There hasn’t been much to enthuse Liverpool fans this season, but a short video clip from the club’s training ground last week caused some excitement. It showed Virgil van Dijk jogging at half-pace from one end of a football pitch to another and proved the Dutch defender is further along the road to recovery than previously thought.
Much has been made of van Dijk’s absence through injury this season. Indeed, Liverpool have desperately missed the 29-year-old with Jurgen Klopp’s side crumbling following the cruciate ligament tear suffered by the player in last October’s Merseyside derby. Of course, other key figures have also been sidelined through injury, but nobody’s absence has been felt as sharply as van Dijk’s.
Liverpool cannot count on van Dijk’s return, whenever that happens, to fix all their problems. After running away with their first Premier League title last season, the Reds are now scrambling to merely finish in the top four. Champions League qualification is all they can salvage from a grim campaign. While van Dijk’s absence has been a factor in this decline, it isn’t the only explanation.
How, for instance, will Virgil van Dijk returning to the first team improve Sadio Mane’s conversion rate in front of goal? The Senegalese winger has suffered a dramatic drop-off in his productivity in front of goal this season, giving Klopp a difficult decision to make this summer. Might this be the right time to cash in on Mane?
A degree of sharpness has been lost from Liverpool’s play in the attacking third. While Mohamed Salah has maintained his impressive goalscoring numbers, it has become easier to play against the Anfield outfit. Opposition teams no longer fear the trip to Merseyside, as demonstrated by Liverpool’s dreadful home record in 2021. Whether it’s down to fatigue or a loss of focus, something is clearly missing.
Klopp must also address some of the issues that have arisen in his midfield this season. Injuries have undeniably been a factor here too, with Jordan Henderson missing for large chunks of the campaign but, nonetheless, there has been a lack of balance to Liverpool’s structure in the centre of the pitch.
Last summer’s addition of Thiago Alcantara appears to have disrupted the midfield eco-system at Anfield. The Spanish international is widely revered as one of the best midfielders of his generation, but he has yet to find his place at Liverpool. Thiago should have given the Reds the option of another way to play. Instead, he has fragmented Liverpool.
Virgil Van Dijk returning to fitness will likely have a positive knock-on effect for Andy Robertson. The pair were crucial to the way Liverpool played down the left side and so it’s unsurprising the Scot’s form has suffered after his supply line out from the back was cut. But what about Trent Alexander-Arnold on the other side of Liverpool’s defence?
Alexander-Arnold’s form this season has been so patchy he could miss out on a place in Gareth Southgate’s England squad for Euro 2020. The presence of Virgil van Dijk behind him might offer the 22-year-old some security, but the Dutchman is usually the left-sided centre back. It’s on the right side where Alexander-Arnold has been too frequently exposed of late.
We will learn a lot about Klopp’s Liverpool after the summer. They were relentless in their pursuit of the Champions League and Premier League titles over three seasons, but there are now questions to be answered. The Reds must prove they can still compete and it will likely take more than just Virgil van Dijk to get them to that level again.
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