In what has already been a bonkers EPL season full of goals, blown leads, and surprise teams at the top of the table, perhaps the biggest moment of the season so far occurred in the fifth minute of yesterday’s rubber-room of a Merseyside Derby between Liverpool and Everton.
Thanks to Jordan Pickford’s complete lack of direction and impressive Superman-in-reverse impression, Liverpool’s defensive colossus Virgil van Dijk ruptured his ACL and will most likely miss the rest of the season. It was already going to be near impossible for Liverpool to come close to repeating their performance last year, thanks to the shortened preseason, regression from certain players, reversal of fortune, and bad luck with injuries. Losing the best defender in the world now makes it pure fantasy.
Liverpool’s high-defensive line was already cracking this season with van Dijk — they had surrendered three goals to Leeds and seven to Aston Villa. But normally the high line works because of van Dijk’s presence. While he has speed and strength to match any other defender, it was his anticipation and reading of the game that kept him from having to use those first two talents all that much. He cut everything off well before it became a problem. Secondly, his world-class passing out of the backline had become a prime feature of Liverpool’s attack, with the 29-year-old spraying passes behind opponents’ defensive lines that Sadio Mane and Mohamed Salah could run onto, as well as his cool while being pressured to get them out of tight spaces. Liverpool will lose all of this.
The effects were immediate to see, as they surrendered goals to Everton off a set-piece and off a cross that you couldn’t help but feel van Dijk would have gotten to — or at least contested better. He had also been a commanding presence for his teammates, positioning them constantly throughout a match. While Trent Alexander-Arnold’s brain-bubble allowed Lucas Digne past him to set up Everton’s equalizer has been a feature of his game all season, that kind of thing will probably happen more often without van Dijk behind him to either move him to the right spot or to berate him for not being there and assuring he is the next time.
Liverpool simply do not have a replacement for van Dijk. No one would. They were already short an experienced center back after Dejan Lovren’s departure in the summer, and now we’ll see Joel Matip and Joe Gomez have to play almost every game just as the Champions League kicks off this week, seeing Liverpool and every team involved basically playing two games per week until Christmas.
Matip was much improved alongside van Dijk, but his attempts to anchor the defense led to Liverpool’s conclusion that spending £75 million on van Dijk was a necessity. Gomez will put a streak of games together just long enough to make you think he will pick up the torch from van Dijk, as well as anchor England’s defense for the next decade, before putting on a performance that makes you wonder if his brain actually connects to his extremities like he did in that college improv troupe show against Villa. Neither Matip nor Gomez have the anticipation and instincts of van Dijk.
Midfielder Fabinho can moonlight in defense, and in his brief cameo appearances has looked comfortable there. He emulates van Dijk’s passing ability, but based on how midfielders have been sprinting past him early this season, a prolonged stay in defense could range anywhere from subpar to utterly comedic.
The next month could be mind-shattering for Liverpool supporters, and hilarious to everyone else, as they are also without goalkeeper Alisson. They might have to face Ajax and Atalanta in the Champions League without their foundational duo, and Manchester City and Leicester in the league. The roof could very well cave in. Liverpool can likely outscore most teams — and were it not for an imperceptible offside review yesterday that somehow flagged Mane, by what can only be described as pubic hair distance, they would have beaten England’s hottest team — but as City learned last season, if your defense resembles a fort made of toilet paper rolls, most teams in England can hurt you.
What it means for the rest of the league... who knows? The usual cast of characters you would guess to be primed to pick up the pieces haven’t exactly looked spiffy themselves. City’s defense has had serious shitshow tendencies since last season. Chelsea blew two different leads to Southampton yesterday and have conceded nine goals in five matches. Manchester United are in 14th, and have players either openly bitching about their manager to the press or talking about playing for other clubs.
Given the strange circumstances of barely any preseason, no crowds, and referees seemingly making up the rules as they go, it felt like something truly weird could happen at the top of the Premier League this season. Van Dijk’s injury only enhances that feeling. At this point, Everton or Villa or Leicester might already be printing the “Why Not Us?” shirts.