Virgil van Dijk has been the ever-present bedrock of Jurgen Klopp’s Liverpool defence for the best part of two seasons.
The idea of replacing such an integral figure so early on in the season is a nightmare none of us could have envisaged becoming a reality given the Dutchman’s durability since his signing in January 2018.
Before his potentially season-ending ACL injury, Van Dijk had started 92 consecutive league matches – the idea of having to cope long-term without his services seemed unimaginable.
Yet this is the task that has been thrown in the direction of Klopp and Liverpool’s most recent match against Ajax provided the first real evidence of how the team could cope in the absence of their irreplaceable centre-half.
Klopp was forced to pair together Fabinho and Joe Gomez with Joel Matip unavailable for the trip to Amsterdam due to a fitness concern.
Remarkably, it was the 35th different centre back pairing to start a game for the Reds under Klopp. Gomez and Matip are still yet to have featured together from the start.
Overall, both players were outstanding against the Eredivisie champions as a slender win in the Dutch capital was achieved thanks to a gritty, resilient defensive display that saw both defenders as Liverpool’s two outstanding players on the night.
How it played out
Fabinho and Gomez were equally busy from a defensive viewpoint and both were well positioned on countless occasions to keep the Ajax threat at bay.
Without Van Dijk, watching from home with his knee in a brace, Europe wanted to know how the Reds would cope. Klopp maintained that his team would deal with any setback thrown their direction, that they would silence the doubters in the only way they know how to – with results.
Under the microscopic scope of the media look at their every move, those two – and Andy Robertson, who was exceptional at left-back – stood out by a country mile.
Fabinho in particular was totally immense. The Brazilian was tough and resilient defensively but also ice-cool in possession utilising the ball to effect with his array of passing qualities. His versatility to play both midfield and defence could make him at this present moment Liverpool’s most valuable player given Alisson Becker, Thiago Alcantara and Van Dijk are all currently injured.
Overall, Fabinho rounded off a complete performance with four tackles, nine clearences and four interceptions.
Gomez also deserves a lot of credit, especially when considering his early-season struggles this term. It was a rare sight to see the 23-year-old operating in the unfamiliar left-side of defence as well as the team’s senior central defensive figure.
With the world watching, Gomez refused to hide and stood up to the task with aplomb. He was clever with the ball and was perfectly placed on numerous occasions. The England international made an astonishing 11 clearances on the night – more than any other player.
Add in the performance of Robertson, and this was about as close to the perfect defensive performance Klopp could have wished for.
The challenge for Klopp
The next challenge for Klopp is how does he effectively and efficiently rotate between his three available central defensive options?
The Liverpool boss confirmed on Tuesday that Joel Matip was ‘in contention’ to feature against Sheffield United which could see the Cameroonian international recalled to the starting XI at the weekend.
Liverpool were forced to completely reshuffle their midfield triumvirate against Ajax so Klopp may look to move Fabinho back to midfield on Saturday to compensate for the absence of both Thiago Alcantara and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain.
Both Matip and Gomez have had their injury struggles in the past, if Klopp is going to keep them both fit until the January transfer window opens, regular rotation is going to play a huge factor.
For all the discussion looking at how severely Liverpool would struggle without Van Dijk, as responses go from Liverpool’s remaining defensive cover, this was an emphatic response.
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