Coming off an expectedly grueling holiday stretch (nine games in 31 days) Liverpool’s few blips could seemingly be forgiven. The eight matches since December second included a crucial champions league clash, a derby, and a match against a direct opponent for a league place in the top four.
A questionable penalty call against Everton spoiled a game that Liverpool, by most accounts, had dominated. A drab performance by the Reds saw them drop two points against a stalwart, but struggling West Brom; and a shameful collapse saw two points thrown away at the Emirates, but otherwise they have been excellent.
In their other holiday matches, Liverpool scored 25 goals and conceded only three. While most would agree they weren’t sterling in every contest, they showed what Jurgen Klopp would have wanted to see: free-firing attacking verve, tenacity, and… acceptable defense.
The last point above follows an ellipses as Liverpool’s most obvious Achilles heel. While the Goals Against total might not raise an eyebrow alone, the context behind the concessions would. Individual mistakes and lapses in concentration have cost the Merseyside outfit crucial points this year, and with Manchester City’s comparative infallibility, it has all but guaranteed a sub-first-place finish.
This isn’t a new story for most Liverpool fans. It’s a story rehashed since the days of Rafa Benitez and his defensive coach Sammy Lee (who now plies his trade, in acrimonious terms, across Stanley Park for Everton). What is new, however, is the arrival of a big Dutchman.
Virgil Van Dijk has finally arrived on Merseyside after days, weeks, and months of speculation, rumors, and waiting. The reported £75m transfer won’t bother fans as Liverpool’s principal owner, John Henry, certainly has the money to spare, but further, fans will feel their squad is almost there. That is to say, almost good enough to truly compete for an English Premier League title.
Van Dijk seems to be just what the doctor ordered. He’s a strong, vocal centre-half who has shown his pedigree across Scotland, England, and the halls of the European elite. Further, his reported input in his transfer to Liverpool, rather than rivaling Manchester City, shows a bit about his personality. It stands to reason that he could have transferred to City (who currently sit in first place with twelve points separating them from second place) as a third choice centerback for an easy Premier League winner’s medal, but instead he chose to come to Liverpool; a club where his will could be asserted and correspond to a tangible difference on the field.
In the coming weeks, Liverpool face five matches just as crucial as those they’ve just endured. An FA cup tie against Everton starts off a stretch that also includes the return legs of the only two matches they’ve lost this season; Manchester City and Tottenham.
Sandwiched in between this gauntlet, Liverpool face the epitome of “trap games”. Swansea City and Huddersfield Town, both away, represent “sure things” as far as most punditry would go. If Liverpool fail to take six points from these two matches they will surely see it as a failure. These two matches also represent a potentially genuine stumbling block. Liverpool has struggled against “lowly” opposition in recent years and this season is no outlier.
Klopp will surely hope Van Dijk is fit enough and astute enough to slot into the starting XI sooner rather than later, as his inclusion could represent an improvement in both defensive acumen and attention.