ASSESSING LIVERPOOL’S SQUAD: CENTRE BACKS
We are just a week away from the start of the 2021/2022 season and as such, we are taking a look at the strength of the Liverpool squad to judge their readiness for all the challenges that lie ahead in what promises to be another enthralling season. Where there are gaps, we will point out and suggest possible closures.
We will run through the centre back options in the Liverpool squad and assess the strength of the department. We took a look at the goalkeeping and right back departments the other day, if you missed those articles, you can find them here:
ASSESSING LIVERPOOL’S SQUAD: GOALKEEPERS
ASSESSING LIVERPOOL’S SQUAD: RIGHT BACKS
“Attack wins you games. Defence wins you titles.”
As it stands, there are seven first team centre backs in the Liverpool squad; Virgil Van Dijk, Joe Gomez, Joel Matip, Ibrahima Konate, Nathaniel Phillips, Rhys Williams and Ben Davies. We will run through each option and offer our thoughts on the strength of a department that was devastated with injuries last season.
Virgil Van Dijk
There is nowhere else to start than with the colossus that is, the Dutch captain. Since signing for a then world record fee of £75million in January 2018, Virgil Van Dijk had established himself as the best defender in the world before succumbing to a cruel injury last October. From scoring a late winner on his debut against Everton, to tightening things up at the back as the club went on a run all the way to the Champions League final in 2018, Virgil took to Liverpool like a duck to water.
He was included in the UEFA Champions League Squad of the Season, despite playing just half of the season in the Champions League. In his first full season, he was voted the Liverpool Player of the Month for August 2018, the PFA Player of the Month for November, the Premier League Player of the Month for December, before being named in the PFA Team of the Year as well as taking home the PFA Players’ Player of the Year.
Quite an extraordinary season for the defender ended with Champions League glory as he was named Man of the Match in Liverpool’s 2–0 victory over Tottenham in the 2019 UEFA Champions League Final. In August, Van Dijk won the UEFA player of the Year award and was voted runner up in The Best FIFA Men’s Player award before being named in the FIFA FIF-PRO Men’s World 11. At the Ballon d’Or event in December 2019, he finished runner-up behind Lionel Messi.
Van Dijk received further recognition following the turn of the year, when he was named in the 2019 UEFA Team of the Year. All the while, he was serving as the bedrock for Liverpool s title challenge on the pitch. Over the course of the 2019–20 campaign, Van Dijk started and completed every minute of the 38 league games for Liverpool as they brought an end to thirty years of hurt to lift the Premier League title. The centre back was named in the FIFA FIF-PRO Men’s World XI again in 2020 as further recognition came his way.
Unfortunately, disaster struck in the ensuing season. On the 17th of October 2020, he was substituted in the sixth minute of the Merseyside derby after a challenge from Everton goalkeeper Jordan Pickford. He had suffered an ACL injury in his right knee and would undergo surgery. Van Dijk was expected to be out for six to twelve months. It was a long hard road for the player, as well as the club, as further long term injuries to the remaining centre backs saw the club limp to a third place finish in defence of their title.
But all that hardwork in rehab paid off when Van Dijk made his first appearance in over nine months on 29th July 2021, coming on as a second-half substitute in a pre-season friendly against Hertha Berlin. He followed that up with a 42 minute showing from the start against Bologna in Liverpool’s next pre-season friendly. It will take him a while to get back to his best, but it is encouraging to see the big man back in action. His leadership has been missed back there.
Brendan Rodgers signed Gomez for £3.5 million from Charlton Athletic in 2015. He was initially supposed to join up with the Academy but impressed in pre-season to break into the team at left back. He made his debut against Stoke City in a 1–0 win where he assisted Philippe Coutinho’s late winning goal. A week after Jurgen Klopp took over, Gomez suffered a season ending ACL injury with the England U21s.
The following season, Gomez worked his way back into the team and was the first choice right back for the first half of that 2017/18 season before later sharing the spot with Alexander-Arnold. He performed admirably throughout the season, making 31 appearances before another injury ruled him out of the last month of the season, missing the Champions League final as a result.
In 2018/19, he got a prolonged spell at centre back as a result of the doubtful fitness of regular first-team defenders Dejan Lovren and Joël Matip. Gomez started the season alongside Virgil van Dijk and formed a formidable partnership with the big man that saw them break club records for goals conceded. He continued to feature in defence for the club during the opening half of the season before suffering a fractured leg in December following a challenge by Burnley defender Ben Mee.
He returned to fitness in April but had to watch on as Joel Matip had made the spot his own. Gomez played at the Camp Nou in the first leg semi finals of the Champions League as a right back before making a substitute appearance in the final, again at right back, as Liverpool beat Tottenham Hotspurs 2-0 to lift their 6th Champions League title. The following season, Gomez continued deputising for the in-form Joël Matip.
