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Jurgen Klopp hails Liverpool’s response to Virgil van Dijk’s injury: “This group of players is so special, it’s just another challenge for us to deal with and that’s what we’ll do because that’s what we always do”
Liverpool look to make it three wins from three without their talismanic centre back on Tuesday night as they host FC Midtjylland exclusively live on BT Sport.
It was the one thing they didn’t want. When 10 days ago Jordan Pickford flung himself wildly at Virgil van Dijk, missing the ball completely but clattering into the Liverpool defender, fans on the red half of Merseyside collectively held their breath.
Van Dijk was able to walk off the pitch unassisted but a scan would reveal he’d suffered anterior cruciate ligament damage and required surgery on his knee. He is not expected to play again this season.
Given the context - in the Merseyside derby with the challenge occurring in a dead-ball situation after Van Dijk was flagged for offside – it stung particularly bad. Adrian called the England goalkeeper’s actions indefensible. Jurgen Klopp admitted it was “difficult to accept”.
Since arriving for a club-record £75 million from Southampton in January 2018, Van Dijk has had a truly transformative impact at Liverpool. The centre back had missed only two Premier League matches, has ranked joint-top for the most clean sheets, has the best success rate of any player involved in at least 100 duels… the list goes on.
Van Dijk is the safety blanket Liverpool need to play their best football. The Dutchman forms the solid base from which Liverpool can attack while knowing they have Europe's finest centre back behind them ready to sniff out any danger from the opposition. To make matters worse, Liverpool’s other experienced centre back Joel Matip also suffered a minor injury in the Merseyside derby.
So how have they coped without their first-choice centre backs? So far, so good. Two games, two wins and one clean sheet with Fabinho dropping back into defence to fill in for his injured team-mates.
“This group of players are so special, I do not have enough words for it,” the Liverpool boss said. “[Van Dijk’s injury] is just another challenge for us to deal with.
“That’s what we’ll do because that’s what we always do. As we know, life is a challenge but life is a team sport too. So you have to deal with the things you’ve got and make the best of it. That’s the approach.”
Fabinho was widely praised for his performance alongside Joe Gomez in the first Liverpool game without Van Dijk, the 1-0 win at Ajax in Wednesday’s Champions League opener.
And Klopp believes that while there are still some improvements required, he feels confident with Fabinho and Gomez’s understanding in the heart of the Liverpool defence.
“It would be strange if they play twice together and it’s all perfect!” Klopp added. “They played the first time together last week and did really well so let’s carry on like this.”
Another player with a huge impact on Liverpool’s defence is goalkeeper Alisson, regarded by many as the finest in Europe.
He's a really important player for us, everybody knows this. We can't deny this, we can't hide this
The Brazilian was due to be out for four to six weeks after injuring his shoulder in training but returned ahead of schedule for Saturday’s 2-1 win over Sheffield United at Anfield.
Asked about the injury to his Dutch team-mate, Alisson admitted it was a big blow but feels there are ways the squad can come together to help cover for Van Dijk.
“We have to work hard to fill his absence,” Alisson said. “He’s a really important player for us, everybody knows this. We can’t deny this, we can’t hide this.
“He knows we all want him back as soon as possible… we just have to help him now in this difficult moment because while it’s difficult for us, it’s worse for him.
“But we have the players we need to keep playing our style. Some skills only Virgil has but we have different players with different skills. Fabinho is doing well as a centre back, Joel will be back in a few days and we have the younger lads who are trying to work into their places too.”
It was typical of Van Dijk that his first statement since suffering the injury was upbeat and optimistic. “I’m a firm believe that within difficulty lies opportunity and with God’s help I’m going to make sure I return better, fitter and stronger than ever before,” he wrote on Instagram.
As well as his greatness on the pitch, off the pitch Van Dijk was hugely influential at Liverpool alongside captain Jordan Henderson. And Alisson feels the squad must rely on their collective presence to fill the void left by the defender.
“We have the presence of everybody, every player,” Alisson said. “When we are in the changing room everyone is speaking with each other to give something extra for the team.
“We know what our jobs are and we know what we need to do on the pitch. As a goalkeeper I try to speak with the defence and help the team. But we don’t need to speak too much, we need action.”
That action begins with the visit of the Danish champions FC Midtjylland to Anfield, Liverpool’s sixth of seven games in an October which has also featured an international break. It’s coincided with eight injuries to Liverpool players since the start of the season.
While Klopp admitted he was tired of complaining over the fixture pile-up, he believed the organisers could do more to help the players by easing the congestion.
“I don’t want to sound like a moaner but I am asked about this. I would not mention it so many times if nobody asked me,” Klopp said. “It’s the Champions League Wednesday and then Tuesday and then it’s about what the Premier League is throwing at us after that.”
“Everybody would agree if you play Tuesday, then you can play on Saturday at 12.30pm but somehow the Premier League makes a team that played on Wednesday play this game.
When I saw Manchester City's schedule I thought: 'How can that be possible?'
- Jurgen Klopp
“Manchester City had to play this game and I cannot believe it. We are obviously not friends, we play against each other, but when I saw it I said: ‘How is that possible?”
Klopp adds: “Usually we have a week between the [Champions League] group games but we don’t this time. The international breaks are now triple, not double, headers and all the main players of the big teams have played two-and-a-half games minimum and then play for the clubs directly.
“Sergio Aguero came on, played one-and-a-half games, got injured again and people say: ‘Why did he play the second game?’… because Gabriel Jesus is already injured and the aim is to win football games and for that we have to play our best players as much as possible.
“For that we need help. And I always understood the Premier League to be the partner of the players, especially the English players because next summer there will be a European Championships.
“I don’t understand why I have to mention it and they don’t do it beforehand. Maybe I’m too dumb but I don’t understand why I have to speak about it and not [Premier League Chief Executive] Richard Masters and the other guys… they just don’t seem bothered and I don’t understand it.”