By Tony Evans
Virgil van Dijk is crucial to Liverpool. No other player in the Premier League is as influential within his own team as the Dutchman is for the Reds.
The centre back’s absence through suspension for the Champions League knockout round first-leg clash against Bayern Munich is the most serious blow Jurgen Klopp’s side could have suffered.
The 27-year-old has been worth every penny of the £75 million that Liverpool paid to Southampton in January last year. Not only is Van Dijk a physically-dominant defender who is comfortable on the ball but he is also an organiser and mentor on the pitch.
He inspires confidence. So far, Klopp’s side have conceded just 15 goals in the Premier League with Van Dijk as an ever-present.
Liverpool have not been quite so secure in the Champions League, leaking seven goals in six group games. Bayern fancy their chances and the centre half’s unavailability comes at a bad time.
Klopp’s options are limited. His first-choice back four is a fine unit. Trent Alexander-Arnold and Andy Robertson at left and right back respectively have improved consistently over the past year.
Joe Gomez looked like the perfect foil for Van Dijk in the central areas. Alexander-Arnold will be back against the German side but Gomez is still some way off returning.
The problem at centre half has been exacerbated by Dejan Lovren’s prolonged layoff. The Croat has a reasonable chance of playing against Bayern but Lovren is very much a third-choice stopper. Joel Matip is even further down the pecking order.
The other option for the Liverpool manager is to use Fabinho in defence. The midfielder is versatile but has struggled with the pace and physicality of the Premier League.
It has taken the Brazilian a while to settle and on occasion – such as the 1-1 draw with West Ham United earlier this month – play passed him by. Klopp has worked on his mobility in training and expects the 25-year-old to have an increasing influence on the team.
When asked to fill in at centre back, Fabinho has acquitted himself well – especially in the 1-0 win over Brighton – but operating alongside Van Dijk is a different prospect to partnering Matip.
The problems at the back have a knock-on effect in midfield. Fabinho and Naby Keita arrived on Merseyside last summer with the expectation that they would become the club’s midfield engine.
Keita has also found adapting to life at Anfield more difficult than anticipated. His team-mates and the backroom staff rave about his ability in training but he has not translated this into dominant matchday performances.
Bayern, a team Keita is familiar with, should give him the perfect opportunity to show the Kop what he can do.
Given the issues in the back four, however, Klopp might look for a more conservative approach from his midfielders on Tuesday night, with Jordan Henderson’s engine, James Milner’s know-how and Georginio Wijnaldum positional acumen providing a potentially more effective screen for the back four.
Yet Liverpool’s success and form in the past 14 months has been built on the foundations of Van Dijk. Without him, there would probably not have been the uplifting run to the Champions League final in Kiev last season or this campaign’s title challenge.
If they can cope without the Dutchman on Tuesday night it will represent a huge step forward for Klopp and his team.