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Liverpool’s Defensive Options Without Virgil Van Dijk

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Jurgen Klopp and Liverpool have a dearth of depth at center back after the Dutch defender was lost to an ACL season. Let’s take a look at some of the options.

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Liverpool Training Session Photo by John Powell/Liverpool FC via Getty Images

Liverpool took a risk entering this season with only three senior team center backs on the roster. One of them, Virgil van Dijk, had played every minute in 74 straight game in the Premier League. The other two, Joel Matip and Joe Gomez, have had, shall we say, ignominious injury records. Still, the team has mostly managed to keep at least one of them healthy to partner with van Dijk these past two-plus seasons. The one thing that couldn’t happen was to lose the Dutch defender for a significant spell of time. And that, of course, is exactly what happened when Jordan Pickford charged out of his goal with reckless abandon.

With the domestic window closing just the day before the Merseyside Derby, and Liverpool not making any moves to bring in depth at the position, they have nothing left to do but roll with the options already in the squad. Let’s take a look at who those options are.

The Senior Team Center Backs

Joel Matip and Joe Gomez are the obvious options here, and will become the de facto starting duo. When healthy, both have turned in stretches of strong performances next to Virgil van Dijk, but neither is really a vocal OR commanding presence (much less and). Then you have that Matip is already dealing with a niggle of an injury and Gomez is currently dealing with what looks to be a crisis of confidence. Klopp likely won’t have much option but to hope Matip is something like fit while letting Gomez play through his own issues while hoping he can step back up to his best.

There is a third option with the senior squad, though not one that likely instills you with confidence. Twenty-three year old Academy product Nathaniel Phillips spent last season on loan helping 2. Bundesliga side Stuttgart win promotion to the Bundesliga. While Phillips helped, he didn’t make himself a mainstay, only starting 16 games during the season. And while Phillips seems like a really great guy, he doesn’t seem to have the athletic ability to play the aggressive high line Jurgen Klopp prefers, though he does seem like someone who could feature in an absolute emergency.

The Converted Midfielders

While Nat Phillips is a career defender, the most likely player to step into a center back role (potentially as soon against Ajax if Matip cannot start) is Fabinho. The holding midfielder already dropped into the deeper role against Chelsea and did an admirable job against Timo Werner. He does a good job reading the game in front of him, and his passing range can cause problems for the other team in transition. The biggest drawback is his speed, especially when heading back towards his own goal. When he has players behind him, he can gamble with going to ground with his Go Go Gadget Legs to poke the ball away, but there are much more severe consequences when you are the last man back.

There are two other midfielders who could conceivably step in in a pinch. Both Jordan Henderson and Georginio Wijnaldum have spent a sparse few minutes at center back. Both are tactically astute players willing to do a job for the team. Henderson is a vocal leader who can help martial the defense, and is pretty strong in the air. Wijnaldum is a solid tackler who does not lost the ball in tight situations.

Two Yutes (+1)

Let’s get the +1 out of the way. Sepp van den Berg, the young ginger giant, has spent the last year training with the senior team. While he is a stellar athlete, he has so far shown himself to be hesitant and unsure with the ball at his feet. He is still only 18 years old, and has plenty of time to grow into his potential, but for the time being he seems to have been passed by the two yutes who could actually push for minutes.

Rhys Williams (19 years old) and Billy Koumetio (17 years old) are two very highly thought of prospects. Both players have ideal size (both in the 6’5” range, or about 1.95m), and both seem to be comfortable with the ball at their feet. Large Billy joined Liverpool in August, and immediately impressed during preseason friendlies. His ability to ping a ball with both feet was staggeringly good, and he was a massive presence (literally) in the air.

Williams, on the other hand, has been with Liverpool since the U10s. He has moved through the ranks, and spent last season on loan with non-league Kidderminster. While Koumetio was the talk of preseason, it was Williams who stepped in to start next to Virgil van Dijk against Lincoln City after Billy was ruled out with an injury. Williams acquitted himself quite well during the match. He impressed enough to earn another start, this time against Arsenal, where he again looked like he belonged.

While Koumetio and Williams have impressed in their opportunities, they were never really expected to be first team regulars for at least a few more years. Still, should something happen to Gomez or Matip, one of these two could at least find themselves on the bench, and will likely be involved in cup matches in the new year if another senior center half doesn’t arrive.

So there it is. That’s the depth. The starters are pretty much set in stone, but should something happen, we’re left with a player most likely headed for the Championship (Phillips), midfielders, or youth prospects. Here is my take on the depth chart:

  1. Joel Matip
  2. Joe Gomez
  3. Fabinho
  4. Jordan Henderson
  5. Rhys Williams
  6. Billy Koumetio
  7. Nat Phillips
  8. Gini Wijnaldum
  9. Sepp van den Berg

It will be interesting to see how aggressive Liverpool are in the January market if they are still in the hunt for the title.