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Virgil van Dijk sheds new light on Liverpool injury crisis as returns date hint made

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Virgil van Dijk reacts to Joe Gomez having to play defensive midfield for Liverpool and the Reds’ ongoing injury crisis.

Virgil van Dijk sheds new light on Liverpool injury crisis as returns date hint made

One position in particular should have caused Liverpool plenty of headaches this season. Yet Jurgen Klopp continues to sidestep such issues with ease.

Last summer, the Reds found themselves without any senior defensive midfielders following the unexpected departures of both Fabinho and Jordan Henderson to Saudi Arabia. Pursuits of Moises Caicedo, Romeo Lavia and Andre Trindade would all end in failure, before the curve-ball arrival of Wataru Endo from VfB Stuttgart in a £16.2m deal.

Eyebrows were understandably raised at the signing of the then 30-year-old Japan captain, who had often found himself embroiled in relegation battles in the Bundesliga. Inevitably, he took time to adjust to the Premier League.

Prior to his signing, Trent-Alexander Arnold and Curtis Jones had filled the vacancy during pre-season, with the former impressing only for an injury to Conor Bradley requiring him back in his natural right-back role. With the latter not as convincing, Alexis Mac Allister was then turned to with it clear that it was not the Argentine’s natural position.

Initially a short-term fix ahead of Stefan Bajcetic’s anticipated return from injury, a fresh setback to the young Spaniard prompted a rethink as Mac Allister continued in the role. Gradually, he looked more and more of a natural.

When he was struck down by injury in December, an acclimated Endo stepped up to demonstrate why the club had signed him in the first place as he established himself as a firm fan-favourite. Fortunately, when he departed for Asian Cup duty in January, Mac Allister was back fit.

Unfortunately, further midfield absences were just around the corner, ensuring that both Endo and Mac Allister would be needed to line up together game after game throughout February until they were both struck down.

The Japanese left Wembley on crutches and in a protective boot after Liverpool’s League Cup final win over Chelsea, with the Argentine succumbing to illness. While he would recover enough to be utilised as a substitute against Southampton on Wednesday night, Klopp needed a creative solution.

Alexander-Arnold, Jones, and Bajcetic were all still sidelined while James McConnell, who had played at number six against Norwich City last month, was needed at number eight due to the extent of the Reds’ injury woes. Klopp was ultimately left with no choice other than to think outside of the box when he settled on Joe Gomez as the latest makeshift solution.

The 26-year-old has shone this season after rediscovering his best form, despite being asked to play right across the defence. But even for the versatile England international, lining up as a defensive midfielder rather than full-back or centre-back was something rather new.

Despite being flanked by teenagers McConnell and Bobby Clark in an untried midfield trio, Liverpool need not have worried about Gomez against the Saints as they ran out 3-0 winners. Setting up an FA Cup quarter-final clash away at Manchester United, Klopp was full of praise for the unlikely hero after the final whistle as a result.

“Joe Gomez saved our lives 20 times tonight and the kids kept us in the competition,” he said. “So we can talk about the boys but but the real story today is Joe Gomez.

“The game he played today I have never seen before, with chaos around him, as a No.6 [for the first time], I couldn’t respect it more.”

What made his showing even more impressive was the fact that the Reds had had next to no time to work on it in training, while sweating over the availability of Mac Allister.

“Because there was such a short turnaround we didn’t even work on it that much,” club captain Virgil van Dijk admitted to the ECHO and other media outlets. “We had a team meeting about Southampton and how we wanted to play, what to expect.

“But it was always going to be a bit difficult because you are not used to being there from the get-go. He (Gomez) can invert in but it’s a different scenario.

“They played out well. Obviously we played with a team which didn’t play too many times together so pressing-wise we were, at times, a little bit all over the place in the beginning but you have to try to stay in the game like we always try to do and that worked and we scored a goal with a little bit of luck.

“He did outstanding, big credit to him for him to perform at left-back, right-back, centre-half, six and does it on the high level.”

“I’m just pleased for him and knowing what we have been through together a couple of years ago,” the Dutchman continued, referencing the serious season-ending injuries both he and Gomez suffered back in 2020. “And for him to be playing on that level is something he should get maybe more credit for.

“But he is a very close friend of mine and he is a very good player and has been outstanding. Maybe one of the players of the season this year.”

Of course, Gomez isn’t the only player impressing in the Liverpool starting XI after overcoming difficult circumstances. Caoimhin Kelleher is shining in goal too in the extended absence of Alisson Becker, much to the delight of Van Dijk.

“I said it before, I am one of the biggest fans of Caoimh,” he said. “It must be difficult to be a second goalie at times.

“Obviously you want to play each and every game but if you are the second goalie behind the best goalkeeper in the world in my opinion, it is not a punishment. But when he steps up and when he plays, he did very well. He had an outstanding game at Wembley and today, the first part of the game (against Southampton) as well.

“You just have to keep going and games like this and at the weekend will give him a boost and confidence going towards the last part of the season because we need him to be at his best and he just has to keep going.”

Kelleher’s stint in the starting XI is not scheduled to end anytime soon with Alisson ruled out until at least after the March international break. He isn’t alone, with Alexander-Arnold, Jones, Bajcetic, Thiago Alcantara, Ryan Gravenberch, Diogo Jota, Joel Matip, and Ben Doak also still in the treatment room.

But having avoided any further injuries against Southampton, Van Dijk is hopeful that Liverpool will welcome back some senior players when they travel to Nottingham Forest on Saturday as they pursue further silverware after their League Cup final win. It remains unclear if Endo will be fit to return, but Mohamed Salah, Darwin Nunez and Dominik Szoboszlai are all closing in on comebacks, while Robertson should overcome illness.

“Overall I think it was very important to go through and come out for the game with no injuries and prepare for Forest,” Van Dijk said. “The last two games were already very important, Luton too of course.

“The (young) guys did well and we need everyone in this fight. Hopefully we have a couple of players back for the weekend as that will be a tough game as well. We lost there last year and we want to make things right.

“I think the positivity comes from winning games, that is how the football business works. We all play the game to win but since the start of this season, there has been this mood that we want to make things right, not only for the fans but ourselves as well as it was very difficult season last season for many different reasons.

“We are on a good way, we can’t be satisfied at this point and we won’t be. We want to keep going, keep working, keep fighting and we need each and everyone of us plus the fans in order to hopefully achieve things we are dreaming of.”

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