Liverpool will be in need of a central defender when the transfer window opens.
Whilst scoring goals has not been a problem for the high-flying Reds, who are the Premier League’s top scorers with 68 goals, they have been error-strewn defensively, shipping 40 goals in 32 games; the worst record in the top six (although Arsenal have conceded 39 and have only played 30 games). Liverpool have kept just one clean sheet in thirteen games in 2017, against Tottenham Hotspur, and just seven clean sheets all season.
Whilst last summer's signing of Joël Matip appears to be a step in the right direction, and probably the best centre-back that Liverpool have had since Jamie Carragher retired in terms of quality, his fitness has been an issue, as has that of his partner, Dejan Lovren.
Neither Lovren nor Ragnar Klavan are good enough central defenders for a team that is expecting to make the top four, and Liverpool simply don’t have a reliable or quality defensive pairing, and haven’t since Rafa Benitez left the club.
Even if Matip and Lovren were a reliable and solid centre-back partnership, Liverpool would still need another central defender this summer, as their depth is non-existent, proven by the fact that Lucas Leiva has played there multiple times this season. Neither Lovren nor Matip have fitness records to inspire confidence.
Is Van Dijk the answer?
So is Liverpool’s primary target, Southampton defender Virgil Van Dijk, the answer? He certainly possesses some skills that would be much needed in this Liverpool team. He is exceptional in the air, which is something Liverpool have sorely been lacking, particularly off set pieces, where his organisation and concentration would be a valuable asset alongside Matip.
He’s an intelligent reader of the game, a good interceptor and whilst Van Dijk is more than capable of playing the ball out of the back, he’s also adept at clearing his lines when he needs to. Apart from anything else, he’s been a fantastic central defender for Southampton this season.
The main questions over Van Dijk are his fitness record, and Southampton’s style of play. Both Jose Fonte and Lovren himself looked a fantastic partnership at Saints, for each other and then later Fonte with Van Dijk. But both were horribly exposed when they left Southampton: Lovren at Liverpool, and Fonte after his January move to West Ham.
Southampton’s exceptional defence is due to their defensive style, with the likes of Oriel Romeu offering staunch cover. Liverpool would play a more open and expansive game, and it’s unclear whether Van Dijk has the pace to cover in behind, which has been one of Liverpool’s major issues.
To be clear, this is not a criticism of Van Dijk, merely the point is that he has not played in Liverpool’s system, and perhaps the club would be better off going for someone who has a proven record in a more open system, or at least someone who has shown that they have the necessary attributes to excel in that system.
The other problem is his fitness record. Van Dijk doesn’t have a bad history in terms of injuries, but picked up a serious ankle injury just after Christmas, which potentially does not bode well for any club that will look to sign him. That’s not to say that it will put anyone off, but given Lovren and Matip’s injury records, Liverpool should perhaps be looking for a player who has a clean injury record.
The main reason Liverpool wouldn’t sign Van Dijk is that he might be more tempted by a move to Chelsea or Manchester City, clubs who both look set to finish higher than Liverpool this season and will have bigger wage budgets to tempt him. In that case, it’s worth looking at some other potential targets that have been mentioned as being on Jürgen Klopp’s radar.
Other options available
The Premier League option most brought up is Michael Keane, Burnley’s young English defender. At just 24, Keane has a bright future ahead of him and looks an exceptional talent. However, the biggest concern with this signing is that he is certainly a step down on Van Dijk.
Whilst he will be a lot cheaper than Van Dijk, he’s only a year younger but doesn’t have the same level of top class experience, and hasn’t proven himself to be on the same level, despite an excellent season for Burnley. Moreover, is he a significant step up on Lovren or Klavan? Quite possibly, but that remains to be seen. Keane would be an excellent option if Liverpool want to sign two defenders this summer and could pick up a more experienced player, but he shouldn’t be the first name on the list.
Away from the Premier League, and one popular name is 21-year-old Bayer Leverkusen defender Johnathan Tah. Tah is very much the kind of defender you’d expect Klopp and this Liverpool team to go for. He’s very young but with bags of talent, he plays in the Bundesliga, and he’s a ball-playing centre-back. His strengths are very much in Klopp’s favour too. He’s tall, good in the air, a good reader of the game, and most importantly he plays in a side that utilise the high-line system that Klopp favours.
It makes sense to move for players in the Bundesliga, as a lot of teams in German football are closer stylistically to Klopp’s Liverpool than the likes of Burnley or Southampton are. The other good thing about Tah is that Leverkusen are struggling in the Bundesliga so cannot offer him Champions League football any time soon, something Liverpool will be hoping to do.
Another name that has been dropped is Juventus’ Leonardo Bonucci. This is one that isn’t going to happen. At 29, Bonucci doesn’t fit the profile of players Klopp has been aiming for, and moreover, is unlikely to move. He’d prove to be extremely expensive, and again, Liverpool would find themselves competing with the likes of Man City just to get their feet in the door.
Arguably most importantly, Liverpool would be a significant step down from Juventus, who look set to make the Champions League semi-finals and win Serie A for the 6th year running, which means they will either have to offer more money, or the chance to win the Premier League, neither of which the club can do right now.
Another Serie A defender who would fit Liverpool’s profile better is Kalidou Koulibaly. He’s younger (only 25); he plays for Napoli who whilst still an exceptional club, are much closer to Liverpool’s level than Juventus; and he’s a tall ball-playing centre-back who plays in a side very similar stylistically to Liverpool.
The main issue with Koulibaly is frankly the same as the others. Price and competition. Can Liverpool financially out-muscle Chelsea or Man City, or offer players a better chance to win trophies? The hope is that this summer they can start to try, but this one remains a long shot.
Overall, Liverpool need to bring in a big name, potentially world class central defender. Van Dijk is the name on everyone’s lips, and he certainly is a classy individual that will not be playing at Southampton next season. But perhaps Tah fits Liverpool’s style a little better, even if he isn’t quite the finished article yet, in the way that Van Dijk is. Either way, Liverpool need to spend big, and the place to start is at centre-back.