Virgil van Dijk is making Liverpool better – here’s how they can deal with his absence

Virgil van Dijk being kept on the sidelines for so long will always be a scary prospect for Liverpool – just like when he tore his knee cruciate ligament in early October 2020 and missed the rest of this season.

At his best, Van Dijk is easily one of the best defenders in the world, although the 31-year-old wasn’t at that level on points in the first half of the 2022-23 season, even admitting: “I know I could have done it done better earlier in the season. I’m not naive. I know very well when I’m making mistakes.”

But while he’s not yet at his best, the hamstring injury he picked up against Brentford on Monday is worse than expected, a major blow.

Liverpool have conceded a goal every 71 minutes in the Premier League this season with Van Dijk in the team, compared to one every 146 minutes the previous one. Van Dijk was also with the team as they conceded 21 goals in 17 games compared to the same total in 34 games last year.

However, it’s not just Van Dijk who has struggled. Jurgen Klopp’s underperforming side – sixth after the 3-1 defeat by Brentford – are struggling for a top-four result and securing that all-important Champions League qualification for next season is crucial. Trying to win without Van Dijk won’t be easy, as the past has shown.

You only have to look at Liverpool’s Premier League win rate with and without Van Dijk to see that.

Liverpool have had a 72 per cent win rate with the Dutchman on the pitch since he joined from Southampton five years ago this month. Without him, they have won just over half their Premier League games (57 per cent). Liverpool’s average points per game suffers even without Van Dijk on the team, falling from 2.3 when he’s playing to 2.0 when he’s absent.

Van Dijk has also had to work harder this season: he’s made 1.2 interceptions per 90 minutes compared to 0.9 in 2021-22 and 4.2 clearances per 90 compared to 3.1 last season.

So take all that away, and a team that went from 10 clean sheets in their first 17 league games last season to just four in as many games this season – with Van Dijk starting all 17 – is expected to even have to fight more.

Virgil van Dijk’s Premier League season comparison

2021-2022 per 90 2022-2023 per 90










Clean sheets



% clean sheet



conceded goals



minutes per goal













possession gained










Headed releases










duels won





duel success








Air duels won





Success in the air duel



Here are Van Dijk’s Smarterscout pizza charts from this season and last. The Smarterscout charts rate players from zero to 99 based on how often they perform a specific stylistic action. It also tells us how effective they are at it compared to others in their position.


As we can see from the defensive section of the chart, Van Dijk is much more active in defense this season than last season. Aside from ball recoveries and interceptions, which are about the same (96 versus 95 last season) and his number of dogfights (55 out of 63), every other defensive performance has increased this season. Which is interesting as Van Dijk played just under half of the minutes.
His Defense Intensity has doubled from 25 to 50, which is important as it measures how often a player is the most relevant defender when their team doesn’t have possession. This means Van Dijk has been used more defensively this season.

Van Dijk’s Defensive Impact, which measures the impact of a player’s defense on opponents passing the ball, has increased from 54 to 69. This increase in impact shows again how much more Van Dijk needs to limit the opponent’s ball development. Not only does it show us how active he is, but also how important he is to this Liverpool team.

Premier League games against Brighton, Chelsea, Wolverhampton Wanderers, Everton and Newcastle United and possibly two rounds of the FA Cup, which Liverpool hold, are all due before the end of February. There is currently no timeframe for Van Dijk’s injury but if he missed that entire string of games it would be a problem

Liverpool also have to deal with a repeat of last season’s Champions League final.

They meet holders Real Madrid in the first leg of the round of 16 at Anfield on Tuesday 21 February (just under 7 weeks away) with the return at the Bernabeu on 15 March (this game is 10 weeks from today – Wednesday). . Having Van Dijk in time for that rematch with the club, who have now beaten Liverpool in two of their last five Champions League finals, would obviously be beneficial to their promotion prospects. To put it simply, they could have done without the injury of one of their key players.

In general, having Van Dijk back as soon as possible is paramount to Liverpool’s success this season.

They’re not quite at their best on the pitch and their defense looked unusually shaky at times. But even in those shaky moments, Van Dijk does more good than harm. His quiet confidence has long been a platform for Liverpool to build on.

The high line of defense they play has been problematic this season as teams exploit them more than ever – and some are calling for manager Klopp to abandon them entirely. But now imagine it without a player who is the cornerstone of this unit.

One of Van Dijk’s main attributes is this orchestration; leading by example. Constant communication with teammates, both direction and encouragement, is among his best qualities. Without that, Klopp’s highline becomes even more difficult to hold.

The only positive for Liverpool will be that they have plenty of options to replace him in central defence.


Joel Matip and Ibrahima Konate are expected to close the gap in Liverpool’s defense (Picture: Shaun Botterill/Getty Images)

Ibrahima Konate, fresh from a World Cup final for France but with just two starts in those first 17 league games, will no doubt be a leading figure alongside the hugely experienced Joel Matip.

Joe Gomez, an England international who has been used mainly at right-back this season, is another possibility for Klopp.

As has Nat Phillips, a player who has proven to be a crucial squad option in the past.

Phillips appeared around this time two years ago in the absence of Van Dijk, Gomez and Matip, all of whom had been ruled out for the season. He put in some impressive performances to help Liverpool secure a place in the top four with a strong run-in, including winning all of their last eight league starts.

Midfielders Jordan Henderson and Fabinho also performed well as makeshift central defenders during this injury crisis.

Liverpool will hope that doesn’t happen again as their midfield could use new recruits themselves. Nor will they want to recall 21-year-old Rhys Williams, who starred alongside Phillips in 2020-21, from his loan spell at Championship side Blackpool. Likewise, they want to keep Sepp van den Berg with Schalke in the German Bundesliga (although he has not played since October due to an ankle injury) and 20-year-old Billy Koumetio, another player with first-team experience who is on loan Austria Vienna.

This could mean more academy players taking the step into training with the first team on a more regular basis. The likes of Jarell Quansah, who turns 20 this month, and 18-year-old Lee Jonas are among those who could benefit if that’s the case.

The main hope for Liverpool now is to ensure they get through this period without Van Dijk unscathed, however long it may be.

When it comes down to it, they will need their defensive core of Konate, Matip, Gomez and Phillips to improve on the current win percentage without the Dutch captain.

(Photo above: Ryan Pierse/Getty Images) Virgil van Dijk is making Liverpool better – here’s how they can deal with his absence

Russell Falcon

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