Liverpool finally got their man. It took £75 million and a long, torturous wait since the summer pursuit, but Jurgen Klopp has Virgil van Dijk in his squad.
There was a feeling of inevitability about it, even after Southampton’s statement a few months ago and reported interest from Chelsea and Manchester City. Liverpool had the most significant need at the back, and were always likely to meet Saints’ demand to get their man.
Van Dijk has been far from his 2016/17 best this season. Whether that is cause or effect of Southampton’s indifferent form is hard to tell, but Liverpool are not signing a player in the form of his life. That’s okay, of course.
One certainty is that he will be first choice. Who accompanies the towering Dutchman at the heart of the Liverpool defence is harder to tell. No defender has started more than 15 Premier League matches this season, due to a cocktail of injury and rotation.
Joel Matip is the obvious favourite. The Cameroonian, though, has not been blameless in Liverpool’s defensive carnage over the past 18 months.
He has played the most minutes of Liverpool’s centre-backs in the league this season. Matip at his best is a dominating presence, standing at 6 feet 5 inches tall and with the pace to cope with Klopp’s trademark high line.
Errors have crept into Matip’s game, but – similarly to van Dijk – it’s hard to tell if that is because of the dysfunction around him in Liverpool’s defence. He is the same age as the club-record signing, 26, meaning they could form the core of the Reds’ back line for the next five years.
Dejan Lovren has taken the brunt of criticism for his often highly-publicised defensive mistakes. He remains at the forefront of Klopp’s thinking, however, having played regularly in the Premier League and Champions League.
It is widely expected that van Dijk is the replacement for Lovren, but – despite inconsistencies – the issues at the back for Liverpool are deeper than the odd misjudgement from the Croatian.
One alternative is Joe Gomez. He has not played in the middle in the league this season – per WhoScored.com – but has been a bright spot for the Reds whether at left or right-back. Gomez made his England debut in late 2017.
Given the continued impressive performances of Trent Alexander-Arnold, we could see Gomez partnering van Dijk more often than expected. The 20-year-old has the highest ceiling of all the options. It might not be long before Klopp wants to fit Gomez and Alexander-Arnold into the same team on a regular basis.
Van Dijk is not a solve-all for Liverpool at the back. There is still work to be done, but there is the potential for a very solid defensive unit – well, as solid as it can be under Klopp.
It’s also worth noting that only Manchester City, Tottenham and Chelsea have better expected goals against in the Premier League this season.
I expect Matip to be the primary partner early on, but Gomez could well be first-choice before the season ends.
Written by Sam Cox
Follow Sam on Twitter @SamRCox_
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