It sounds preposterous to ask the question, but is Liverpool’s defence better without Virgil van Dijk?
Surely not. The Reds won a Champions League title with Van Dijk anchoring the team. They followed it up with a league title in which the Dutchman was the only constant player in central defence. There is no way Liverpool are better in defence without Van Dijk, are they?
Truth is since Van Dijk went down with a season-ending Grade 3 ACL tear, the Reds have looked far more competent at the back. Yes, even with the likes of Nat Phillips and Rhys Williams filling in, Liverpool have looked confident in defence.
Sunday night’s pairing of Joel Matip and Fabinho against Leicester City was brilliant. The duo was never in trouble and stopped what continues to be viewed as a top attacking team (Leicester City) with world-class players (James Maddison and Jamie Vardy).
Prior to Van Dijk’s injury, Liverpool conceded 11 goals in the league. Yes, seven of those came against Aston Villa, but those were goals scored with Van Dijk in defence all the same. Only one clean sheet was kept as Van Dijk and Fabinho combined to keep Chelsea scoreless.
Since Van Dijk went down with injury versus Everton, Liverpool have conceded just three times in the league. The Reds have kept four clean sheets in all competitions since the Dutchman’s injury with three of those coming in the Champions League versus Ajax, Midtjylland, and Atalanta.
Looking at the numbers of goals conceded without Van Dijk, it isn’t crazy to say Liverpool’s defence is better. Although it may not be an improvement for the long-term, things are certainly better for the short-term in Van Dijk’s absence.
We all know Liverpool’s defence was a disaster pre-Van Dijk. However, with his cool, calm demeanour, the rest of the defence has been pulled up. Now, it is far more capable with him out of the team.
On Monday night, former Liverpool centre-back and current Sky Sports pundit addressed the team’s play in defence over the last few weeks.
“It’s an outstanding job from the players who have actually come in,” Carragher stated.
“When Liverpool went out [against Leicester], people said they would completely change. That they would drop off 10 or 15 yards. I watch a lot of Liverpool’s games and I didn’t quite see it.
“I’ve analysed how they played against Vardy and no one can tell me Liverpool dropped off 10 or 15 yards without Van Dijk. They were still playing a high line, but the difference is the body position the likes of Fabinho adopted.
“Yes, we can talk about him being a midfield player in there, but he’s been outstanding. What he did was play a high line but be ready to run back when the ball went over his head. He ran back and dealt with it.
“When we talk about Van Dijk, let’s not forget he’s been part of a back four for the last couple of years that have had the best defensive record in the league, and I’m sure that would’ve been the case this season with him.
“But there was no doubt Liverpool had huge problems at the start of the season. They conceded three at home against Leeds and then there was obviously the game against Aston Villa.
“We have spoken a lot on Monday Night Football about Liverpool’s line and it’s difficult at times to criticise a team that have a great defensive record and have been so successful.
“There were times when I’d look at the line and think ‘run back’. Certainly, in the Aston Villa game, where obviously Liverpool got it massively wrong.
“At times it was not so much about how high the line was, it was just the fact that I always felt that Liverpool’s defenders needed to be in a position to actually run back. ‘Just run back and match the run. We’re in a decent line, okay they have beat the press and have time on the ball, let’s just give ourselves two or three yards.’ That’s all it was.”
Whether or not Liverpool are better over the long-term, they have played well with a makeshift backline. If they can retain the title having had so many key injuries and absences, then Liverpool truly are a special team — and hopefully will be recognised for the achievement.