Virgil, Joe Gomez & Joel Matip represent a core defensive unit of players that have for the most part been unavailable this season. The ramifications of not signing a Dejan Lovren replacement, in the form of Wesley Fofana or an earlier acquisition of Kabak to add required depth now looks foolish. The system, the counter press, the personnel stripped from midfield to assist the back line and the utter disruption have left the reds often toothless since mid December. A high energy press requires the midfield and attacking unit to compress the pitch with a high defensive line cutting the pitch in half. Liverpool have incorporated this style to huge effect in becoming Europe’s leading side over a near 2 year period since Virgil’s signing, it just requires the players with the appropriate attributes to play such a system to ultimate effect. Remove VVD is to remove the world’s best central defender, there really was few to compare, a colossal figure that dominates aerial battles, has the positional play to outwit and intimidate the opposing forwards without the need to challenge & a level of pace that few in the league can match. Ask Adama & Son.
Virgil was the catalyst in Liverpool winning trophies once more, the on pitch organiser, alpha and safety net for all around him. At times in previous seasons, when either Henderson or Gini were forced into the holding role in Fab’s absence, the fact that Virgil would be barking orders and positioning them as well as his defence to ensure the system structure maintained was key. This season, with Joe Gomez (a gifted and important player) injured for almost just as long as VVD gave even more strain to the system that when clicks, few can live with. Joel Matip, a player and defender whose own level has risen remarkably under VVD’s leadership would represent a reliable deputy, however his inability to stay injury free is a concern that has rarely seen him available.
The logic in moving Fab from the holding role to the central defence was sound and for the most part worked, his level did not drop at all, but inevitably the midfields inability to control and destroy without him began to falter. The midfield rotation became prolific, the search for answers and ways to overcome only hampered the ability to carry out all the tasks needed to make Liverpool purr without their defensive leader. With an effective counter press, done so effectively and high up the pitch, the forward line would often be unleashed in possession deep into the opponents half. A sheer lack of effective counter pressing from the team meant retrieving the ball would often come deep into the reds half, thus slowing any attack against the often low block. The defensive line has had to drop without first team center backs and the attributes mentioned to make it reliable, the room in which to press has become vast and the form of many players has dipped as a result.
At their absolute best, Virgil +1 would often stand on the halfway line, allow the full backs to push as high as the like, and simply wait to defend anything that came his way, with Fab often either closing passing lanes or simply winning the ball within their half. If the ball went long, the defence would get there first and stop any attack, if the ball was there to be headed, that would be the effect and the opposing attack would be quickly snuffed out. If VVD was in possession, to press this back line would many times see a raking 60 yard ball arrow into TAA’s path (something Trent that he has lacked to a massive extent) for the attack to begin. The fullbacks ability to supply the forward line has been effected as much as the midfield in Virgil absence. They were simply ushered away to allow the centre back to deal with on coming attacks, they would then receive quick ball to create their own counter, again and again. Their own ammunition has been lacking and the forward line is then limited even more.
Often times a players worth can only be measured by their absence. Luis Suarez, a prime Steven Gerrard, Roy Keane, Patrick Viera & Didier Drogba but to name but a few. These players were world class, their level so high that others would have no choice but to raise their own to play for that team. Players that are transformative, that allow a certain pattern of play are next to impossible to replace long term, teams will normally have to alter their patterns to overcome that which is gone. Liverpool survived the opening few months without their defenders on pure reputation and talent, but once the system faltered over and over, confidence would swap from the reds to all opposing teams, even at fortress Anfield.
To understate the importance of singular players like VVD is often down to dislike of the club as an opposing fan. To understand the need for such players is key.
Virgil is close to returning, and the absolute sigh of relieve will be heard throughout the fan base and indeed the reds dressing room, and few opposing managers will be looking forward to what could come next.