Virgil van Dijk, the most expensive defender ever in world football, may turn out to be Jürgen Klopp and Liverpool’s saviour in defence, perhaps emulating or even surpassing the likes of Jamie Carragher and Sami Hyypiä in Liverpool’s modern era.
However, Carragher and Hyypiä, as great as they were, could not do everything on their own, and neither can van Dijk. Moreover, the Dutchman has extra responsibility in protecting a team that is highly offensive under Klopp, in stark contrast to the sides under Gérard Houllier and Rafael Benítez, whom Carragher and Hyypiä enjoyed their peak years under.
Van Dijk has settled well since his world-record £75m transfer from Southampton in January, and will be a permanent fixture in the defence for the foreseeable future under Klopp. Elsewhere at the back however, there is little sense of permanency.
Andrew Robertson is probably the other exception alongside van Dijk. The 24-year-old Scot has been a revelation in the side since displacing the unfortunate Alberto Moreno ahead of the Christmas fixtures.
Moreno has been rightly criticised at times during his inconsistent Liverpool career, but the Spaniard had been enjoying a resurgence in form in the early months of this season, one dreadful performance against his old club Sevilla aside.
However, after falling victim to injury in early December, Moreno had to be replaced and Robertson, who had largely been watching Moreno from the bench since making his £8m move from Hull City in the summer, saw his chance.
And how he has seized it. Consistent in defence, a trait Liverpool have previously struggled to find in their left-backs, and always a threat going forward with his venomous crosses, Robertson has quickly risen to become one of the best left-backs in the Premier League (admittedly the standard in that position is not terrifically high).
Due to the strength of Robertson’s form, Moreno has barely been able to get minutes in the side since regaining his fitness. Two starts – a poor performance against West Bromwich Albion in the FA Cup defeat at Anfield, and a steady display against FC Porto in the second leg of the last 16 of the Champions League, where Liverpool were already 5-0 ahead on aggregate, reducing the return fixture at Anfield to a match reminiscent of a pre-season friendly – have confirmed Moreno’s relegation to second choice at left-back behind Robertson.
Having worked so hard to revive himself at Anfield, Moreno is now back at square one, and it is always hard to rebuild your form off ad hoc appearances, as Robertson initially discovered when he arrived. Plus, Moreno is now fighting a recognised left-back, rather than attempting to usurp a player who is not in their natural position, which was Moreno’s initial task against James Milner in the summer.
With Milner moved back to midfield, Moreno had his chance and performed well, but Robertson has since had his and performed even better. Consequently, Moreno may consider his future at Anfield at the end of the season, as Robertson will be far tougher to displace than Milner.
So the left-hand side of the defence looks in good shape for Liverpool, but work still needs to be done on the right, plus the man behind the back four.
Loris Karius is a good goalkeeper, and he is now proving it with Klopp re-building the 24-year-old’s confidence by promoting him to the club’s first-choice goalkeeper, across all competitions. Simon Mignolet has not improved enough in his five years at Anfield, and Karius deserves this chance to prove his ability with the Reds.
The questions remains however – is he good enough for a team that has aspirations of winning the Premier League title? There are a number of top goalkeepers who could be on the move this summer, with Roma’s Alisson a reported target for Liverpool.
Will Klopp see enough in Karius to convince himself that the club’s funds can be spent elsewhere? We will find out in the next few months.
Trent Alexander-Arnold and Joe Gomez are two extremely promising options at right-back, with plenty of ability but also plenty to learn. The former struggled in Liverpool’s recent 2-1 defeat to Manchester United at Old Trafford, with Marcus Rashford exposing the teenager on multiple occasions, particularly from a positional sense.
Gomez may have not made those mistakes, but the 20-year-old has experienced his painful moments too, such as in the 3-3 draw with Arsenal in December.
Yet Klopp will accept mistakes from the youthful pair, otherwise they will never develop the experience necessary to succeed in the biggest moments, or retain the consistency needed at a club of Liverpool’s stature and ambition.
Nathaniel Clyne, if he can return to full fitness, should be given another run in the team, despite the encouraging signs this season from Gomez and Alexander-Arnold. Clyne, at his best, is one of the best right-backs in the Premier League and offers greater balance to the Reds than the attacking Alexander-Arnold or defensive Gomez.
In addition, both youngsters could be in different positions in the long-term, with Gomez naturally a centre-back and Alexander-Arnold earmarked for a potential midfield role.
Finally, finding the right partner for van Dijk is crucial. Dejan Lovren is too inconsistent and unreliable, while Joël Matip has struggled to replicate his form from last season. Ragnar Klavan is not the long-term solution and will likely leave this summer anyway, and it is too early for Gomez, who has barely played in the middle of the defence for the Reds.
Liverpool need more fresh blood in central defence, and Lazio’s Stefan de Vrij, heavily linked with Liverpool and hugely attractive with his contract up at the end of the season, could be the solution.
De Vrij may be a natural partner for countryman van Dijk, but whether the 26-year-old fits Liverpool’s style under Klopp remains to be seen.
Klopp knows Liverpool are a good defence away from seriously challenging for the league title once again, with the midfield set to be bolstered by the arrival of Naby Keïta from RB Leipzig and the attack already one of the very best in Europe.
Slowly but surely, using both astute and big-money signings, the German manager is building a defence that can both cope with Liverpool’s cavalier style and prevent the continuous leaking of goals at their own end.
They are not there yet, with a goalkeeper and another centre-back likely additions that are needed to improve further, but Klopp has got more right than wrong with his transfers at Anfield.