The reaction to the injury Joe Gomez suffered against Burnley last week goes to show just how highly rated the young defender has become this year.
A robust tackle from Ben Mee saw the England international suffer a fracture in his leg and the announcement was made the following day that he was going to be out of action for around six weeks – meaning he would be sitting out the crucial festive fixtures. That run of games was to include the visit of Napoli in the Champions League decider this week along with massive Premier League clashes with rivals Manchester United, Arsenal and Manchester City. It is a measure of how well the former Charlton Athletic man has performed since moving to centre-back at the start of the season. He has been rewarded for his form with an improved and extended contract along with more caps for England. He could very well go on to become the best defender of his generation for the Three Lions, such is the potential of his talent.
His absence opened the door for Joel Matip to come back into the side after struggling for game time over the past year or so. And the Cameroon international was showing some fine form in the wins over Bournemouth and Napoli before his fragility was again exposed with a fractured collarbone against the Italian side. He had reminded people why fans were so up in arms back in early 2017 when his nation wanted him to be banned from club football after refusing his callup to their squad. When Virgil Van Dijk was first being linked with a move to Anfield in late 2016, it was the former Schalke man they wanted to see him partnered with. Injuries have interrupted his claim to be the man to partner the Dutchman, but he certainly reminded fans of what he is capable of over the past week or so.
His injury has opened the door for Dejan Lovren to reassert his claims on the place next to Van Dijk at the heart of the defence. There was a lot of speculation that the Croatian international would be the man to make way for the world’s most expensive defender, but Lovren’s form improved over the second half of last season. His Liverpool career looked to be in serious threat after a woeful performance against Spurs saw him substituted during the first half at Wembley, but he bounced back and managed to appear in both the World Cup and Champions League finals this year. He was on the losing side in each, but he did his reputation no harm in helping both club and country to reach them. But his return to Merseyside for preseason saw him carrying a stomach injury he had kept quiet and that did not go down well with his manager. Jurgen Klopp opted to use Gomez in the centre and he has risen to the first-choice partner for Van Dijk.
His absence will give Lovren the chance to try and force Klopp into a rethink, however, as he is now one of only two fit and available central defenders in the squad going into the busy festive period. He will be picked to face Manchester United at Anfield on Sunday, should he be passed fit, and will expect to keep his place against Wolves, Newcastle United and Arsenal. That will see Liverpool through to the end of the calendar year, with a trip to take on champions at The Etihad the first game of 2019.
Klopp is unlikely have time to bring in a new signing by then, despite last year’s Christmas deal to sign Van Dijk, and so will have to rely on either using Fabinho as a makeshift defender or calling on the unproven talents of Nat Phillips. Neither is likely to fill supporters with confidence should they have to be drafted in for the crucial game against Pep Guardiola’s team.
But it is hard to see Klopp dipping in to the transfer market. He has not made that much use of the January window since his arrival, with the surprise loan signing of Steven Caulker and the world record deal for Van Dijk exceptions. He started the season with four central defenders, and the knowledge that three of them aren’t alien to injury, with backup from Fabinho and Phillips. He has been linked with offers for the likes of Kalidou Koulibaly and Matthjis De Ligt in the past, but it seems unlikely that such big money deals are going to happen in the new year. He is also unlikely to want to bring in a player who would expect to be a first-choice, given how well Gomez has performed. Lovren and Matip are also unlikely to be happy at seeing one of those players arrive – and then there’s the unlikely prospect of Napoli and Ajax being prepared to part with them halfway through the season.
So a stop gap player seems the most likely option should Klopp opt to dip into the market. Few, if any, names spring to mind and the German has shown that he is quite particular about who he brings in to his squad. Michael Edwards and his scouting team will no doubt have a shortlist of names ready and waiting for Klopp should he want to seek out a new defender, but by the time that player is signed and ready to play, it’s likely that at least one of Gomez and Matip will be fit and ready to return to action.
So a January deal for a new centre-back looks unlikely to happen unless the right player becomes available and a deal can be done quickly. There are a couple more weeks left of the year to do negotiations and the player could be in the squad for New Year’s Day, like Van Dijk last year. But I wouldn’t be banking on it.