This would continue till he was recalled to the starting lineup following injury problems for the Cameroonian. He earned praise after a slew of clean sheets in the winter months as Liverpool extended a significant lead at the top of the Premier League table. He kept his place following Matip’s return from injury as he helped the club to their long awaited Premier League title.
In the 2020/21 season, Gomez would suffer another serious injury as a tendon injury to his left knee in November saw him miss the rest of the season. He went through a gruelling rehab with Van Dijk and it was fitting that they both made their return to action at the same time against Hertha Berlin. The 24 year old also got 43 minutes in Liverpool’s win over Bologna and will look to continue building up his fitness ahead of the season.
Liverpool signed Joel Matip on a free transfer in the summer of 2016. He came in and was immediately Liverpool’s best centre back with his performances seeing him named Standard Chartered Player of the Month for November. He battled a few fitness issues throughout the season as he went on to make just 32 appearances in his debut season. In the 2017/18, he’d struggle with consistency in the first half of the season before a thigh injury in April would rule him out for the rest of the season.
He missed the Champions League final as a result. Upon his return to pre-season that summer of 2018, Matip suffered another muscle injury during a tour of the United States. In December, he suffered a broken collarbone after a fantastic performance in the 1–0 win against Napoli. That injury saw him miss another 6 weeks of the season. Upon return, he established himself in the starting eleven alongside Virgil Van Dijk.
He went on an astonishing run of form that took in several monstrous performances along the way, with the 4-0 return leg win over Barcelona a particular highlight. In the Champions League final, Matip assisted Divock Origi’s goal in the 87th minute to seal victory for Liverpool to win the title. In the 2019/20 season, Matip continued with his impressive run as he scored in Liverpool’s Community Shield penalty shootout defeat to Manchester City.
He netted again against Arsenal in the Premier League as he bagged the PFA Premier League Player of the Month award for September 2019. The following month, his form was recognised and rewarded by the club as he signed a new five year contract. A few weeks later, he picked up an injury against rivals Manchester United. He returned in late January, making just one league start before the season’s Covid-19 suspension.
He was injured again against Everton on the league’s resumption, with the club later revealing he would be out for the rest of the season. Matip’s injury troubles continued into the 2020/21 season. He was in and out of the side with various fitness issues till he became the last centre back standing with Van Dijk and Gomez both ruled out for the season and Dejan Lovren long departed. In late January, Matip was substituted at half-time against Tottenham.
It was revealed that he had suffered ankle ligament injury and would also miss the remainder of the season. Matip also made his return to action this pre-season and has been involved in every game so far. He is back fit and looks set to begin the season alongside new signing Ibrahima Konate as Van Dijk and Gomez slowly make their return. The soon to be thirty year old will hope for better luck with injuries this term.
Liverpool signed Frenchman Konate from RB Leipzig for £36million before the 2020/21 season had even come to a close. They triggered his release clause after securing Champions League qualification in a tough campaign which saw them lose every senior centre back in their squad to injury. Liverpool’s centre back crisis was well documented last season. The need for a centre back was more than apparent and the club moved decisively in this window having dallied in the winter window.
At just 22 years of age, they’ve secured a centre back who can realistically stay in their team for the next decade. ‘Ibou’ is a huge presence at 6ft 4inches and he combines that physicality with a grace on the ball and pace to match. He made 95 appearances for Leipzig and captained the France U21s in the U21 European Championship this past summer before joining up with his new teammates on the first day of pre-season.
He has taken in all the pre-season friendlies so far and looks to have settled in nicely. He has played as both the left sided and right sided centre back so far, showing comfort in either position. He looks certain to start the season as mentioned before, with Joel Matip. Whether he stays in the team, will depend largely on his performances.
The Bolton born centre back joined Liverpool’s Academy in 2016. In the summer of 2018, he started to train with Liverpool’s first team. He spent the 2019/20 season on loan at Bundesliga 2 side Stuttgart but was recalled in January due to a centre back crisis at Liverpool. He made his debut against Everton in the FA Cup upon his return before being loaned back to Stuttgart as the crisis eased.
In the 2020/21 season, he was due to link up with Championship club Swansea but the move fell through at the eleventh hour. Liverpool had left him out of their Champions League squad as a result of the impending move. As the injuries started to pile up at centre back, he moved up the pecking order till he was one of the only fit options left. Phillips made his Premier League debut for the club in October, starting in Liverpool’s 2–1 win over West Ham United.
