Liverpool have been dealt a huge blow in their pursuit to retain the Premier League title after Virgil Van Dijk was ruled out for the rest of the season with a knee injury.
The Holland defender, 29, has been influential in the dominance Liverpool have shown over the last two-and-a-half years and is widely regarded as the best defender in the world.
During Saturday’s 2-2 draw in the Merseyside derby against Everton, a horrific challenge by Jordan Pickford caught Van Dijk high and resulted in him being substituted after just 11 minutes. It’s now been officially confirmed by the club that he has suffered a complete tear of his cruciate ligament and will likely miss the remainder of the season.
Pickford’s challenge during the game went without punishment because VAR failed to look at it, seemingly becoming too fixated with trying to figure out whether Van Dijk was offside or not prior to it.
With Van Dijk now missing for the campaign, Liverpool are left with just two senior centre-backs until January at the earliest. Joel Matip and Joe Gomez will have to form a partnership for the defending champions until then, but with their own fitness issues over the course of their careers Jurgen Klopp has got a big ask on his hands.
Fabinho is an option to fill in at centre-back as he did against Arsenal when Gomez and Matip were injured earlier this year, but he is better off at the base of the midfield three.
The injury is obviously also leaves huge question marks over the future of Van Dijk at the top level of the game. Not only is he supremely intelligent and reads the game well, physically he is a specimen. Big and strong but he also is one of the quickest defenders in the game, which has allowed Liverpool to implement their high line to near perfection as he can use those long legs to keep up with any attackers who happen to beat their trap.
After recovering from an ACL tear, he will likely have less mobility, lose a yard of pace and also lose some of his agility. Former Manchester United captain Nemanja Vidic suffered a similar injury just after his 30th birthday and when he returned he was more reliant on his partner Rio Ferdinand than ever before, while also needing to use his experience and reading of the game more.
It’s imperative now that Liverpool have a top centre-back to go alongside Van Dijk when he returns to fitness, whether that is Matip, Gomez or someone they inevitably bring in during the January transfer window.
For Van Dijk it’s a real shame too, as this will bring to an end a stretch of dominant performances that have seen him (rightly or wrongly) compared to the great Premier League defenders of all-time for his role in Liverpool’s European and domestic triumphs.
The fact that Pickford went and will go unpunished for a tackle that has taken a season of football away from someone makes the Premier League’s rules surrounding VAR come under even more scrutiny.