Liverpool’s worst nightmares were confirmed on Sunday as Virgil van Dijk has been ruled out for the foreseeable future.
The centre-back suffered a horror knee ligament injury in the Merseyside derby on Saturday and could now potentially miss the rest of the football season.
This leaves just Joe Gomez and Joel Matip as Liverpool’s fit senior centre-backs after the decision to not sign a new fourth-choice following Dejan Lovren’s summer departure.
Strangely, the club did not sign anyone, putting faith in Fabinho to cover if needed, as well as youngsters Billy Koumetio and Rhys Williams.
Presumably, the thought process was that while Gomez and, in particular, Matip are fairly injury-prone, the chances of them both being out at the same time were slim.
Van Dijk’s injury record has always been exemplary. So, the kids would have him beside them to cover and guide them if they had to come into the team.
The possibility of a serious injury to the Dutchman was inconceivable. Yet here we are.
Matip and Gomez are still top quality
Something that has gone under the radar in the aftermath of the van Dijk news is the quality of centre-back that the Reds still have.
Matip was quietly one of the world’s best defenders in 2019, playing a key role in the winning of the Champions League, as well as Liverpool’s phenomenal start to the 2019/20 league season.
Meanwhile, Gomez is one of the best young defenders on the planet. People forget that he is still just 23 and has had major injuries of his own. From December to March of this year, he was arguably matching van Dijk’s performance levels.
So, on their day, Matip and Gomez are two of the world’s best centre-backs.
The problems are fitness in Matip’s case, while Gomez is going through a very poor spell of form.
Another issue is the fact that both of these have looked top-class playing next to van Dijk. Virgil is the communicator and the organizer at the back, ensuring that his partner is in the right place at the right time.
Will Matip and Gomez, who have never started a Premier League game together as a pair, be able to find their voice and show some leadership?
If the pair can get as far as January fit and on form, Liverpool should be fine until then. But it is clear that Jurgen Klopp will have to splash out in the winter in order to see the season out and, hopefully, compete for trophies.
A top-class replacement is now needed
Last July, we pointed out a few potential targets that could have come in as Lovren’s replacement as an understudy.
However, the assumption was that this player would be in rotation with both Gomez and Matip as the ever-present van Dijk’s partner. So, the players mentioned were of decent quality, but not in the top bracket.
Now, Liverpool need someone of an elite level.
Yes, van Dijk will be back for 2021/22 if his rehab goes to plan, but who knows if he will still be the player of old?
It would be no harm to have a younger elite player that can eventually replace the 29-year-old in four or five years time.
So, while splashing £80 million on a 29-year-old Kalidou Koulibaly makes sense for this season, it is not worth it in the long run.
Liverpool are in a great position in the sense that there is probably no player on earth that wouldn’t consider a move to Anfield.
The problem is that players at top clubs are near impossible to sign in January, as teams do not want to lose key players mid-season. Liverpool are not in a position to make offers that teams cannot refuse due to FSG’s method of running the club within its means.
Raphael Varane is actually a feasible future target for Liverpool – just not mid-season.
Conor Coady is one that many Liverpool fans would love to bring back to the club, but this would certainly be a decision made with the heart, not the head. While he could match van Dijk’s leadership ability, his lack of pace would be exposed in Liverpool’s high line.
Here are some targets that Liverpool could, or even should, look at in January.
We start with the name on the lips of every Red – Dayot Upamecano of RB Leipzig.
Frenchman Upamecano has been labelled as a star of the future for quite a while now, but 2019/20 was the year he really blew up.
After a very promising 2017/18, injury struggles restricted him to just 15 league games in 2018/19. That season saw him fall by the wayside a little bit and he was outshone by teammates Willi Orban and Ibrahima Konate (who is also worth a look) in the Leipzig backline.
Yet both Orban and Konate struggled with injuries of their own last season. This allowed Upamecano to reclaim his spot and become something of a superstar.