He immediately established himself as something of an aeriel monster. He clearly had other aspects of his game that didn’t make him a fit for Jurgen Klopp’s brand of football but he adapter pretty quickly to the challenge and rose to the occasion. When the Champions League knockouts came round, Liverpool added him to the squad and he made his debut in March, putting in a man of the match performance in a 2–0 win over RB Leipzig, helping Liverpool advance to the quarter finals 4–0 on aggregate.
He had become something of a cult hero amongst the Liverpool faithful and was named Standard Chartered Player of the Month for March. He was absolutely immense in the run-in, with his form offering Liverpool a bit of stability after a season of so much instability in that area of the pitch. Liverpool were unbeaten in their last ten league games, winning eight and drawing two. Phillips missed the two drawn games with a knock as Liverpool conceded two cheap late equalisers from set pieces, goals you can be sure would not have happened under his watch.
Phillips scored his first goal for the club in May, scoring a headed goal and Liverpool’s second of the game during a 3–0 away win over Burnley in the Premier League and with it, another man of the match award. He had risen to the task and made the best of a bad situation. Whilst not a stylistic fit, what he is, is a determined warrior who would put his head through a brick wall if it meant preventing a goal. A throwback defender if you want.
That Liverpool qualified for the Champions League, owed a lot to the performances of Nat Phillips. This summer, he’s reported to pre-season and been involved in all the games. With the injured trio all back though, his minutes have already started to shrink. The 24 year old has been heavily linked with a move away this summer and it will be interesting to see if he chooses to leave for more playing time with his stock at it’s highest.
Williams joined Liverpool’s academy aged 10 and won the FA Youth Cup with the Liverpool youth team in 2019. He joined Kidderminster Harriers on loan in August 2019 for his first taste of senior football. He made his debut for Liverpool in the EFL Cup in the 2020/21 season, against Lincoln City, partnering Virgil Van Dijk in central defence. A month later, he was now one of the last remaining specialist centre backs at the club.
In October, Williams came on as a 90th minute substitute against Ajax in the UEFA Champions League. He made his second Champions League appearance the following week, where he came on as a 30th minute substitute against FC Midtjylland after an injury to Fabinho who was filling in at centre back. Liverpool went on to win 2–0, with Jürgen Klopp praising his performance after the game. The following month, Williams was impressive as he played in the 5-0 away win against Atalanta.
In December, Williams made his Premier League debut with a start in a top of the table clash against Tottenham Hotspur, with Liverpool coming out 2–1 winners. Things were looking promising for the young centre back till an error strewn performance in January at Old Trafford as Liverpool were knocked out by Manchester United after a 3-2 defeat. Rhys didn’t get in the side for a while after that and you feared for his Liverpool career.
In May though, he slotted back alongside Nathaniel Phillips in a 2-0 win over Southampton and went on to play every single game in the heart of the defense for Liverpool as they finished 3rd. He made 17 appearances in all competitions for the Reds and played his part in the club securing Champions League qualification. He has also reported to pre-season, and like Phillips, has seen his minutes reduce with the return of the trio to action. He is heavily linked with a loan move away this season.
On deadline day in the 2021 winter transfer window, Liverpool announced the signing of Ben Davies on a long-term contract for a fee reported to be £500,000, plus £1.1m in performance-related add-ons. Sepp Van Den Berg also moved in the opposite direction on loan for the rest of the season as part of the deal. Curiously though, Davies never played even as the club’s centre back crisis worsened.
He failed to make the matchday squad half the time as fellow deadline day signing Ozan Kabak, as well as Nat Phillips and youngster Rhys Williams, were all preferred to him. It remains a bit of a mystery why that is. He made his long awaited ‘debut’ this pre-season when he featured against Wacker Innsbruck before leaving camp and returning to the UK for ‘personal reasons’. He hasn’t been seen since.
With Sheffield United confirming their interest in the 25 year old, there could be an end to his Liverpool career before it even begun. A really curious transfer which you wouldn’t really associate with the laser precision work that Michael Edwards oversees at the club. It is highly unlikely Liverpool keep all seven centre backs, and with two or three being linked with moved away, you can definitely see why.
It would be prudent though if Liverpool kept a fifth option available just in case. Going into the season with four senior centre backs in the form of Van Dijk, Gomez, Matip and Konate would make sense ordinarily. Dig a little deeper though, and you realise three are coming back from long term injuries and could break down again or take a while to reach their previous level, whilst Konate himself struggled with injuries over the past two years.
A fifth option that isn’t Fabinho or Henderson playing out of position has to be kept around as emergency cover if last season taught us anything. Whether that fifth choice will be Nat, Rhys or Ben, will depend on the sort of offers that come in. By January, the situation can be reassessed, and if the fifth choice hasn’t been utilised much, a loan move or a permanent move can be considered. All in all though, this has gone from a position of weakness to one of strength for the Reds.