Van Dijk injury was the news every Liverpool fan was dreading and now Matip and Gomez must step up

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Virgil van Dijk Joel Matip Joe Gomez Liverpool 2020
Goal
The Dutchman could miss the rest of the season after knee surgery, but how will the Reds cope without their defensive 'tower'?

It was the news every Liverpool fan was dreading.

Virgil van Dijk. Anterior cruciate ligament. Months on the sidelines.

A miserable Sunday for the Premier League champions, who paid the heaviest of prices for their 2-2 draw at Everton on Saturday.

Put simply, this is a blow which will rock the Reds to their core, one which could seriously threaten their hopes of domestic and European glory this season. 

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There are players you need and players you want, and there are those you simply cannot be without. Van Dijk is the latter.

His absence will hit Liverpool hard. Jurgen Klopp’s men are already without their first-choice goalkeeper – Alisson Becker, at least, should return soon - and now they have lost their best defender - probably the best in the world, in fact.

These are huge blows, even to a team as well-drilled, as consistent and as determined as Liverpool are. They’re brilliant, but they won't be as brilliant without their main man. 

They aren't used to being without him either. Van Dijk has started the last 93 Premier League matches, and had played every minute of the last 74 prior to Saturday. The only game of note he missed in that period was the Champions League last 16 first leg against Bayern Munich in February 2019.

Liverpool, in fairness, kept a clean sheet without him that night, but the next few months will present a huge challenge. Remember how much Manchester City suffered last season without Aymeric Laporte? That is the worry now. There will be a drop-off, for certain, but how big will it be?

They have already looked shaky in this campaign – they have conceded 13 goals in five league matches – and now their defence is without its chief organiser, its loudest voice, its strongest figure. Others will need to step up, big time.

There’s a reason Pep Lijnders, the assistant manager, calls Van Dijk “a tower”. There's a reason Joe Gomez says he is "like a big brother", and why Van Dijk was PFA Player of the Year in 2019, finishing second only to Lionel Messi in the Ballon d'Or award that year. He's world class, the best centre-back around. He's arguably Liverpool's most important player.

How they will miss his range of passing, his calmness, his strength. Lijnders admits that his presence, his aggression and his pace are what allow Liverpool to play such a high defensive line. Will they need to readjust without him?

How they will miss his aerial ability, in both penalty areas. It is no coincidence that the two goals Liverpool conceded at Goodison came from crosses, one from the right and one from the left. Without Van Dijk, teams will feel they are vulnerable in that area.

Gomez and Joel Matip, remarkably, have never started a game for Liverpool together at centre-back – they were there together at Tottenham in 2017 when Dejan Lovren was substituted, and again on Saturday once Van Dijk went off – but that will change in the coming weeks. Liverpool need that duo, both of whom have had fitness issues of their own in the past, to stay fit and healthy if they are to maintain momentum. They need them on form, confident and consistent. 

The return of Alisson, who is understood to be ahead of schedule in terms of his recovery from a shoulder problem, will soothe some of the concerns, while there was certainly promise in the way Fabinho performed at centre-back against Chelsea last month.

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The Brazilian is seen as a realistic candidate to deputise there again in the future, while both Jordan Henderson, who started the Club World Cup semi-final there last December, and Gini Wijnaldum, of 'back three at Brighton' fame, represent emergency options. That, though, would in turn impact the Reds' midfield plans. City suffered in that regard when forced to move Fernandinho back last season following Laporte's misfortune.

Beyond that, it is about the young and the untried. Rhys Williams, 19, played in the Carabao Cup and impressed, particularly against Arsenal at Anfield, while 17-year-old Billy Koumetio’s potential is clear. Sepp van den Berg was signed on the back of top-flight experience with Zwolle in the Eredivisie, but has yet to convince in just over a year on Merseyside.

Nat Phillips is another potential option. The 23-year-old had expected to depart, either on loan or permanently, in the summer, but saw interest from the Championship fail to evolve into something more concrete. Phillips spent last season on loan at Stuttgart in Germany’s second tier, returning briefly in January to make his Reds debut in the FA Cup win over Everton, and is known for his rock-solid temperament and character, though he is yet to play a professional league game in England

Of course it is easy to look at the worst-case scenario after a blow like this. The optimists would point to the fact that Liverpool win far more games than they lose, that they still have a wonderful team which, for most of the Merseyside derby, played with confidence, conviction and quality.

And in any case, Klopp would tell you the Reds' success has been built on far more than just one or two players. Theirs has been a collective triumph, a lesson in teamwork, resilience and high standards, day in and day out. They don't do excuses. 

Those standards, though, will need to be maintained in the coming weeks and months. There is a league title to defend, and a Champions League to attack. Melwood will be a sombre place on Monday, and many supporters will be of a similar mood, but Liverpool cannot let that negativity fester.

Who knows, maybe the absence of such a popular, well-respected member of the dressing room may bring out an extra level in some of Van Dijk’s team-mates? Maybe Klopp will look to add someone when the transfer window re-opens on January 1? Plenty would have said he needed to anyway. Jamie Carragher has been quick to suggest he should.

Maybe Matip and Gomez will stay fit and produce their best. Maybe Mohamed Salah, Sadio Mane and Co. will ensure they don’t even need to. 

And maybe this red machine will roll on.

If it does, though, it will have to do so without probably its most important cog. 

Get well soon, Virgil. Liverpool need you. Soon, we'll know exactly how much.

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