LIVERPOOL, England – Virgil van Dijk walked cautiously around the field, shaking his head ruefully and mumbling softly. He stopped to offer Jürgen Klopp a face, and then trudged on out of Goodison Park. This will be the last time Liverpool and the Premier League have seen the Dutchman in a while.
How long exactly is not yet known. On Sunday, an agent confirmed what both the player and his coach feared during this brief break in the Merseyside derby: Van Dijk has damaged the anterior cruciate ligament in his right knee. It is too early to accurately assess the extent of the damage, but not too early to know that Van Dijk needs an operation.
Only then can Liverpool set a timeframe for van Dijk’s rehabilitation and recovery. The best case scenario is that he can emulate Antonio Rüdiger, the German defender who sustained a similar injury in June 2016 and played again in October this year. Ilkay Gundogan on the other hand twice as long hand back. It’s not the worst case scenario.
Either way, Liverpool will now have to take on a sizable chunk of their Premier League title defense without the central pillar of their defense, a player who has played 74 straight league games and missed barely a minute of national competition in the two and a half years since arriving in Anfield.
Certain injuries have effects beyond the pain and distress of the player who suffered them. You have the ability to change the course of the season.
Former Arsenal midfielder Tomas Rosicky has argued that his side might have won the Premier League in 2008 if Eduardo, their Croatian-Brazilian striker, hadn’t faced a career threat Injury in a game in Birmingham. And a line could 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 that long between Serie A crowns at the end of the last century if Ronaldo, the Brazilian striker who was considered the best player in the world at the time, hadn’t torn his knee tendons in late 1999.
This is not always true, of course: Arsenal lost Robert Pires (again) to an injury in 2002 when he was pursuing a league and cup double and still won both. Five games this season should not be written off Liverpool. In this case, however, it is difficult to see how the context of the injury does not exacerbate the consequences.
It is possible to see what van Dijk had to do with almost all aspects of football in 2020. The incident that led up to it felt downright positive: Everton goalkeeper Jordan Pickford has scored a goal in the past few years Calling to act first and reflect later which created a spiral urges him to losing his place in the English national team.
Even more fitting is the fact that the severity of Van Dijk’s knee injury didn’t appear to be the main source of controversy immediately afterwards. Instead, the focus was on why Pickford escaped punishment for an obvious red card offense.
The theory turned out that Michael Oliver, the referee on the field, and David Coote, his colleague at the video office, couldn’t punish Pickford for an incident that happened when Van Dijk was sidelined. After 130 years of organized, codified football in England, a loophole seemed to have emerged where once the ball was out of play, everyone was allowed to do what they wanted.
That was later changed: Pickford would have been punished if he had committed serious fouling, but (rightly or wrongly) in the eyes of Oliver and Coote it was not.
It’s worth pausing, however, to consider that the introduction of referees for video assistants and the subsequent revision of the rules of the game to keep up with technology gave us the idea that there may be a glaring gray area in The Rules that went unnoticed in the last century are no longer particularly unthinkable. Suddenly nobody really knows where they stand.
The fact that Liverpool wrote to the Premier League after the game asking for an explanation of why Pickford was not reprimanded and for conclusive evidence of the offside decision that Klopp’s team denied a late winning goal has the atmosphere of sour grapes. However, there will be few clubs different from some V.A.R. have not felt hurt. Decision they don’t fully understand in the last season or so.
It could therefore help if the Premier League and its officials don’t just ponder Klopp’s burning sense of injustice, why this is going on, and wonder if the rules of the game may be fundamentally undermined if the players and when you see it believe it one does not think they are fair. Football is ultimately monitored by consent, and that consent is getting thinner and weaker.
Immediately means van Dijk’s absence for Liverpool. Losing a player of his stature would be detrimental at any time of the year and in any situation, but doing so in this campaign is particularly worrying.
Klopp’s team will have to play 17 Premier League and Champions League games in the 75 days between now and January 1st, the earliest available date on which Liverpool can get a replacement or reinforcement. (His schedule would have been even tougher if he hadn’t been eliminated from the League Cup by Arsenal.) That’s roughly every four days.
And that with only two fit, high-ranking, specialized center-backs: Joel Matip and Joe Gomez, both of whom have vaguely verified injury histories of their own. The next alternative, Fabinho, is a central midfielder by profession who was appointed by Klopp to the emergency center partly of his own free will – he prefers to work with a small squad – and partly for reasons of necessity: his purchasing power this summer was due to the economic impact limited the coronavirus pandemic, and he noted that the money was better spent elsewhere.
In such a compact and condensed season, injuries are even more likely than usual to be the deciding factor in who is successful and who is not. The teams that will triumph across Europe this season not only have to perform well, they also have to endure. Titles can go to the last standing team. It may be that, when it’s all over, we will see that moment when van Dijk trudged around the field at Goodison Park that Liverpool fell into.