LIVERPOOL, England – Virgil van Dijk walked carefully around the field, shaking his head shaking and mumbling under breath. He stopped to offer Jürgen Klopp a grimace and then pulled out of Goodison Park. It will be the last Liverpool, and Premier League, the Dutchman sees for some time.
How long, exactly, is not yet known. On Sunday, a consultant confirmed what both the player and his coach feared during the short break in the Merseyside derby: Van Dijk has injured the anterior cruciate ligament in his right knee. It is too early to assess the exact extent of the damage, but not too early to know that van Dijk needs surgery.
Regardless, Liverpool must now take on a significant part of their Premier League defense without the central pillar in the back line, a player who had played 74 consecutive league games and who had hardly missed a minute of domestic competition in the two and a half years ago arrival at Anfield.
Certain injuries have ramifications that extend beyond the pain and despair that the player has suffered; they have the capacity to change over the course of the season.
Former Arsenal midfielder Tomas Rosicky has claimed that his team could have won the Premier League in 2008 if Eduardo, his Croatian-Brazilian striker, had not suffered a career-threatening injury in a game in Birmingham. And a line can be drawn between Roy Keane’s absence in 1998 and Manchester United’s collapse in the Premier League title race. Inter Milan might not have had to wait so long between Serie A crowns at the end of the last century if Ronaldo, the Brazilian striker was widely regarded as the best player in the world at the time, had not torn his tendons in the knee. late in 1999.
Of course, the same is not always true: Arsenal lost (again) Robert Pires to injury in 2002, as it pursued a league and cup double, and went on to win both anyway. Five games into this season, Liverpool should not be written off yet. But in this case, it is difficult to see how the injury context does not exacerbate the consequences.
It is possible to see, in what happened to van Dijk, a glimpse of almost every aspect of football in 2020. The incident that caused it felt clearly au courant: Everton goalkeeper Jordan Pickford has spent the last few years on gaining a reputation for a tendency to act first and think later, one that has led to spiraling, urges him to lose his place on England’s national team.
More appropriate is still the fact that the severity of van Dijk’s knee injury did not appear to be the main source of controversy in its immediate aftermath. Instead, the focus was on why Pickford escaped any punishment for what appeared to be an apparent red card violation.
The theory emerged that Michael Oliver, a judge on the spot, and David Coote, his colleague in the video agency, could not punish Pickford for an incident that happened when van Dijk was offside. After 130 years of organized, codified football in England, there seemed to be a loophole where everyone, when the ball was no longer in play, had carte blanche to do what they liked.
That was later changed: Pickford would have been punished if he had been guilty of serious misconduct, but (rightly or wrongly) in the eyes of Oliver and Coote, it did not apply.
However, it is worth pausing to consider that this is where the introduction of video assistant referees and the subsequent rewriting of the game’s rules to keep up with technology has brought us: the idea that there may be a gray area in the rules that have gone unnoticed in the last century are no longer unthinkable. Suddenly no one really knows where they stand anymore.
The fact that Liverpool wrote to the Premier League after the match, asking for an explanation as to why Pickford was not reprimanded – as well as asking for conclusive evidence of the offside decision that had denied Klopp’s team a late winning goal – has the air of sour grapes. But there will be few clubs that have not felt dissatisfied with some VAR decision that they did not fully understand during the last season or so.
It may therefore be useful for more than just Klopp’s burning sense of injustice that the Premier League and its officials consider why this continues to happen, and wonder if perhaps the rules of the game are fundamentally undermined if they play and see it not believe them to be fair. After all, football is policed with consent, and that consent is thinning and declining.
More immediately, however, is what van Dijk’s absence means for Liverpool. Losing a player of his stature would be detrimental in any season, in any situation, but it is particularly worrying to do so in this campaign.
In the 75 days between now and January 1, the fastest available date for Liverpool to acquire a replacement or reinforcement, Klopp’s team will play 17 matches in the Premier League and Champions League. (Its schedule would have been even heavier if it had not been eliminated from the League Cup by Arsenal.) It is about once every four days.
And it will only do so with two fit, senior, specialized central defenders: Joel Matip and Joe Gomez, who both themselves have a vague routed injury history. The next alternative, Fabinho, is a central midfielder in trade, anointed an emergency center back by Klopp partly by choice – he prefers to work with a small group – and partly by necessity: His consumption power this summer was limited due to the economic impact of the coronavirus pandemic, and he determined that the money was being spent better elsewhere.
In such a compact and condensed season, injuries are even more likely than usual to be the deciding factor for who succeeds and who does not. The teams that are triumphing – all over Europe – this season must not only excel, they will also have to endure. Titles may well go to the last team that stands. It may be that when it’s all over, we’re going to see the moment when van Dijk pulled around the pitch at Goodison Park, like the one where Liverpool fell.