Football is complex and football teams are built on intricate systems. This means when a club loses a star player, like Liverpool with Virgil Van Dijk, the effect this has isn’t just localized to their position, it effects the whole side.
Van Dijk is undoubtedly an elite defender and would be a huge loss for any side in world football. His positioning, recovery pace and aerial ability not only protects Liverpool’s goal but allows them to be more attacking and player a higher defensive line. This high line means they can press higher and with more intensity, a crucial component of a Jürgen Klopp side.
The Dutchman also helps in transitional play as his passing and ability to carry the ball forwards is often relied upon by the Reds to get the ball to their forwards. Liverpool play a lot of longballs and a lot of those are played by Van Dijk.
This makes sense as Sadio Mané and Mo Salah are wide forwards who thrive on finding space. Van Dijk often likes to find the lethal two when they are making a fun in the channels as it sets up a quick attack, often disorientating the opposition’s defence. However, Virgil also is found passing to the fullbacks when they are making marauding runs forward.
These opportunities don’t always lead to a goal scoring opportunity, but they do allow Liverpool to push up the pitch and apply pressure. Even if they lose possession, due to their positioning, they are in a good position to win the ball back in a dangerous area.
Van Dijk is also tasked with sweeping up behind the defence. Without him there, this has meant the full backs haven’t has as much freedom which has seen Liverpool’s attack look blunt at times.
His absence has also meant Jordan Henderson and/or Fabinho have had to play at centre back. In turn, summer signing Thiago Alcântara has had to play in the deep midfield role which has made his adaptation period prolonged as many label him a flop.
This seems Liverpool try to force transitions through the middle rather than out wide due to the fullbacks being more reserved. However, because of Henderson and/or Fabinho’s absence, the midfield dynamic is different and there are often holes in the middle of the field.
It is in transition in which Klopp’s men struggle rather than attack. Although the Van Dijk injury has seen a drop off in attack, a drop from 2.24 goals per game last season to just 1.81 this season, it is not down to the forwards. The front three just aren’t getting the ball as much so don’t have as many opportunities.
On the other hand, the defence has got considerably worse as not only is he a great tackler and aerial threat, but they also miss his intangible qualities such as his leadership and organisation. Last season Liverpool conceded just 33 goals (0.87 per game) whilst this season they have already conceded 34 with 12 matches still to play, an increase of about 0.44 a game.
When Van Dijk isn’t there, Liverpool feel it defensively, offensively and in transition; more or less in every key aspect of their game. When you take a key component out of a function system, it will cause issues.
Is it bad luck for Klopp as one of his main cogs got injured? Or is it just highlighting how it is not sensible to heavily rely on one player?