The Reds are known for having one of the most sophisticated transfer departments in world football, but getting a defender like Van Dijk is not easy.
It was a moment that could derail the entire Liverpool season. The Merseyside derby is not defined by football, but by controversy. Jordan Pickford’s wild run and Virgil van Dijk’s serious injury. Afternoon frustrations and anger, sadness and regret. Expensive, in many ways. It doesn’t matter that two points fell.
They fell into disrepair as soon as the news of Van Dijk’s accident arrived, hours after the last whistle in Goodison Park. It was bad, a rupture of the anterior cruciate ligament. The Reds would be without their talisman for months, without the best defender in the world. It hit them hard.
And things got worse soon after Joe Gomez badly injured his knee during training with England. Ligaments, once again. Months, one more time. Those were two central defenders within a month, and Liverpool started the season with just three of them.
How would we, we asked, cope?
The answer turned out to be pretty good. So much so, in fact, that when the transition period opens next week, Liverpool won’t be waiting at the door with their wheelchairs, ready to see what they can pick up at the January sale. That will surprise you.
Jamie Carragher, a former Reds defender, was among those urging the club to sign center-back after Van Dijk’s injury.
“Liverpool’s next signing would have to be a central player next summer anyway,” Carragher said in October. “That has to be carried over to January 1 – not the end of the month.”
Carragher will not make his wish come true. Sources said Goal that Liverpool are not planning an active January, that they will not enroll first team players – central defender or otherwise.
That speaks to the work Fabinho has been doing since returning from midfield. The Brazilian has always been appreciated at Anfield, but his importance has increased since Van Dijk and Gomez failed.
With Joel Matip, another senior club special patron, who had what we might call a ‘checkered’ injury, Fabinho became even more important to Jurgen Klopp’s plans. His form, in his new position, was extraordinary.
Kudos to the others who were tall when they were invited. Rhys Williams, a 19-year-old who spent last season in the sixth round of English football on loan at Kidderminster, and Nat Phillips, who would have been sold to the Championship in October had the appropriate offer arrived. Williams and Phillips have made 11 appearances this season and have rarely looked shocked or underwhelmed.
Another teen center-forward, Billy Koumetio, became the youngest European debutant in the club’s history in Midtjylland earlier this month, while captain Jordan Henderson stepped in next to Fabinho when Matip left for Fulham.
Liverpool had a lot of problems, but found a lot of solutions. They are at the top of the Premier League and have comfortably advanced to the last 16 of the Champions League.
All of this partly explains why Jurgen Klopp and the club’s recruiting team, led by sporting director Michael Edwards, have so casually embarked on a transition period.
The Reds have had a lot of success with signing a contract in January – of course, Van Dijk himself – but the feeling at Anfield is that they can handle what they have, even if Matip’s record in fitness still raises concerns.
There are, of course, financial factors at play. Liverpool estimate that they will lose at least 100 million pounds (137 million dollars) as a result of the coronavirus pandemic, and they have adjusted their budgets accordingly.
Their summer spending – Kostas Tsimikas, Diogo Jota and Thiago Alcantara – was carefully balanced against their spending, especially the sales of Dejan Lovren, Ki-Jane Hoever and Rhian Brewster and the removal of Adam Lallana and Nathaniel Clyne, relatively high earnings, from the wage bill.
The center-back is certainly on the radar, long-term, and several potential targets have been identified. Liverpool, for example, have been scouting Brighton’s Ben White and have been alerted to the progress of Lille’s Sven Botman.
Perr Schuurs of Ajax have impressed them in the Champions League, while high-profile nouns, Dayot Upamecano of RB Leipzig or Jules Kounde of Seville, are naturally on the radar.
However, this is not an easy task. Liverpool have, in Van Diek and Gomez, but also Matip and Fabinha, four high backs, who play excellently in a certain way, within a certain system and at a certain level.
“These are players of the highest caliber, so it’s not easy to replace or upgrade them,” says Can Erdogan, founder of Real Metric Analysis, a company that offers football clubs custom data solutions.
Erdogan, who was born in Turkey and educated in the United States, has worked as a scout for both Crystal Palace and the Philadelphia Union, and his company now works with clubs across Europe, providing reconnaissance and recruitment assistance through a platform that takes data from multiple of 35 leagues, which estimates more than 30,000 players and covers over 75,000 games worldwide.
Damien Comolli, a former football director of both Tottenham and Liverpool, is a client. While at Fenerbahce in 2019, Comolli used the Real Metric Analysis database to assess Vedet Muriqi, a Kosovo international striker whom, while playing with Caykur Rizespor, the model labeled as an underrated player. Fenerbahce paid Muriqi 3.5 million euros (3 million pounds / 4 million dollars), and after one successful season, he sold him to Lazio for 17.5 million euros (16 million pounds / 21 million dollars) in September.
“He’s one of the big success stories,” says Erdogan, who has worked alongside clubs such as Borussia Dortmund, Club Brugge and, not surprisingly, Comolli’s newest club Toulouse for the past 12 months.
The platform is, of course, data-intensive, with more than 250 metrics used for each player in each game, all of which make up a ‘match score’. One of the more intriguing aspects is the “player similarity index,” which allows users to find and compare players who, at least statistically, appear to have similar playing styles.
We may see here how difficult it can be for Liverpool to find the right center, in January or summer.
According to Erdogan’s model, which focuses on key defensive metrics such as aerial victories, recaptures, adding success, the Reds already have three top-ranked European central defenders in Van Dijk (No. 1), Matip (No. 10) and Gomez No. 25).
In last season’s Premier League, Liverpool had four of the top seven central defenders (the now-deceased Lovren was ranked seventh). Remember how hard they worked to find Van Dijk? So imagine now trying to find someone who can replace him.
Erdogan’s “player similarity index” is trying, and it certainly marks some interesting names. Obamecano has characteristics, although the man from Leipzig proves to be much weaker in terms of air power, and also the impressively rounded White, whose star in Brighton is growing rapidly.
Botman’s name is on the list, as are surprising names like Everton’s Yerry Mina and Chelsea’s Kurt Zouma, and the relatively unknown Nayef Aguerd of Rennes.
How about someone like Gomez? Again the index yields an intriguing combination of names. Leicester Caglar Soyuncu and Bayer Leverkusen Jonathan Tah are considered the most similar, stylistically, while the highly rated Kounde name stands out, as is the name of Schalke’s Ozan Kabak, who has been linked with Liverpool this summer. Bafode Diakite, a 19-year-old in Comolli’s Toulouse, is the youngest player on the list.
Everything is very interesting, although, as Erdogan himself admits, Liverpool already sees itself as a market leader when it comes to collecting and applying data in football recruitment. Their research team, led by Ian Graham, is appreciated in the game, while the work of Edward, recruitment chief Dave Fallows and chief scout Barry Hunter, is there for everyone to see.
“They are a club that makes very good decisions,” Erdogan said. Whether the decision to end the attack on the defender in January is a good one, of course, time will tell.
Liverpool have generally benefited from their measured approach to the transfer market in recent years – even big money signatures like Van Dijk, Alisson or Fabinha are the result of months, even years of research and monitoring – but it will be a risk, no doubt. at the expense of Matip to stay in shape, or like Williams and Phillips who will continue to surprise, until the end of this season.
The good news is that, even with failures and panic and concern, Liverpool are still right where they want to be – at the top, looking strong and hungry and ready to compete for honors once again. Pulled off the rails? Neither this team, nor this club. Van Dijk’s injury did not slow down the red train either. Not yet.