Liverpool Football Club have had a crazy few days regarding centre-backs, writes Umarah Naz.
On the 27th of December it was announced that long-term target, Virgil van Dijk had finally been signed from Southampton. After an embarrassing summer trying to acquire the Dutchman, Jurgen Klopp was able to seal the deal, under wraps this time, for a staggering £75 million, making the Van Dijk the most expensive defender ever.
As he wrapped up his media obligations and began his first day of training at Melwood, the team prepared for their first match of 2018 at Turf Moor against high-flying Burnley, in which the centre-backs (one of which he would likely be replacing) played a pivotal role.
The game was always going to be a tough start to the year, but when the team was announced at 2pm, anxieties heightened as some big names were missing.
Mohamed Salah and Philippe Coutinho were unavailable due to minor injuries, and Roberto Firmino was moved to the bench for the game, which was Liverpool’s second in 48 hours.
Sadio Mané was the sole representative of the Fab Four, and was joined by Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and Dominic Solanke upfront.
Adam Lallana made his first start after returning from injury in what seemed like an eon as Joe Gomez and Trent Alexander-Arnold flanked Dejan Lovren and Ragnar Klavan.
With so many changes made it was inevitable that team wouldn’t flow in its usual style. And that proved to be the case as Liverpool struggled with their final ball as Burnley defended in their customary, disciplined manner.
However, Liverpool looked assured at the back too, with Lovren and Klavan working efficiently together as they have done previously when paired together.
Liverpool’s forays forward often ended with a misplaced final pass or a Burnley interception as the visitors lacked the vision they normally showcase.
Burnley came closest to opening the scoring when Lovren was beaten in the air by a long ball, but Scott Arfield’s shot rolled just wide of Simon Mignolet’s goal in a scrappy first-half at a thoroughly wet Turf Moor.
With Mané being the main man for the day, it was left to him to create his own moment of magic to break the deadlock in the sixty-first minute. Oxlade-Chamberlain won the ball back in midfield to pass to Alexander-Arnold who’s cross deflected into the path of Mané.
With a sublime first touch, the Senegalese controlled the ball, his back to goal in a packed box, firing a shot on the spin past Nick Pope into the roof of the net.
Alexander-Arnold and Oxlade-Chamberlain both had the best opportunities to double Liverpool’s lead with Pope and his post respectively denying the pair.
A nervy end was on the cards as Burnley pressed for the equaliser and looked increasingly likely to get one as the minutes ebbed away. And three minutes from time, Gudmundsson dived in with his head at the far post as Liverpool were undone from a move that started from a throw in.
Klavan was out-jumped by Sam Vokes as he met a cross in the box and the Icelander nodded home to cancel out the Reds’ lead.
But as this week had been centred around defenders, it was Lovren and Klavan who teamed up in the last minute of stoppage time to steal a dramatic win for Jurgen Klopp’s side.
The unlikeliest of heroes paired up to take advantage of a free-kick awarded for a foul on Emre Can who had made a marauding run in midfield.
Oxlade-Chamberlain launched the kick into the box as Lovren rose the highest to knock the ball down towards goal but Klavan headed in to make absolutely sure of all three points.
Replays showed the Croatian’s header was on its way into the net before his partner intervened. Either way, Liverpool ended the festive period with an impressive set of results showing their grit and determination particularly in the last two wins when they have had to grind out results.
The manner of the victories against Leicester and Burnley have demonstrated a more patient and resolute side to the Reds that has sometimes been missing in the past. And coming straight after the disappointment of the collapse against Arsenal gives the victories added pleasure.
Next up for Klopp are two huge fixtures at home to Everton and Manchester City in the FA Cup and league respectively.
If anything, the last two results will give the team extra confidence that they can come back from behind and win in the dying minutes.
Although ugly to watch at times, these are the kinds of wins that build character; more so than the 3/4/5-0’s.
Much is learned by both manager and players and a ton of satisfaction is had by all.