He was arguably the second-best centre-half in Europe last season, after van Dijk himself. Upamecano averaged 3.4 tackles and interceptions per game in the league, as well as a brilliant 89.1 pass success rate.
He gave an exhibition of defending in his side’s Champions League quarter-final win over Atletico Madrid. In this game, he bullied the notorious Diego Costa for 90 minutes in a manner never seen before.
Oh, and did we mention he is only 21?
It is incredibly rare to see such a young defender perform to such a high level.
He may not be able to replace van Dijk’s leadership and aerial prowess just yet, but he will probably do as good a job as anyone else could. Also, come next year, a van Dijk/Upamecano axis could be impenetrable.
To top it all off, he has a €42m release clause that kicks in during the summer of 2021. Unless Leipzig are strongly competing for top honours, they would probably accept a slightly higher bid in January.
Surely they would accept a bid of around €55m in January considering the wealth of other options they have in his position?
Another incredibly interesting option in Germany is Bayern Munich’s David Alaba.
Like Upamecano, he looks set to become available in summer 2021 as his contract is due to expire.
Bayern are seemingly unwilling to accept his wage demands. And, just like Thiago last summer, Alaba appears to fancy a change of scenery.
And why not follow his ex-teammate to Anfield?
The Austrian is incredibly versatile, having previously been one of the world’s finest left-backs. He has also played in centre-midfield and at number 10 for his national team.
Since Hansi Flick took over in the Allianz Arena dugout, Alaba has starred at centre-back. He played a key role in the German giants’ successful Champions League campaign, playing alongside Jerome Boateng.
At 28, Alaba is incredibly experienced. He would be able to bring the leadership and organizational qualities that Liverpool will be missing in van Dijk’s absence.
He is also used to playing in a high line. This means that he wouldn’t have to adapt his game too much.
While the Bavarian side was caught out high up the pitch at times last season, it was predominantly down to Boateng’s lack of pace, not Alaba’s.
Alaba could then provide a midfield option when van Dijk returns, as Gini Wijnaldum and James Milner look set to leave next summer.
It seems to very much be a case of the right player in the right place at the right time.
Liverpool need an experienced left-sided centre-back. Alaba looks set to leave. Bayern would surely rather get some cash in January rather than lose another big name for nothing.
Keep an eye on this one.
Best of the rest
Finally, here are some other options that could well be worth a gamble for the Liverpool hierarchy.
Liverpool looked at Ben White and Ozan Kabak in the summer. However, they are very young and inexperienced. They would probably fit better into the role of fourth choice, rather than van Dijk replacement.
Alessio Romagnoli is a great blend of relative youth and outstanding leadership. He wears the AC Milan armband at 25-years-old, having done so for two years.
The Italian plays on the left and is incredibly well-rounded, just like van Dijk. He would be great for Liverpool but has had injury problems of his own. It would also be tough to get him from a resurgent Milan outfit.
Ezri Konsa and Tyrone Mings have been the outstanding defensive duo in the opening weeks of the season. Both of them would be decent signings, depending on what Jurgen Klopp prioritized.
If he wanted what is basically a budget version of van Dijk due to similarities in leadership qualities, height, speed and left-sidedness, then Mings would be great.
Yet Konza has almost single-handedly transformed Villa’s defence at the tender age of 22. He is homegrown and is only going to get better.
Liverpool could do a lot worse than sign either man, but there would undoubtedly be an “English tax” on both.
The previously mentioned Ibrahima Konate, plus Edmond Tapsoba and Jules Kounde, are some of the finest young defenders in Europe. They are all set to move on from their club in the next few years.
The trio are young and could be great van Dijk replacements when he ages out in a few years. Plus, they are all already very good defenders.
Essentially, there is nobody on earth that can do the job of Virgil van Dijk. Some things are simply irreplaceable.
Yet there are elements of his game that can be replaced if you look in the right direction.
If anyone can be trusted to find the right player, it’s Jurgen Klopp and Michael Edwards.