It’s possible Jurgen Klopp sanctioned the £75 million transfer of Virgil Van Dijk last January purely to shut up all those who continually, with every utterance of his management, demanded he fix his team’s defensive deficiencies.
Almost a year on and Liverpool have indeed sorted their defence. Klopp has forged one of the most effective defensive units in the Premier League, keeping more clean sheets (nine) than any other side in the division this season. The signing of Van Dijk is widely hailed as the catalyst for this improvement, and with justifiable reason, but Liverpool’s improvement has been down to more than just one man.
Alongside Van Dijk this season, Joe Gomez has made himself a mainstay of Klopp’s starting lineup. The 21-year-old has started 12 out of Liverpool’s 15 Premier League games played so far this term, forming an understanding with the more illustrious, more eye-catching Dutchman at the heart of the Liverpool defence.
Now, however, Gomez has been sidelined through injury. The young defender was stretchered off early on in Liverpool’s midweek win over Burnley, meaning he will be out of action for six weeks at the very least. The Premier League title race could be defined by what happens over the busy winter period and Liverpool will be without one of their key figures for that crucial spell.
It’s in his absence that Liverpool will find out just how good Gomez is. Much has said and written about the rise of Trent Alexander-Arnold over the past 12 months or so, with the likes of Roberto Firmino, Sadio Mane and Mohamed Salah collecting the acclaim for their achievements last season and this. Even Xherdan Shaqiri has been hailed for his recent performances.
Gomez, however, largely flies under the radar. The former Charlton Athletic youngster has been called up to the national team, becoming a regular member of Gareth Southgate’s England squad, so it’s not that he goes totally unnoticed. It’s just that others rise to the top of the list ahead of Gomez when the critical acclaim is handed out.
And yet there are few who are as important to Liverpool’s overall team structure as Gomez. His mobility might not be up to the level of someone like Van Dijk, but his pace makes him a defensive block that can cover, pretty much, the full width of the pitch. Gomez is central to the way Liverpool play out from the back, and the way they often bypass the midfield by punching balls into the forwards from deep. Without him, they would lose much of their supply line.
“When you see Joe Gomez playing in that role tonight as a central defender, he combines a lot of things you don’t find in the transfer market, to be honest,” Klopp explained in the summer when asked whether he would sign a centre back partner for Van Dijk.
Indeed, while previously while Liverpool might have been implored to spend more money in the transfer market finding another centre back, Klopp has good reason to believe that money would be better spent elsewhere. The centre back pairing that has formed between Gomez and Van Dijk this season is the kind that can provide a platform for a title-winning team. It might not be Rio Ferdinand-Nemanja Vidic or Ricardo Carvalho-John Terry, but the two complement each other in a similar way.
This injury to Gomez could hardly have come at a worse time for Klopp and Liverpool. Next week, the Reds face Napoli in a Champions League match that will decide whether they make the competition’s last 16. Just a few days later, they host Manchester United before five matches in just over two weeks, including games against Arsenal and Manchester City. It’s over this stretch that Gomez’s quality will be underlined without him even playing a minute.