What does Virgil van Dijk’s injury mean for Liverpool’s season?


Virgil van Dijk is going to be out for a long time through injury, destined for knee surgery after ligament damage suffered at the foot of Merseyside rival Jordan Pickford on Saturday.

This is a tough one.

[ VIDEO: Premier League highlights ]

Players of Van Dijk’s import are rare for big clubs, usually fairly and richly set with replacement-level players, but talk to any Liverpool supporter and you’ll hear a tale of how the Dutch center back’s arrival took the club from fun and up-and-coming, to ferocious title chasers.

Here are three questions for the Reds as they face months without arguably the best center back in the world.

1. Just how big of a loss is this?

Big. Just look at the many well wishes on Twitter from Liverpool stars alone (We’ll include them throughout this post).

This will be a real challenge to the mentality of Liverpool and perhaps even more so its supporters and the media who did not exactly allow excuses to Manchester City when they lost their two most important players — Kevin De Bruyne and Aymeric Laporte — for long spells in each of past two seasons.

Virgil van Dijk is an absolute monster and has been at every stop from Celtic to Southampton to Liverpool. Jurgen Klopp took this already imposing and wonderful defender and turned him into a legitimate Ballon d’Or contender.

Now he’s gone for a long while.

There are reasons for Liverpool hope even beyond solutions that Jurgen Klopp might conjure with his majestic mind.

  • First off, apparently, no one can defend in the Premier League anymore. Five teams have allowed double-digit goals through the first 4-5 matches of their season. Everyone either wants to attack or cannot defend and has to attack. Liverpool can attack.
  • The January transfer window should open with even a weakened Liverpool very much in the mix for their season goals. If their options at the back haven’t lived up to the task, they can buy.
  • The Reds’ Champions League group draw should allow even a substandard string of performances to lift the club into the knockout rounds. Ajax is good, but young. Midtjylland is tough, but not close to the Reds’ class. Atalanta may now have a better chance to win the group but Liverpool shouldn’t be knocked out in the group stage.

2. Should we be second-guessing Liverpool’s preparation?

Let’s start here before we get to the risk of being hindsight people: No one plans for their best player to get hurt and buys elite player after elite player “just in case.”

But Liverpool addressed its midfield and its wings — worrying about depth behind Sadio Mane, Mohamed Salah, Fabinho and others — without considering what’s behind Virgil van Dijk.

Some of us spoke out loudly about Liverpool running the risk of “Laporte-ing” this window once Dejan Lovren walked out the door without a veteran replacement (and to a much lesser extent, Ki-Jana Hoever, who might end up at right back anyway, went to Wolves as a part of the Diogo Jota deal).

And there were warning signs once Joel Matip went down, the Cameroonian’s absence not shining a positive light on 23-year-old Joe Gomez. He’s still young for the position, yeah, but if the budget was limited to $50 million, why spend it on Jota over legitimate center back depth for a team in a window to win anything it wants?

Now, that said, the Reds aren’t working with chopped liver at center back. A lot of teams would be happy to trot out Joe Gomez and Joel Matip. As an aside, it was remarkable to read in The Athletic that the duo have never started a match together as center backs.

Klopp has already shown a willingness to drop Fabinho into center back in what feels oh-so-Fernandinho, and perhaps that’s what’s coming from the German genius. Maybe this is why Klopp invested in Thiago Alcantara, who instantly became the club’s best midfielder and gave him the ability to move Fabinho, Georginio Wijnaldum, or another midfield cog.

Or maybe young Nathaniel Phillips, Sepp van den Berg or another kid is more ready than many think.

If anyone’s going to sort it, it’s Klopp, though all you have to look to is last year’s City and Spurs as clubs who couldn’t overcome big injuries to meet standards (though City did the year before without KDB for months, which remains nutty).

3. Do you really believe in the Mentality Monsters?

Liverpool’s incredible rebirth under Jurgen Klopp has earned the group an almost irreproachable belief and benefit of the doubt (in the rare instances it’s needed).

Fortunate bounces, like Divock Origi’s winner against Everton, were often viewed as a byproduct of Liverpool’s relentless effort — deserved bits of ‘luck’ from the soccer deities. And it’s easy to buy into that.

Klopp has planted, fed and harvested this outlook from his club, players, supporters and even neutrals.

That’s the best hope that Liverpool fans can cull from this long-term absence of the team’s best player.

The next few months — maybe many months — are similar to City without De Bruyne, Bayern without Joshua Kimmich, PSG without Kylian Mbappe. Perhaps Van Dijk’s value is more crucial to Liverpool than any player other than Lionel Messi is to any other big club.

Who can navigate the emotional toll this will take on an entire club? Well, you’d bet on Jurgen Klopp as much as any other manager in the world and it would be a decent bet.

But perhaps the biggest challenge will come in Amsterdam against Ajax on Wednesday or home to Sheffield United on Saturday; That’s the first time Liverpool’s players will look to their left, right, or behind them and not see the man who’s played in nearly every important match in the club’s recent history.