Virgil van Dijk’s arrival at Liverpool has set them on their way to a defensive stability they haven’t been close to since the days of Rafa Benitez. Not since Jamie Carragher and Sami Hyypia took their places in the back line have they had a centre-back who can dominate the opposition in both boxes, or lead by example.
His current partners all have their strengths and weaknesses, with Joel Matip offering a similar towering presence but with less sturdiness, while Dejan Lovren offers some of the physicality and personality, but can sometimes become overconfident or rash, and this leads to mistakes.
As a partnership Lovren and Van Dijk appear to complement each other well until these mistakes occur, but the Croatian’s run to the World Cup final means that he’s likely to be unavailable at the start of the season.
This meant that the pairing of Van Dijk and Matip, which has been seen in pre-season, looked likely to be the one which kicks things off for Liverpool in their opening game against West Ham United.
That was until Matip’s lack of sturdiness struck yet again and he picked up a thigh injury which will see him miss at least the rest of the club’s American tour.
“Joel Matip will leave Liverpool’s pre-season tour of the United States to undergo rehabilitation on the muscle injury he sustained against Borussia Dortmund on Sunday,” the club confirmed.
“Though the muscle injury suffered in his upper leg is not considered to be a long-term concern, Matip will not be available for selection in the remaining two games in America.
“He is therefore returning to Merseyside and will continue his recovery at Melwood.”
This will hamper his pre-season fitness work as well as his ability to get matches under his belt before competitive games begin.
It could be the biggest chance yet for Joe Gomez to cement a place in the side at centre-back.
The Englishman replaced Matip in that game against Dortmund, and could be set to partner Van Dijk for the remainder of pre-season, unless the Dutchman shifts to the right with Ragnar Klavan coming in on the left. This latter pairing played on two occasions last season, but the evidence suggests Jürgen Klopp much prefers Van Dijk on the left side of his central pair, with Klavan his back-up.
The more natural pairing would be that of Gomez and Van Dijk, but it’s not been plain sailing for Gomez in recent times either. He’s also suffered injuries in unfortunate moments, including a serious knee injury which sidelined him for much of Klopp’s early time at the club, and then an ankle injury which kept him out of the World Cup.
Though the surgery on his ankle at the end of last season robbed him of a trip to Russia, it does mean that he is ready to go at the start of this season, and for once the timing might be on Gomez’s side.
He had been impressing on the right of England’s back three before that injury, and would have gone to the World Cup instead of Phil Jones, had he been available. He may even have started after putting in good displays in the position against Brazil and Germany.
For Liverpool Gomez’s appearances have been limited to scraps here and there, recovering from his knee injury in the Under-23s, before deputising at right back for Trent Alexander-Arnold last a season with mixed success.
Centre-back has always felt like it will be his most natural position, especially if on the right of a three, and now he’ll get the chance to partner one of Liverpool’s best, though it won’t be easy.
The type of football they play under Klopp can make it more difficult for centre-backs, compared with Benitez’s more defensively oriented systems which saw the likes of Carragher flourish.
There has still been an improvement in defensive structure under the German, regardless of personnel, but the manager himself has admitted that it is the toughest position to play, not just in terms of the ability required, but also due to external pressure.
“Two positions that are really, really difficult to play for Liverpool; goalkeeper and centre half,” said Klopp in an interview with Robbie Fowler last season.
“It’s like you can never been good enough, whatever you do, they still say ‘we need a world class replacement’.”
If Liverpool can find players with the quality to operate in their current set-up, and under such pressure, then they could get close to a partnership which goes on to rival that of Carragher and Hyypia.
Just as Alexander-Arnold emerged as the club’s best right back as a result of Nathaniel Clyne’s injury last season, Gomez could take advantage of the circumstances surrounding Lovren and Matip’s stuttered start to the new campaign.
Asking him to become one of the Liverpool greats in the position may be a bit much, but for now providing a solid, reliable option alongside Van Dijk would be more than enough.