After Jürgen Klopp announced that Joël Matip was the closest to full fitness out of the trio of his injured centre-backs, it’s likely that Liverpool will start the 2021/22 Premier League season with a defensive partnership of Matip and new signing Ibrahima Konaté.
Virgil van Dijk’s injury puts Liverpool in a strange situation. Normally, the Reds would expect to have one centre-back who plays the majority of the season. In both 2018/19 and 2019/20, Van Dijk was a constant presence. His leadership and the stability, confidence and consistency he provided at underpinned the success of Liverpool’s seasons. In those seasons, both Matip and Joe Gomez suffered injuries, but they also had extended partnerships with Van Dijk when they were fit.
In 2019/20, Van Dijk played every minute in the league, while Gomez played just over 2,000 league minutes. But after suffering an ACL injury, Liverpool’s medical team will be very wary of using Van Dijk anywhere near so frequently, given the greatest chance of re-rupture exists in the 18 months after surgery.
Given Matip’s minutes for Liverpool have declined year on year, and Gomez is recovering from a patella injury, and has previously suffered injuries to both his ACL and Achilles tendon, the focus seemingly turns to Konaté to be the mainstay.
However, Konaté himself is only 22, and has only played over 2,000 minutes once in his career (in 2018/19). That could well lead to a situation where Liverpool’s centre-backs may have to rotate over the entire season in order to avoid exacerbating existing conditions.
This is far from ideal, especially as the benefit of a settled defence can spread through an entire team. But the problem is deeper than just the centre-backs rotating: Trent Alexander-Arnold, who has suffered his second soft tissue injury of his time in the first team, still does not has dedicated right-back cover. This means Gomez, James Milner, or even Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain may have to fill in at right-back, with Neco Williams expected to leave the club for more regular football if a suitable offer (£10m) arrives.
If Gomez is playing at right back, it means he is using up minutes in his legs that should probably be saved for playing at centre-back. Likewise, both Milner and Oxlade-Chamberlain do not play as much as they used to, and so any minutes at right-back should be considered emergency cover, rather than as a rotation option.
Last season, Liverpool reached the quarter-finals of the Champions League and had brief appearances in both domestic cups, as well as a Community Shield match, too. This totalled 53 games.
Should the Reds have a similar schedule this year, and play 52 games, they will need to fill 4,680 minutes in each centre-back position. With the four centre-backs, that works out at 2,340 minutes each (26 games).
The last time Matip played as many minutes was 2018/19, and while Gomez played 2,634 minutes in 2019/20, he cannot be expected to return to full and peak fitness until a little later in the season.
This puts a sizeable weight upon both Konaté and Van Dijk to play regularly, and should one of the centre-backs suffer a setback in their injury rehabilitation, or have a new injury during the season, that may mean Liverpool will be in the same position as last season, with Fabinho called in to deputise (though Ben Davies remains at the club, and Nat Phillips and Rhys Williams, too, for the time being).
In order to navigate this issue, Klopp will likely regularly rotate his players across the season. What Klopp will not want to happen is to have two centre-backs who are playing every game, with one then suffering an injury, and the reserve centre backs coming in cold.
If footballers come into a side “cold” – i.e. without having built up minutes and match fitness in the previous weeks – they are more likely to suffer an injury. This is known as a “spike” in the player’s physiological load.
Sports scientists have a concept known as load management, and it centres around athletes being able to scale up the amount of physical exercise they do at one time. The load is split into two parts: the acute load (the short-term average workload), and the chronic load (the long-term average workload).
If a player has a low chronic load – i.e. they have not played for a long time – and then are suddenly thrown in, and have to play two or three games a week, this causes a spike in their acute load, which makes them more liable to get injured.
This is what happened with Liverpool last season, to both Matip and Gomez, but also in midfield, to Milner.
This is what Klopp will look to avoid, and in order to do so, he will keep the chronic loads for all the centre-backs at a reasonable and sustainable rate across the season, so if one centre-back does get injured, the others will be able to pick up the slack by just increasing their load very slightly, rather than having a big spike.
However, should Van Dijk, who has historically played a lot of minutes, begin to build up both his chronic and acute load, by the second half of the season, he may well be in a position to play two games a week, providing he has not had any injury flare-ups. Similarly, Konaté, as a young player, can also be expected to increase his overall workload without drastically increasing the risk of injury.
Liverpool will need to have some luck on their side in terms of injuries if they wish to compete on all fronts, the quality is undoubtedly there, but each centre-back needs careful management and care if they are to get through the season unscathed. Should any one of the injured centre-backs respond better than expected in their rehabilitation process, the team will feel the benefit. But for the coming weeks and throughout the first half of the season at least, fans should expect rotation and careful management of the centre-backs, as they build up their fitness, load and confidence after a long time out.