There’s nothing soccer fans hate more than seeing their club lose to a hated rival. Except, it turns out, having a hated rival beat you on your own pitch. Liverpool’s diehards must be sick, then, after cross-town Everton marched into Anfield and dismantled the Pool Boys by the score of 2–0. The loss dropped the Reds into sixth place in the Premier League and, perhaps more insultingly, into a points tie with the Toffees, though Everton has one fewer game played.
Though a rivalry showdown always holds more weight than a regular match, this particular Merseyside Derby was both a historical anomaly and a perfect referendum on Liverpool’s season. First, the history: Everton’s win was the club’s first at Anfield since last millennium—1999, to be exact. Liverpool also made history: Saturday’s loss was the club’s fourth in a row at Anfield—the same stadium where the team was undefeated for 68 matches in a row until earlier this season—marking its worst stretch of home form since 1923.
The historical weight of the result is nothing compared to the punctuation mark it has put on Liverpool’s season from hell, though. After blitzing the league on its way to its first Premier League title since 1990 last season, Liverpool has put up a limp title defense, already dropping points in as many games this year as it did in the past two domestic seasons combined. This is shaping up to be the club’s worst full season under Jürgen Klopp since the German took over partway through the 2015–16 season.
Though there are a myriad of reasons why the champions look so feeble, the main factor in their discombobulated play was the season-ending injury suffered by star center back Virgil van Dijk in October. On his own, van Dijk is an incredible player, one of the best in the world regardless of position. Any loss of time for a player of that quality was sure to bring Liverpool back down to earth a bit. The problem compounds, however, given van Dijk’s importance in the club’s system beyond his defensive abilities. The injury also exposed a lack of adequate squad preparation, particularly ahead of what was always going to be a grueling season.
Van Dijk’s role in Liverpool’s backline was twofold: The team relied on him to stop as many opposing attacks as possible, but also as a counterattack catalyst, with his long passes sending the club’s hyper-offensive fullbacks Andrew Robertson and Trent Alexander-Arnold on their merry way. His supposed partners at center back, Joe Gomez and Joel Matip, are not as talented in that regard, when healthy. And that’s the other problem: While van Dijk’s injury was a freak accident caused a rash Jordan Pickford challenge, Liverpool was still going to have to rely on Gomez and Matip to stay healthy, a tough proposition even in a normal year.
After van Dijk went down, Gomez and Matip staying healthy became of critical importance, since the club’s center back depth behind them was practically nonexistent. Once Gomez and Matip both picked up long-term injuries of their own, all hell broke loose, and the impact of van Dijk’s absence grew all the graver. With all three of his reliable center backs out for the majority of the season, Klopp has had to trot out 18 different central defensive pairings since September. That’s never ideal, nor is having to move Fabinho, an excellent defensive midfielder who is still excellent at center back, or Jordan Henderson, the team’s engine in the middle, into the backline. Worst of all, Klopp can’t even rely on that right now, given that Fabinho has missed the last three games with injury and Henderson picked up a groin injury of his own against Everton.
With two of the team’s first-choice midfielders taken out of the center of the park, first by necessity and later by injury, the knock-on effects have blunted Liverpool’s attack. Curtis Jones’s emergence has been a nice development, but he’s still just 20 and not ready to be a star man on a title-contending team. Georginio Wijnaldum has been steady, but he’s on the wrong side of 30 and has never been the most creative of players. And then there’s Thiago, who has taken a lot of heat for his performance so far in the team’s possession-controlling role. He hasn’t been great, certainly not when compared to expectations, but the lack of playing time alongside the other first-choice midfielders, coupled with his own injury troubles, have hamstrung the Spaniard’s integration. Van Dijk’s injury has forced Klopp to play a patchwork midfield just as often as he has had to select a patchwork defense, and it shows.
The club’s vaunted front three isn’t immune to this current run of funky form, either. While Mohamed Salah and Sadio Mané have put up goals, they are having to play deeper and more centrally given that the club doesn’t have van Dijk’s long passes to open up the full length and width of the pitch. And Roberto Firmino, who does so many things well, has slipped into a scoring slump right when the team most needs goals. Diogo Jota’s injury didn’t help matters, both because the Portuguese signing scores a ton and because he can give the star trio some much-needed rest. (Firmino has played in every Premier League and Champions League game this year, and fatigue from that might have something to do with his slump.) At least Jota should be back soon, so Klopp can stop relying on the likes of Xherdan Shaqiri and Divock Origi.
In a season as over-stuffed as this one, it’s hard to make the case that a single moment torpedoed a club’s entire season, but the effects of van Dijk’s injury have only cascaded as the calendar turned to 2021. Every club is going through injury crises and fatigue issues this season; that’s the consequence of playing so many games in so little time. But there’s no player in the Premier League that is more important to his side than van Dijk, and not just because of his talent. Liverpool bet its title defense on him staying healthy, and with no center back depth in sight and a lack of preparation for injuries, that same title defense has cratered since he’s been out. It’s hard to imagine how things could get any bleaker than Saturday’s loss to Everton, but there’s no one coming to save Liverpool from further disasters that might await.