I for one have been very excited about the form of Liverpool’s defence of late, especially the pairing of Joe Gomez and Virgil Van Dijk. This partnership may only be six games into the season, but there’s the making of something special forming here.
As football fans, we love to compare players to legends that have gone before them, whether from our own club or others. However tempting this may be, it’s led me onto another comparison of sorts…
I grew up watching Italian football in the ’90s. My Dad was a rugby fan and refused to pay for Sky, so my footballing education was a mixture of Sunday morning’s watching James Richardson on Football Italia and Match of the Day. By the time I’d starting following Liverpool (aged 12), I’d also fallen in love with AC Milan and one of the greatest defences of all time. Yes, Liverpool were my team, but comparing them defensively to the Italian giants was impossible.
Milan had Paulo Maldini — one of the greatest defenders of all time and the first to win the World Player of the Year Award — alongside Franco Baresi then Alessandro Nesta, arguably two of the top ten centre-backs to have played the game. Add in fan favourites such as Billy Costacurta, Mauro Tassotti, Marcel Desailly and Christian Panucci and tell me you can’t fall in love with those teams.
Though he played with some of the greats, Paulo Maldini himself quickly became a cornerstone of Sacchi’s team, before becoming the all-encompassing captain of Ancelloti’s. The Italian legend is equally known for his early days as a world class left back (even though he was right footed), before going on to become one of the top three centre-backs of all time.
So, where am I going with this?
As I’ve said, Liverpool’s defence finally has me excited about both this season and the future. And this comes down to having a back four with the potential to be world beaters, the spine of which is Joe Gomez and Virgil Van Dijk.
As I’ve written earlier this season, it’s time for Joe Gomez to make the jump from a right back with potential to fighting it out to play alongside VVD. Which he’s done with poise and class in his first six games. And there’s good reason for this.
Virgin Van Dijk is this Liverpool’s team Franco Baresi. He’s matured as a centre back, he pairs physicality with intelligence and he’s already among the top players in Europe, if not the world. At 27 years old he easily has 5-7 years as a starter for this team and the foundation of our defence.
This plays into the narrative of Joe Gomez filling in the Maldini role. This isn’t a comparison of overall talent or positioning, but the role he could play for us. Joe Gomez now has the role of offering balance to the Liverpool defence, which he can do in some ways that are similar to Maldini’s career.
Alongside VVD, Joe is beginning to show that he capable of developing into a top-class ball-playing centre-half. He’s comfortable bringing the ball out from the back and playing quick passes into the midfield or out to the fullbacks — some of which show’s his season as a right-back has helped him. This is likely to be his main position for the team moving on.
However, Gomez ability to play as a right-back means that if a game state or opposition requires it he can either start or switch to right back to allow another centre back onto the pitch. Whether that is to match more physical teams or to stem the flow of attacks down one flank. He’s also proving to be comfortable at the right of a back three for England.
In the long term, Gomez could play as important a role as Maldini. Once VVD moves on or retires, Joe Gomez would be tasked with bringing the next centre back into the fold. Maldini proved to be as good a centre-back as he was a left-back, having seen the likes of Baresi, Desailly and Stam excelling he the heart of the defence, we went on to create a dominant, world-renowned pairing with Alessandro Nesta.
Maldini was the cornerstone of Milan’s defence for the best part of two decades. He played with some of the all-time greats before joining them as a Champions League and Serie A winning captain and legend too. His ability to play in multiple positions at a high level meant not only was he a guaranteed starter whatever the opposition, he knew how to support all of the players in defence regardless of their role.
Virgil van Dijk and Joe Gomez have the potential to underpin this defence for years to come, with Gomez young enough to carry on to the next legacy.
The supporting cast isn’t too bad either. Trent Alexander-Arnold looks a potential world beater at just 19 and Andrew Robertson is already a cult hero and the inform left back in the Premier League right now.
Pace, power, intelligence, work ethic, natural ability, passing and final delivery are all part of this Liverpool defence’s arsenal. If the trajectory keeps on going in the current direction we’ll have a back four the great Arrigo Sacchi would be proud of and the likes of Baresi, Nesta and Maldini would be happy to play in.
So… no pressure lads, but if Virgil van Dijk can continue to make the players around him better and Joe Gomez carries on his form, we’ll have one of the most exciting centre-back pairings and dynamic back fours since the great Milan sides of the ’90s.