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Liverpool need midfielders badly, but finding another Virgil van Dijk is just as important for Jurgen Klopp this summer

4:00 AM EST 3/1/23
Van Dijk Gvardiol Inacio GFX
The Reds have been all over the place at the back at times this season, and at least one centre-back is required during the summer transfer window

It really is remarkable how quickly things can change in football.At the start of this season, had you canvassed opinion on the strength and depth of Liverpool’s squad, the idea of needing a new centre-back or two would have been swiftly dismissed.

Six months on, though, the landscape has shifted considerably.

New midfielders, quite rightly, are top of the Reds’ agenda heading into the summer, but defensive reinforcements should not be far behind if the club is serious about righting the wrongs of this most challenging of campaigns.

The struggles of Joel Matip and Joe Gomez, in particular, have exposed the fragilities in Jurgen Klopp’s backline. And with Virgil van Dijk’s form having dropped below its usual impeccable standards, and with Ibrahima Konate beset by fitness issues, what was a strength last season has become a weakness this time around...

  • Alisson Liverpool 2022-23

    A stark decline

    The numbers speak for themselves. Liverpool conceded 26 goals in 38 Premier League games last season, but have already shipped 28 in 23 this time around.

    In all competitions, they have conceded 47 times, leaking three or more goals on eight separate occasions. They have kept only eight clean sheets in the league, and only 13 overall.

    Their decline has been stark, and never more evident than in the 5-2 defeat against Real Madrid in the first leg of the Champions League last-16, when the team’s structural issues were compounded by baffling, but all-too-familiar, individual errors.

    “Unacceptable,” Klopp called it. Liverpool had never previously conceded four in a European game at Anfield, never mind five, and for all the plaudits directed Madrid’s way, it is fair to say the result sent shockwaves through the footballing world, opening many more eyes to the Reds’ struggles.

  • Joe Gomez Liverpool 2022-23

    Gomez's issues

    It was Gomez who came in for the most criticism in the wake of the Madrid thrashing. The England international had an unwitting hand, or foot, in all of Real’s goals, his uncertainty and lack of assertiveness exposed ruthlessly by Vinicius Junior, Karim Benzema and Co.

    It has been that kind of season for the 25-year-old, whose performances have been so inconsistent as to bring about serious questions as to his suitability as a Liverpool player going forward.

    Gomez was brilliant in important victories over Manchester City and Everton, arguably the two high points of the Reds’ season, but he was also removed at half-time in the 4-1 defeat to Napoli in September, culpable for Kaoru Mitoma’s late FA Cup-winner for Brighton, and his fingerprints were all over the defeats to Leeds and Wolves, in which he made basic errors that cost crucial goals.

    He has played 29 times in all, more than any other Reds centre-back and more than he managed in the whole of last season (21), while it was only last summer that he signed a new five-year contract.

    His age and status as a homegrown player, as well as his ability to play right-back if needed, count in his favour, but at 25 he has already suffered at least four serious, long-term injuries, and it is beginning to look like the Gomez of 2019-20, when he was Van Dijk’s partner in the Premier League-winning team, may never truly return.

    Were a good offer to arrive this summer, it would be in Liverpool’s interests to seriously consider it.

  • Joel Matip Liverpool 2022-23

    Matip uncertainty

    The same applies to Matip, who like Gomez has endured a difficult campaign, strewn with errors and muscle injuries.

    The 31-year-old was instrumental last season as the Reds chased an unprecedented quadruple. His partnership with Van Dijk, his calmness, and his underrated ability to step out of defence and create in the opposition half, were key as Klopp’s side embarked upon a quite remarkable campaign.

    But his 43 appearances in all competitions was by far the most he has managed in a single season since joining from Schalke in 2016, and he will turn 32 in August.

    He is about to enter the final year of his contract, and there is a growing feeling within the club that his seven-year stay on Merseyside may be about to come to an end.

  • Alisson Ibrahima Konate Liverpool 2022-23

    Konate concerns

    Konate's case is a little different. The France international has shown, in his 18 months with the club, that he is capable of becoming a mainstay under Klopp.

    He started the Champions League final last May where was arguably Liverpool’s best player, and featured for France in the World Cup final in Qatar, having enjoyed a fine, breakthrough tournament with Didier Deschamps’ side.

    The only concern over the 23-year-old surrounds his fitness record. Konate has started only four Premier League games this season, his campaign decimated by knee and hamstring injuries.

    Given his record at previous club RB Leipzig, where he managed only 32 appearances in two seasons prior to his move to Merseyside, that has to be a source of worry.

    Keeping Konate fit is crucial, because his pace, strength and fast-improving reading of the game mark him out as a potential top-class centre-back. And there aren’t many of those about at the moment.

  • Virgil van Dijk Liverpool 2022-23

    Looking for another Van Dijk

    Van Dijk, of course, remains very much Klopp’s No.1 choice. The Dutchman, like so many of his colleagues, has been far from his best this season, but he remains an elite-level performer - on Monday, he was named in the FIFPro Men’s World XI at FIFA's The Best awards, and with two years remaining on his contract he should have a huge role to play in Liverpool’s rebuild.

    He was, of course, a transformational signing when joining from Southampton in January 2018, with the Reds’ decision to splash out £75 million ($91m) justified almost overnight.

    His composure, aerial dominance and left-to-right diagonals enabled Liverpool to shift from top-four hopefuls to big-prize contenders, but it was leadership and mentality which, if you speak to team-mates, had the biggest impact.

    How Liverpool would love another signing like that.

  • Antonio Silva Benfica 2022-23

    Who could they target?

    As mentioned previously, there is not an obvious abundance of top-class centre-backs in world football.

    Argentina, for example, have just won the World Cup with Nicolas Otamendi, while Arsenal are topping the Premier League with two players - Gabriel Magalhaes and William Saliba - who have eight international caps between them. England are still persisting with Harry Maguire, Chelsea still depend on the 38-year-old Thiago Silva, while even Manchester City have often turned to ‘second-tier’ defenders in Manuel Akanji and Nathan Ake this season.

    That is not to say there are no options out there, however. Liverpool have, in recent months, scouted two young Portuguese talents, Benfica’s Antonio Silva and Sporting C.P.’s Goncalo Inacio. Both are young, 19 and 21, respectively, and both are forging a strong reputation as ball-playing, physically robust defenders. Both are expected to be the subject of transfer offers this summer.

    Levi Colwill, currently on loan at Brighton from Chelsea, is another who is admired, although a move for the 20-year-old looks to be a non-starter given the rivalry between the clubs. The same would apply to Jarrad Branthwaite, who is impressing on loan at PSV from Everton.

    Josko Gvardiol, the RB Leipzig and Croatia star, certainly looks to have the skills and attitude to thrive were he to move up a level, but would cost well over £70m ($85m), with the German side keen to keep the 21-year-old for at least another season.

    Perr Schuurs of Torino has been looked at previously, while the emergence of Morocco international Nayef Aguerd at West Ham has not gone unnoticed either.

    With at least two, and probably three, midfield arrivals necessary, it remains to be seen just how much Liverpool are willing to spend on strengthening their defence. But with Gomez and Matip under pressure, with Nat Phillips (26) almost certain to be sold, and with youngsters Sepp van den Berg (21), Billy Koumetio (20), Rhys Williams (22) and Jarell Quansah (20) unlikely to step up at this time, one thing looks increasingly certain; they have to do something.

    They know as well as anyone how one 'slam dunk' signing can transform a defence, and a team. How they would love to bag themselves another Van Dijk this summer.