during a training session with England. Ligaments, once more. Months, once more. That was two centre-backs down in the space of a month, and Liverpool only started the season with three of them.
How, we asked, would they cope?
The answer, it turns out, is pretty well. So much so, in fact, that when the transfer window opens next week, Liverpool won’t be waiting at the door with their trolley, ready to see what they can pick up in the January sales. That will surprise plenty.
Jamie Carragher, the former Reds defender, was among those who urged the club to sign a centre-back following Van Dijk’s injury.
“Liverpool’s next signing had to be a centre-back next summer anyway,” Carragher said in October. “That has to be brought forward to January 1 – not the end of the month.”
Carragher will not get his wish. Sources have told Goal that Liverpool are not planning an active January, that they won’t be making any first-team signings – centre-back or otherwise.
That speaks to the job Fabinho has done since moving back from midfield. The Brazilian has always been appreciated at Anfield, but his importance has been ratcheted up since Van Dijk and Gomez went down.
With Joel Matip, the club’s other senior, specialist centre-back, having what we could call a ‘chequered’ injury past, Fabinho has become even more vital to Jurgen Klopp’s plans. His form, in a new position, has been outstanding.
Credit, too, to the others who have stood tall when called upon. To Rhys Williams, a 19-year-old who spent last season in the sixth tier of English football on loan with Kidderminster, and to Nat Phillips, who would have been sold to the Championship in October had a suitable bid arrived. Williams and Phillips, between them, have made 11 appearances this season, and have rarely looked overawed or out of their depth.
Another teenage centre-back, Billy Koumetio, became the youngest European debutant in the club’s history at Midtjylland earlier this month, while captain Jordan Henderson slotted in alongside Fabinho when Matip went off at Fulham.
Liverpool have had plenty of problems, but they have found plenty of solutions. They are top of the Premier League, and qualified comfortably for the last 16 of the Champions League.
All of which explains, to some degree, why Jurgen Klopp and the club’s recruitment team, led by sporting director Michael Edwards, are so relaxed heading into the transfer window.
The Reds have had plenty of success with January signings – Van Dijk himself was one, of course – but the feeling at Anfield is that they can cope with what they have, even if Matip’s fitness record remains a source of concern.
There are, of course, financial factors at play too. Liverpool estimate they will lose at least £100 million ($137m) as a result of the coronavirus pandemic, and have adjusted their budgets accordingly.
Their summer spending - Kostas Tsimikas, Diogo Jota and Thiago Alcantara - was balanced carefully against their outgoings, in particular the sales of Dejan Lovren, Ki-Jana Hoever and Rhian Brewster and the removal of Adam Lallana and Nathaniel Clyne, relatively high earners, from the wage bill.
A centre-back is certainly on the radar, long term, and several potential targets have been identified. Liverpool have scouted Brighton’s Ben White, for example, and have been alerted to the progress of Lille’s Sven Botman.
Perr Schuurs of Ajax impressed against them in the Champions League, while more high-profile names, Dayot Upamecano of RB Leipzig or Jules Kounde at Sevilla, are naturally on the radar.
It is no easy task, though. Liverpool have, in Van Dijk and Gomez, but also Matip and Fabinho, four high-class centre-backs, who excel at playing in a certain way, within a certain system and at a certain level.
“Those players are of the highest calibre, and so they are not easy to replace or upgrade,” says Can Erdogan, founder of Real Metric Analytics, a company which provides tailored data solutions to football clubs.
Erdogan, born in Turkey and educated in the USA, has worked as a scout for both Crystal Palace and Philadelphia Union, and his company now works with clubs across Europe, providing scouting and recruitment assistance via a platform which takes in data from more than 35 leagues, which assesses more than 30,000 players and covers over 75,000 matches worldwide.
Several clubs, including Fenerbahce, have used their services. The Turkish giants used Real Metric Analytics’ database to assess Vedat Muriqi, a Kosovo international striker who, while playing with Caykur Rizespor, was flagged up by the model as an undervalued player. Fenerbahce paid €3.5m (£3m/$4m) for Muriqi, and after one successful season sold him to Lazio for €17.5m (£16m/$21m) in September.
“He’s one of the big success stories,” says Erdogan, who has worked alongside clubs such as Borussia Dortmund, Club Brugge and Toulouse, in the last 12 months.
The platform, naturally, is data-heavy, with more than 250 metrics used for each player in each game, all of which form a ‘match rating’. One of the more intriguing aspects is the ‘player similarity index’, which allows users to find and compare players who show up, statistically at least, as having similar playing styles.
It is here, perhaps, that we see just how difficult it may be for Liverpool to find the right centre-back, in January or in the summer.
According to Erdogan’s model, which focuses on key defensive metrics such as aerial wins, possession regains, pass success, the Reds already have three of Europe’s best-ranked centre-backs in Van Dijk (No.1), Matip (No.10) and Gomez (No.25).
In last season’s Premier League, Liverpool had four of the top seven centre-backs (the now-departed Lovren was ranked seventh). Remember how hard they worked to find Van Dijk? Well imagine trying now to find someone who can replace him.
Erdogan’s ‘player similarity index’ tries to, and certainly flags up some interesting names. Upamecano features, though the Leipzig man shows up significantly weaker when it comes to aerial prowess, and so does the impressively-rounded White, whose star is very much on the rise at Brighton.
Botman’s name is on the list, as are more surprising names such as Everton’s Yerry Mina and Chelsea’s Kurt Zouma, and the relatively unknown Nayef Aguerd of Rennes.
How about someone similar to Gomez, then? Again the index comes up with an intriguing mix of names. Leicester’s Caglar Soyuncu and Bayer Leverkusen’s Jonathan Tah are deemed the most similar, style-wise, while the highly-rated Kounde’s name stands out, as does that of Schalke’s Ozan Kabak, who was linked with Liverpool in the summer. Bafode Diakite, a 19-year-old prospect at Comolli’s Toulouse, is the youngest player on the list.
All very interesting, although as Erdogan himself admits, Liverpool are already seen as market leaders when it comes to the collection and application of data in football recruitment. Their research team, led by Ian Graham, is revered within the game, while the work of Edwards, head of recruitment Dave Fallows and chief scout Barry Hunter, is there for all to see.
“They are a club that makes very good decisions,” Erdogan says. Whether the decision to hold off going after a defender in January is a good one, of course, only time will tell.
Liverpool, generally, have benefited from their measured approach in the transfer market in recent years – even big-money signings such as Van Dijk, Alisson or Fabinho were the result of months, years even, of research and tracking – but it will be a risk, no question, to bank on Matip staying fit, or on the likes of Williams and Phillips continuing to surprise, for the remainder of this season.
The good news is that, even with the setbacks and the panic and the concern, Liverpool are still right where they want to be – at the top, looking strong and hungry, and ready to compete for honours once more. Derailed? Not this team, not this club. Even Van Dijk’s injury hasn’t slowed the red train. Not yet, anyway.