Return of Virgil van Dijk and Joe Gomez restores Liverpool's solid foundations

Defensive injuries hit Klopp's team heard last season but renewed strength in depth is huge boost this campaign

The Anfield Road Stand is expanding. Liverpool confirmed on Wednesday that they are adding a further 7,000 seats, taking the ground’s capacity above 61,000.

There is a different form of construction on the pitch as Jurgen Klopp can build from the back again. Shorn of fit senior specialist centre-backs, Liverpool had shaky foundations last season.

This season has been an illustration of renewed strength in depth. Liverpool have conceded a solitary league goal, to Chelsea. Since the international break, Klopp has swapped partnerships, giving four central defenders two appearances apiece in different duos.

If they can be grateful to their goalkeepers — whether Alisson Becker tipping Wilfried Zaha’s first-minute shot on to the post against Crystal Palace or Caoimhin Kelleher’s penalty save at Norwich on Tuesday — amid a sense some are being eased into the campaign, the days of midfielders and unknowns at the back are consigned to the past.

Nat Phillips, the surprise star of last season’s run-in, was not even granted a minute in a much-changed team’s League Cup win at Norwich. Virgil van Dijk can be transformative, but this is about quantity as well as quality.

September has brought Joe Gomez firsts: a first start since November in the 3-2 victory against AC Milan and, if it understandable he had some shaky moments then, a first outing as skipper at Carrow Road. “A massive honour,” said the England international. “After the different injuries, I’m relishing every minute and to captain the side was unbelievable.”

Injuries explain why, after six years at Anfield, Gomez only has 66 league starts for Liverpool. His best is sufficiently good that there is added reason to regret that: rewind two seasons and Gomez’s last appearance at Norwich came as he and Van Dijk were paired for 11 league games in which Liverpool only conceded once.

Gomez’s acceleration and assurance can render him ideal for Klopp’s high defensive line. There has long been the theory that he is the ideal sidekick for Van Dijk.

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And yet a first glimpse of Ibrahima Konate has suggested the same could be said of the giant, quick, young Frenchman. “We all saw what kind of potential the boy has, it's incredible,” Klopp said after his bow against Palace. “Physicality, technique, game understanding, it's all there.”

Liverpool left themselves short-staffed in the middle of defence when they did not replace the departing Dejan Lovren in 2020. They opted for short-term measures in January, bringing in Ozan Kabak and Ben Davies. Yet they have often showed a reluctance to compromise and a willingness to wait for their preferred targets and RB Leipzig’s Konate had been identified by then.

But, excellent as Van Dijk was at Leeds, Joel Matip has been their outstanding centre-back this season. “I cannot help people who don’t see the quality of Joel Matip,” Klopp said last week. “He’s an incredible player.”  As with Gomez, the major regret of Matip’s Anfield career concerns injuries; he only started 17 league games in the two seasons after dovetailing with Van Dijk in the 2019 Champions League win.

Matip and Gomez have fragile frames and while Van Dijk appeared indestructible — “we all think Virg is Superman,” James Milner said — Liverpool are being more careful after his cruciate ligament injury so Klopp is likely to carry on rotating. “When you only have two [fit centre-backs], sometimes they play 10, 12, 15 games in a row,” he reflected last week. “If we don’t have to, why should we then?”

It is a juggling act, albeit with enviable options. Trips to Brentford and Porto offer intrigue who he picks but, despite the potential of Konate and Gomez, the chances are that Van Dijk and Matip are pencilled in to face Manchester City next Sunday.

Updated: September 22nd 2021, 11:40 AM
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