It is a long road ahead for Liverpool without their talismanic defender Virgil van Dijk but in the immediate aftermath of his likely season-ending injury, there are reasons for cautious optimism at Anfield.
In the seven games after Van Dijk was left crocked at Goodison Park, Liverpool have conceded only three goals. In Van Dijk’s seven other appearances of the 2020-21 season, Liverpool conceded 14.
It happens so often in football – a team loses their star man and the squad steps up so efficiently, there are even signs that suggest an improvement. It is ludicrous to hint Liverpool are better without Van Dijk, but what is behind the stats that show how the squad have stepped up in his absence? Sportsmail takes a look.
Liverpool responded impressively since Virgil van Dijk sustained a major knee injury at Everton
ALISSON TO THE RESCUE
In three of Van Dijk’s seven games this season, he was without Liverpool’s No 1 goalkeeper Alisson behind him. Two of those were EFL Cup matches, where the Brazilian was rotated with Adrian while an injury then had him sidelined for the shambolic 7-2 defeat by Aston Villa.
Alisson adds so much more than a safe pair of hands to Liverpool’s team. His sweeper-keeper role is so crucial in how Liverpool flip the game from defence to attack and there were notable occasions against Leicester at Anfield on Sunday where his rapid speed off his line helped nullify the threat of Jamie Vardy.
He returned to Liverpool’s first-team a week after Van Dijk’s injury against Everton, meaning their 1-0 win away to Ajax was the only match where Liverpool were without their two defensive lynchpins. Alisson’s fitness for the rest of the season will be even more crucial to Liverpool’s fortunes now Van Dijk is out for so long.
Alisson’s return, shortly after Van Dijk’s injury, has been a major boost for Liverpool this season
His contribution to Liverpool’s play stretches far beyond a safe pair of hands in goal
Yes, he has been injured with a hamstring issue for a part of the time that has followed Van Dijk’s absence but looking at the bigger picture, there can’t be any doubts about Fabinho’s ability to fill in at the heart of the defence.
He thrived there for Liverpool alongside Van Dijk in Liverpool’s 2-0 win at Stamford Bridge against Chelsea and excelled in the victory at Ajax. His return on Sunday in time for Leicester was a major boost for Jurgen Klopp.
But his return to full fitness will have to be managed carefully, with games coming thick and fast over the next few weeks. His absence in midfield is also a blow for Liverpool – he adds so much the backbone of Liverpool’s play when he is higher up the pitch.
But Liverpool have an array of alternative midfield options. Fabinho’s defensive nous could prove to be one the team’s biggest assets across the course of the campaign.
Fabinho has proven to be a super option to deputise in the centre of Liverpool’s defence
YOUNGSTERS STEP UP
Of course, it isn’t just Fabinho who has helped sooth fears over life without Van Dijk – and Joe Gomez. Credit must also go to Rhys Williams and Nathaniel Phillips, who will have their part to play over the coming weeks and months as well.
Williams’ rise from Nations League to Champions League has been well chronicled and he also had some precious minutes alongside Van Dijk in two EFL Cup games against Lincoln and Arsenal.
Phillips covered valiantly too, filling in against West Ham when Joel Matip was still sidelined. Phillips spent a period of last season on loan at Stuttgart but a Premier League match is a step up from the German second tier and he adapted brilliantly.
Rhys Williams has stepped up brilliantly for Liverpool in the Champions League this season
Nathaniel Phillips (centre) also produced a superb display as Liverpool beat West Ham 2-1
THE DEFENCE STEPS BACK
A major talking point earlier in the season was Liverpool’s high defensive line. Leeds did a brilliant job of getting at Liverpool in the opening game of the season, a gritty 4-3 win for the Reds at Anfield. The back line was clearly a disaster against Villa while their first clean sheet 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 do appear to be defending a bit deeper since the Dutchman was sidelined. A touch more caution to their defensive organisation appears to have gone a long way – in the games that have followed Van Dijk’s injury, Liverpool average facing 3.3 shots on target a game, down on 4.5 with Van Dijk.
Liverpool have averaged facing less shots on target in the games since Van Dijk was injured
ROBERTSON IN OUTSTANDING FORM
There were an array of candidates for man of the match on Sunday night after such a commanding win 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 matches. James Milner filled in valiantly at right-back before moving into midfield to cover Naby Keita while Roberto Firmino capped a cunning display with a richly-deserved goal.
Andrew Robertson has been in fantastic form in recent matches for Liverpool at left-back
But it was the tireless Andy Robertson that was voted star man in what has been an electrifying start to the season from the left-back. He assisted Jota’s goal to cap another menacing display down Liverpool’s left flank.
His workload is also going to have to be carefully managed by Klopp. Scotland had concerns over a hamstring issue with Robertson in the recent international break and the Reds boss does now have an out-and-out left-back to rotate him with in Greece international Kostas Tsimikas.
As long as Robertson stays fit, he contributes massively to both defensive and attacking patterns of Liverpool’s play. It cannot be underestimated just how good, and important, he is to Liverpool’s play.