Liverpool's narrow Champions League win reveals a fragile defense without Virgil van Dijk

Leander Schaerlaeckens
·4-min read

It didn’t take very long to see just how vulnerable Liverpool would be with Virgil van Dijk injured and probably out for the season. Certainly, the defending Premier League champions looked plenty shaky even before the big Dutchman was felled by a dastardly Jordan Pickford challenge in Saturday’s derby against Everton. There had been that confounding 7-2 loss at Aston Villa before the international break, after all.

On Wednesday, in Liverpool’s UEFA Champions League opener against Ajax, the Reds were cut open again and again by the home team in Amsterdam, only winning 1-0 on a clumsy Nico Tagliafico own goal in the first half.

Even though the Reds were without van Dijk, fellow central defender Joel Matip and starting goalkeeper Alisson, not to mention Thiago Alcantara, who was victimized by Everton’s roughness as well, this was hardly a seasoned Ajax team. This side only faintly resembled the group that came within seconds of meeting Liverpool in the final in 2019, before falling to a furious Tottenham comeback.

This summer, Ajax lost Hakim Ziyech to Chelsea, Donny van de Beek to Manchester United and Sergino Dest to Barcelona, with other stars from that semifinal run long gone already. But among the club’s key acquisitions, Antony was unavailable, Mohammed Kudus had to leave the game with an injury after nine minutes and Davy Klaassen looked gassed before halftime.

Which is all to say that Liverpool was hardly up against a European juggernaut – never mind Ajax’s four European titles in the 20th century – and yet was a tad fortunate to return home with three points.

Consistent with the nature of Liverpool manager Jurgen Klopp and his Ajax counterpart Erik ten Hag, the sides played an ambitious, enthralling, attacking game. Ajax showed no deference and had the first big scoring chance, when Quincy Promes, who came on for Kudus, was denied by Adrian on a weak finish from the doorstep.

But two minutes later, Liverpool took the lead. Or rather, it was handed it when Tagliafico bundled the ball past Andre Onana and into his own goal.

Goalkeeper Adrian (left) and Liverpool's defense had an uneasy time seeing out a win at Ajax to open the Champions League. (Photo by Alex Gottschalk/DeFodi Images via Getty Images)
Goalkeeper Adrian (left) and Liverpool's defense had an uneasy time seeing out a win at Ajax to open the Champions League. (Photo by Alex Gottschalk/DeFodi Images via Getty Images)

Liverpool certainly wasn’t without its own chances, studding the proceedings with quick transitions. But on the brink of halftime and just after it, Ajax came closest to the contest’s second goal. Dusan Tadic’s lob was cleared off the line by Fabinho with an acrobatic bicycle kick — whereupon Perr Schuurs very nearly put a second own goal on the board. Then, Klaassen dispatched a rocket off the inside of the post past the beaten Adrian.

Certainly, Liverpool compiled 15 shots over the course of the game. But it mostly felt like Ajax was closer to an equalizer than the Reds ever got to putting the game away, at least until the home side tired midway through the second half. And even then, when the teeming rain lent a hazy air to the entire undertaking, Ajax spent a great deal of time in Liverpool’s third, feverishly pursuing a goal that was probably merited.

Still, Liverpool’s points were eventually secured and all wins count the same. But this game did nothing to diminish the concerns over Liverpool’s title defense or its ability to fight in four different competitions, with all of them crammed into a compressed schedule. It’s worth noting that last season, Liverpool, for all its domestic dominance, had already been eliminated in the round of 16 of the Champions League before the coronavirus shut down competition for 3 months — albeit on three extra-time goals from a somewhat flattered Atletico Madrid.

At the best of times, when Liverpool’s syncopated attacks scythe through whoever happened to find themselves in the other half, the back line is nonetheless liable to look fragile against strong opposition. Without van Dijk, its talisman and center of gravity, the defense was regularly exposed by Ajax.

Even more will be expected of Klopp’s side this season than the last. Another title challenge, at the very least. And a return to the final stages of the Champions League, after the slip-up back in March. It will have to do so with even less time off. Without van Dijk. With a squad that can field two world-class lines up front and in midfield yet remains razor-thin in the back.

In its first game without van Dijk, Liverpool managed to do what it had failed to in the last three games with him: win. But nothing about it was comfortable. No confidence will have been taken from it.

Leander Schaerlaeckens is a Yahoo Sports soccer columnist and a sports communication lecturer at Marist College. Follow him on Twitter @LeanderAlphabet.

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