Liverpool will be debating various defensive combinations in the absence of Virgil van Dijk. Erling Haaland knows all about a forgotten option for Jürgen Klopp.
An injury to Virgil van Dijk was the last thing Liverpool needed right now. Their backs are against the wall, and the colossal defender was the one outfielder on whom Jürgen Klopp had relied for every available Premier League and Champions League minute prior to his withdrawal against Brentford.
One of his two ‘rests’ came against Manchester City in the League Cup. It’s in inverted commas, because his absence was as a result of the World Cup, where he played every available minute for the Netherlands — including a gruelling extra time and penalties against eventual winners Argentina for good measure.
Without Van Dijk to contend with, Manchester City finally recorded a win against Liverpool this season at the third attempt, partially avenging two previous defeats. Erling Haaland was on the score-sheet against Klopp’s side for the first time in a blue shirt, taking just 10 minutes to breach the pairing of Joël Matip and Joe Gomez.
Thankfully, Liverpool do not have to face Haaland every week, and Matip and Gomez are both excellent defenders in their own right. Under normal circumstances, they would be more than adequate Van Dijk stand-ins. But with the midfield in crisis in front of them, both are at risk of being exposed, with the latter in particular having looked shaky this season when called upon.
Since that League Cup clash, Ibrahima Konaté has also returned from World Cup duty, and he probably represents the best Van Dijk solution. He boasts a lot of the same physicality and recovery pace, allowing him to compensate for at least some of Liverpool’s soft centre.
But Haaland should also have given Klopp cause to consider one other option. When James Milner was forced off against Manchester City, Joe Gomez switched over to right-back, and his replacement at the heart of the Liverpool defence did a more than reasonable job on the world’s most in-form striker.
Nat Phillips’ hopes of getting a move have surely been dashed again. It seems his transfer away has been perennially on hold, with everything from a high £15m ($18m/€17m) asking price (The Athletic) to an abundance of caution in the wake of the long-term injuries to Van Dijk and Gomez thwarting a departure.
Even if Klopp is not considering Phillips as a first-team option in the wake of the latest Van Dijk setback, he will surely be reluctant to sanction a transfer, with his pool of centre-backs reduced for the next few weeks at least.
It’s really tough on the player himself, who helped propel Liverpool into the top four in the midst of their previous crisis, and has looked assured in his rare cameos since then. A certain Cruyff turn comes to mind. Phillips deserves to be starting somewhere.
But could that be at Liverpool, at least for now? Klopp should at least be giving the option some thought.
Right now, who would you trust more at CB for #LFC?
— James Martin (@JamesMartin013) December 22, 2022
There was one standout moment against Haaland, whose eyes had lit up, only for Phillips to come barrelling in. It was old-school, body-on-the-line defending — and while that is rarely the order of the day at Liverpool, it might be exactly what is required in the absence of a functioning midfield shield.
And it’s not as though Phillips is completely worthless on the technical side of the game. Klopp famously once compared him to Robert Lewandowski in terms of the sheer levels of improvement in his game, and that moment against Milan in the Champions League certainly required a degree of finesse.
If Liverpool are going to keep denying him a transfer, preserving him as an option, then it’s only fair for him to be an option who comes under consideration. Given the odd circumstances at the club right now, he might just be one of Klopp’s most plausible solutions. Just ask Haaland.