Virgil van Dijk was widely trumpeted as the solution to Liverpool’s defensive flimsiness when he joined in late December as the world’s most expensive defender for $100 million.
Results over the last month have shown the problem runs deeper than that.
Van Dijk returns on Sunday to the club that sold him – Southampton – with major doubts still hanging over Liverpool’s solidity at the back, even with the elegant Dutchman there.
It all started so well for Van Dijk, his late goal in front of The Kop at Anfield securing Liverpool victory over neighbor Everton in an FA Cup match on his debut. He looked sluggish in possession at times but his positioning was sound and he was dominant in the air, immediately demonstrating the kind of leadership Liverpool had been searching for.
Since then, Van Dijk has played in three of Liverpool’s five games and hasn’t had a win. Two of them were embarrassing losses to the English Premier League’s bottom two teams at the time, Swansea (1-0 away in the league) and West Bromwich Albion (3-2 at home in the FA Cup).
Liverpool has won the two games Van Dijk has missed through minor injury problems, one of them coming against previously unbeaten Manchester City when Joel Matip and Dejan Lovren was the center-back combination.
It seems, then, that Liverpool can post significant wins or slip to dispiriting losses no matter who the team has in central defense.
Just as Juergen Klopp warned barely a month into the season.
“I know here you’re always looking for this thing about the defense … that these problems will have been sorted with one player,” the Liverpool manager said after his team conceded two sloppy goal to draw with Sevilla 2-2 in a Champions League group match in September. “It’s not about this.”
Klopp said it was more a collective issue – the system, players’ concentration levels – than individual personnel. Many disagreed but it appears he was right. What Klopp can be criticized for, though, is not fixing the problem.
The real trouble might lie in the lack of protection for the defense from midfield, and the fragility of whoever Klopp picks as goalkeeper.
Klopp doesn’t have a dedicated holding midfielder, with Jordan Henderson, Emre Can, James Milner, Georginio Wijnaldum and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain currently being rotated as the midfield three. All like to get forward as much as helping out defensively, and it can leave Liverpool’s back four exposed.
Naby Keita is arriving from Leipzig in the offseason but he is also a midfielder who drives forward. Klopp may need an out-and-out anchorman.
As for the goalkeeper situation, Loris Karius is the current No. 1 after replacing Simon Mignolet last month but the German doesn’t inspire confidence among Liverpool fans. Much of the focus in the 2-2 draw with Tottenham on Sunday was on the two penalties awarded against Liverpool late in the game, with Karius even saving one of them.
It got overlooked that Karius was at fault for Tottenham’s first goal, when he punched the ball out to Victor Wanyama at the edge of the area rather than catch a cross from the left. Wanyama’s strike was sensational but he shouldn’t have got the ball in the first place.
Van Dijk faced more scrutiny for giving away the equalizing penalty deep in injury time, marring an otherwise good performance from the center back. He’ll just have to absorb it, especially this weekend when he faces the wrath of Southampton supporters still unhappy with Van Dijk’s actions in his final months at St. Mary’s Stadium.
“I know because I made such a big step right now, for a lot of money, everything is going to be analyzed,” he said.
“No one is going to look at the good things that you do. Everybody is going to watch the bad things, and that is how it is.”
Ironically, while Liverpool has won one of four matches with Van Dijk in the team, Southampton has lost just one of seven matches since he left.
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