Van Dijk: Can Liverpool win the Premier League again with the man who first made it possible?

Van Dijk Liverpool Credit: Alamy
Van Dijk Liverpool Credit: Alamy

Was Virgil van Dijk injured or tactically hooked by Jurgen Klopp at half-time? The fact that’s even a question is telling…

“Managers don’t like changing their plans. They prefer to change their players, and that’s not going to happen,” Gary Neville said, having watched Van Dijk chase fruitlessly after Mbuemo from the halfway line, in the first of many instances on Monday night where the centre-back was left wanting, in a season lacking the imperiousness of old.

Jurgen Klopp did though. Van Dijk was hooked at half-time. Injured, they claim. Timely, we say.

Van Dijk – along with Alisson, who remains brilliant, and Fabinho, who doesn’t – was key to Liverpool challenging for and then winning the Premier League. Klopp’s side were producing attacking, entertaining football before Van Dijk arrived, but lacked the supremacy he then provided in spades. He’s been one of the greatest centre-backs in Premier League history.

But the supremacy at the Community Stadium belonged to Bryan Mbuemo and Yoane Wissa, who consistently made a fool of the formerly foolproof centre-back they targeted. The question now is, can Liverpool challenge and win the Premier League again while one of the key men who made it possible in the first place remains in the team?

Van Dijk still shouts a lot, but when previously he’s berated teammates having made up ground to expertly shut down a chance for the opposition, he now, more often than not, questions the actions of those teammates from a position of no strength, in which he’s been at least as much to blame for a misstep as anyone else.

Not only are teams now attacking down Liverpool’s left, where any attempt was previously deemed pointless due to the presence of Van Dijk, they’re actually now targeting that side. He’s fallible. He’s get-at-able. He’s a Liverpool weakness.

He wasn’t obviously to blame for either goal in the first half. But neither goal – or indeed the two disallowed ones – would have been scored had the Van Dijk of two years ago been playing. Yes, as an aerially dominant defender he should have made his presence more keenly felt from the corners, but it’s the concession of the corners that’s the more eminent and controllable problem. All of those chances came from Mbuemo or one of the other Brentford forwards getting at or in behind Van Dijk on the left. That never used to happen.

Liverpool may struggle to win the league with Van Dijk, but Ibrahima Konate will hardly fill the fans with confidence that they will without him either. After he scored an own goal in the first half which he knew little about, Konate did what Van Dijk didn’t in matching Mbuemo stride for stride in a foot race, before falling to his knees under the slightest of touches from the Cameroon international, who slotted past Alisson.

Neville was right about one thing – Klopp won’t want to change his plan. Liverpool’s success is in a huge part down to the high line they have played so brilliantly in the last four years. But that high line has only worked because of Van Dijk.

Without him, as they now are, in spirit if not reality, perhaps the only recourse is to find the next one. Best of luck.

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