Since Virgil van Dijk last played, Liverpool have lost their Premier League title and their Anfield invincibility. He has still never lost a Premier League game on Merseyside as a Liverpool player. Without him, they lost six in a row. They almost lost their status among the European elite. But for an end-of-season renaissance, the 2019 Champions League winner could be featuring in the Europa League or the Conference League this season.
Since he last played, the Netherlands lost their chance of winning Euro 2020 and then their manager, Frank de Boer. Since he last played, Van Dijk has turned 30. Coupled with the severity of a cruciate ligament injury, it has prompted the question if his best lies in the past or if Liverpool will see the Van Dijk of old again.
But they should see Van Dijk on Thursday. Some 285 days after Jordan Pickford injured the seemingly indestructible defender with a wretched, reckless lunge in October’s Merseyside derby, Van Dijk is pencilled in for a cameo of a comeback against Hertha Berlin. He is slightly ahead of schedule: in May, Jurgen Klopp thought he would be out until September. This week, the Liverpool manager said: “There is the opportunity that Virgil could play a few minutes. He looks really good in training and he looks ready.” Van Dijk certainly looked good in a picture he posed on Instagram, of himself holding off Mohamed Salah in training. It was a reminder of the colossus of old, the scourge of strikers, a presence so commanding that he is the only centre-back since 2006 to finish in the top three of the Ballon d’Or voting.
The anomaly in Van Dijk’s record is that the last match he completed for Liverpool was the historic 7-2 reverse to Aston Villa, their heaviest loss for 57 years. Otherwise, Liverpool could count the cost of his absence last season: they collected 30 points fewer than in 2019/20 and conceded almost twice as many league goals as in 2018/19. Van Dijk only missed 35 minutes of that Premier League campaign. He played all 3,420 in 2019/20. He featured for just 371 last season as Liverpool made their way through 20 centre-back partnerships in all competitions, various combinations of regulars and rookies and midfielders before the newcomers Rhys Williams and Nat Phillips steered them into the top four.
Now the specialists are returning, spearheaded by Van Dijk. Joel Matip, whose last competitive game came in January, is already featuring in friendlies. Joe Gomez, who has not played since November, is earmarked for a return against Athletic Bilbao on August 8. A fourth senior centre-back has been signed, with the £36 million, 22-year-old Ibrahima Konate a belated replacement for the 2020 departure Dejan Lovren.
The rest of the defence can breath a sigh of relief. “It’s great to see Virg, Joe and Joel back on the pitch,” said left-back Andy Robertson. “We've been through their whole rehab together – the good times and the bad – and you can see how positive they're looking. They'll get some minutes in the near future. That will only help them and it will help us as well, having leaders back on the pitch, having loud voices, having quality players more importantly. It just adds to a squad because the three centre-backs have come back but Nat and Rhys last season near the back end did amazingly.”
As Liverpool take the cautious approach with Van Dijk, Konate and Matip are probably in pole position to start the season against Norwich on 14 August. But the sight of Van Dijk in action again confirms that he, and Liverpool, are finally nearing the end of their defensive nightmare.