According to some superstitions, a run of good fortune is often followed by a run of bad fortune. We’re not superstitious, but we wouldn’t blame Liverpool fans if they believed that statement to be true at the moment. Few teams in the history of world football have ever enjoyed a run of form and good fortune like the Anfield side has in the past two years. From their UEFA Champions League victory of 2019 to their glorious Premier League championship in 2022, they’ve played some scintillating football and, at times, looked unbeatable. All good things come to an end, though, and Liverpool’s luck is definitely out at the moment.
Things started going wrong for the Reds in mid-October when the team’s star center-back Virgil van Dijk was badly injured by a wayward challenge from Everton and England goalkeeper Jordan Pickford. The tackle was described by some pundits as ‘indefensible,’ and has put van Dijk on the injury list until at least late March, and perhaps for the rest of the reason. Any club would miss a player of van Dijk’s stature and influence, but at Liverpool, it raised questions about whether letting go of experienced defender Dejan Lovren over the summer without buying a replacement had been a good idea. If it looked like a bad idea then, it looks like an atrocious one now. Liverpool’s luck with injuries in defense has got worse. Much worse.
Without van Dijk, Liverpool’s orthodox options in defense from within their senior squad are Joel Matip, Joe Gomez, and Fabinho. Fabinho went down with a hamstring injury at the end of October and is yet to regain full fitness. Joel Matip has recently returned to the first team, but he’s struggled with fitness throughout his tenure and can’t be relied upon to play forty or more games per season. England center-back Joe Gomez appeared to be the man upon whom Liverpool’s defensive organization would rely, but now the unthinkable has happened. Called away on international duty for a needless friendly between England and the Republic of Ireland, Gomez was injured in training and taken to a hospital. It’s subsequently been confirmed that he’s had surgery on a serious knee problem and will most likely miss the rest of the season.
The news about Joe Gomez came hot on the heels of an injury to his Liverpool and England teammate Trent Alexander-Arnold. The young right-back’s situation isn’t as severe, but he’s still expected to miss at least the next six games and might not return before Christmas. That leaves Liverpool missing three of their four senior center-backs plus their first-choice right-back during one of the busiest periods of the entire season. Goalkeeper Allison has only recently returned to fitness after a period on the sidelines, with his replacement Adrian attracting criticism for a series of poor displays while deputizing for him. After being one of the most solid defensive sides in world football for the past two years, the Liverpool team suddenly appears to be vulnerable and exposed across its backline.
There are some makeshift solutions within the squad to the injury issues. Rhys Williams and Nathaniel Phillips, called up from the youth team, have both looked relatively assured in the first team so far. Sometimes there are opportunities to be found in times of crisis, and either one of the two could step up to the plate and establish themselves as senior pros. That’s what happened a few years ago when an injury crisis forced the early promotion of Marcus Rashford to the Manchester United team, and now he’s one of the most respected players in the country. Williams and Phillips could be supported by captain Jordan Henderson, who’s demonstrated that he’s capable of playing at the back when required, and the always-adaptable James Milner, who can play just about anywhere on the pitch apart from in goal.
With so many players struggling for fitness, manager Jurgen Klopp might already be planning to bring in reinforcements during the January transfer window. That comes with risks. Dropping in players and expecting them to perform immediately is as risky as betting all of your money on a single spin of an online slots game. That’s something that Liverpool, as a club, should know all about – at the time of writing, they remain the only significant football club in the world to have their own licensed game at online slots websites like Kong Casino. If Klopp is thinking about transfers, he needs to bear in mind this metaphor from online slots games – wins are only achieved when everything lines up perfectly. Having the right symbols in the wrong places wins you nothing, no matter how valuable those symbols are. If Klopp tries to fill a round hole with a square peg, he might make things even worse.
It might not even make sense to pay big money to bring in a center-back in January if van Dijk and Gomez are on track to return before the end of the season. Acquiring a world-class defender would be likely to cost Liverpool upwards of £25m, and that’s not a sensible amount to spend if your new recruit ends up being benched the moment your first-choice players return to full fitness. Ozan Kabak of German side Schalke has been mentioned in the press, but it’s unlikely that Kabak would want to leave his guaranteed first-team position at his current club to sit on the bench in Liverpool. Bringing in someone on a short-term loan might be a better idea, but it’s difficult to think of a player good enough to fit that bill. If there’s a center-back out there who’s worthy of a place in the Liverpool team, it’s doubtful that his current club would be willing to let him go out on loan.
Liverpool’s best option might be to do nothing and put their faith in their young players. Williams and Phillips have been waiting years for this opportunity and will want to prove that they have what it takes to stay at Anfield for the long term. We haven’t seen much of them so far, but neither of them has put a foot wrong yet. Milner can fill in at right-back until Alexander-Arnold is fit if he has to. Fabinho will be back soon, and Henderson can drop into the back four for big games. There might be just enough manpower at Anfield to hold everything together – but they’re now just one injury away from a full-blown crisis.