A cloud of grief seems to have enveloped Anfield since Virgil van Dijk’s devastating knee injury in the Merseyside derby.
‘We will wait for him like a good wife is waiting when the husband is in jail,’ was Liverpool manager Jurgen Klopp’s typically colourful lament on the Dutchman’s likely absence for the remainder of the season.
And while one newspaper’s online book to collect ‘messages of support’ for Van Dijk – unsurprisingly mocked by rival fans as a ‘book of condolence’ – may have been a touch too far, there’s no doubt his injury is a game-changing moment in this Premier League campaign.
It doesn’t exactly plunge the defending champions into crisis but Klopp will be well aware that it’s the kind of thing that when combined with other unfortunate events can snowball quickly into one.
There’s no hiding that Van Dijk’s absence comes as a body blow for a Liverpool defence already showing signs of vulnerability.
He is the complete centre-half, executing all the necessary parts of a defender’s game perfectly as well as offering leadership from the back that helps the whole team.
As Liverpool legend Mark Lawrenson said, Van Dijk is ‘irreplaceable.’ He was one of many observers now seriously questioning whether Liverpool have enough to retain their title without him.
It will fall to Joel Matip, Joe Gomez and possibly Fabinho to ensure Liverpool’s back line remains watertight enough to challenge for the crown in what is already a hugely unpredictable Premier League season.
It led to a tetchy exchange between Klopp and Anfield legend turned Sky pundit Jamie Carragher, who said Liverpool should have ‘gone big’ to sign another centre-back in the summer.
‘We went into the season with three centre backs plus Fabinho as cover and some youngsters,’ Klopp said.
‘It’s hard to have four world-class centre halves.
‘If anyone wants to tell us we made a mistake – I think Carragher mentioned already – there are a few reasons why they don’t do this job.’
Carragher defended the comments, tweeting: ‘Not once this season have I said it was a mistake for Klopp not to buy a centre back for the exact reason he states.’
For Klopp, there’s obviously no good time to lose someone as influential as Van Dijk but it comes with Liverpool looking some way inferior to their imperious best this time last year, dropping early points and already out the Carabao Cup.
But abrasive comments directed at pundits – this came after his argument with Roy Keane when the Irishman described Liverpool’s win over Arsenal as a ‘sloppy performance’ – aren’t going to help.
Unexpected defensive frailties emerged during Liverpool’s opening day 4-3 win over Leeds United with Van Dijk culpable for Patrick Bamford’s goal in a moment of miscalculation pundit Carragher described as ‘arrogance.’
The wins over Chelsea and Arsenal that followed suggested Liverpool were gaining good momentum but things soon took a downward turn. They haven’t won in three games now in all competitions.
A weakened side went out the Carabao Cup on penalties to Arsenal before that abysmal performance at Aston Villa resulted in a jaw-dropping 7-2 defeat.
It felt like one of those ‘reset’ performances the best teams have to go through from time to time. It’s impossible to win every single week, so results like this actually come as a pressure release.
Manchester United’s Treble winners were brought down to earth by a 5-0 thrashing at Chelsea in October 1999, for example, then romped the league by 18 points.
Nonetheless, Van Dijk and Gomez played as though they’d just met and it raised a litany of questions Klopp didn’t expect to have posed following a meeting with someone like Villa.
Saturday’s Merseyside derby saw a useful point gained given the shock of losing Van Dijk and a very strong Everton side. By rights, Liverpool should have won it in stoppage time but for a dubious offside call.
But Klopp will have also come away wondering why Michael Keane was able to outjump Fabinho and Roberto Firmino to head Everton’s first equaliser and Dominic Calvert-Lewin likewise against Andy Robertson and Gomez for the second.
If this is a foretaste of their defending without Van Dijk then it could be a long, long winter. It’s another concern that simply wasn’t there a month ago.
The last time Liverpool went three games without success was October 2018, such has been the machine Klopp has turned them into.
But with things taking an unexpected turn for the worse, it isn’t a great time to be heading to Ajax to open another Champions League campaign.
There will be little margin for error in a group alongside the always talented Ajax and a free-scoring Atalanta who almost reached last season’s semi-finals.
Get a positive result in Amsterdam on Wednesday night and Klopp can relax a little. It would potentially allow qualification to be secured early and for some squad rotation, especially with Danes Midtjylland up next.
But suffering a third consecutive Champions League defeat for the first time since the 2014-15 group stage would only deepen the despondent mood.
The manner of Liverpool’s last-16 exit to Atletico Madrid last season – as the reigning European champions – still rankles and they’ll be determined to make the perfect start this time.
The season started so well but all of a sudden the pressure is mounting on Klopp and Liverpool.
The pressure to find another way of winning games in the absence of a player who clearly means so much to them. The pressure not to put a foot wrong in both domestic and European competition.
The kind of pressure situation that can very easily kick you into a downward spiral.
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