Lack of backline backup could upstage Liverpool’s title defence
Liverpool’s crisis in defence deepened this week after centre-back Joe Gomez suffered a serious knee injury in training while on international duty with England. Gomez has since undergone a successful surgery but is expected to be sidelined for a significant part of this season. The latest blow comes at a time when Liverpool have already lost three players to injuries in recent weeks.
Dutch star Virgil van Dijk was the first on a long injury layoff following a horror tackle by Everton goalkeeper Jordan Pickford in last month’s Merseyside derby. Right-back Trent Alexander-Arnold recently sustained a calf injury that will keep him out of action till mid-December, while midfielder Fabinho, who has also been used by Jurgen Klopp as a back-up centre-back, is currently nursing a thigh injury but is expected to be back after the international break.
This leaves Klopp with Joel Matip as his first-choice centre-back. Matip, who recently recovered from an injury, made just nine appearances in the league last season and three in this one. The Cameroonian centre-back has had a tough luck with injuries himself and has never managed 30 Premier League appearances in a single season since moving to Liverpool in 2016.
The reigning English champions are now guaranteed to be without their first-choice centre-back pair for the majority of what is an already crammed season. The current situation means youngsters like Rhys Williams and Nat Phillips could feature more prominently in coming months.
It also means that Liverpool, who have shown signs of vulnerability in defence this season, face a much harder prospect of coming any close to their defensive record of the last two campaigns. The Reds have already conceded 16 goals in eight league games, including seven in their humiliating loss at Aston Villa early October. Klopp’s team had conceded just 55 goals across 76 Premier League games in the two seasons before this and their backline played a key role in Liverpool’s Champions League and Premier League triumphs. The German tactician has already lashed out at the tight scheduling in the pandemic-hit season, saying that many players could miss out on the European Championships next summer. “Hopefully we can play the Euros next summer but if we continue like this let’s see which players can be part of that…Trent will be out for England (for the three games). What injury he has we don’t know but he cannot play for England and he is not the first and will not be the last that Gareth Southgate will miss,” Klopp had told reporters after the game against Man City last Sunday.
Even England boss Southgate criticised the heavy fixture-list this season after Gomez’s injury. “I had a long chat with Jurgen. We’re all worried about the players. To lose a player like we did yesterday was really tragic…There needs to be a look at the calendar, we’re lucky we have six substitutes tonight and five for the Nations League (against Belgium and Iceland). We have to lessen the load (on the players). Unfortunately, the injury was so unique with what happened, it was a consequence of the number of games,” Southgate told ITV on Thursday.
It is hard to argue against Klopp and Southgate. United manager Ole Gunnar Solskjaer had also expressed anger at the shortage of rest days between games after his side’s victory over Everton last weekend.
However, the problem for Liverpool is complicated by the lack of bench strength in defence. Missing a centre-back of Van Dijk’s influence and other key defenders may not be a complete doomsday scenario but can seriously hurt their prospects.
Many champion teams in the past have seen their momentum halted after injuries to key defenders. A notable example is that of Manchester United in the 2003/04 season when Rio Ferdinand was suspended for eight months for missing a doping test. After leading the league at the turn of the year, the point at which Ferdinand’s suspension came into effect, United won just seven of their last 18 games, finishing 15 points behind winners Arsenal in the league and getting knocked out of the Champions League by Porto.
A decade later, Ferdinand’s injury-hit campaign and loss of form, along with a similar situation for club captain Nemanja Vidic, played a part in defending champions United finishing seventh under David Moyes.
Last season, Vincent Kompany’s departure from Manchester City saw the club lose some experienced defensive cover that had helped them get over the line in a tight title race against Liverpool the previous campaign.
There is also the 2010-11 season when all-conquering Inter Milan, who had won the treble the season before, became a pale shadow of themselves after Rafael Benitez replaced Jose Mourinho as manager. Benitez hadn’t begun the season badly, losing just one of their first nine games. However, after influential centre-back Walter Samuel sustained a long-term injury, the club went on a dry spell and after a sequence of three losses in four games, Benitez lost his job. Inter were unable to revive their title defence in the league.
Liverpool will hope that Matip stays fit and that their firepower up front will be enough to get them over the line in case their back-up defensive options struggle.
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