LIVERPOOL, England — Virgil van Dijk walked gingerly around the side of the field, ruefully shaking his head, muttering under his breath. He stopped to offer Jürgen Klopp a grimace and then trudged on, out of Goodison Park. That will be the last Liverpool, and the Premier League, sees of the Dutchman for quite some time.
How long, precisely, is not yet known. On Sunday, a consultant confirmed what both the player and his coach feared in that brief pause in the Merseyside derby: Van Dijk has damaged the anterior cruciate ligament in his right knee. It is too early to assess, precisely, the extent of the damage, but not too early to know that van Dijk needs surgery.
Only after that happens will Liverpool be able to put a time frame on van Dijk’s rehabilitation and recovery. The best case is that he can emulate Antonio Rüdiger, the German defender who sustained a similar injury in June 2016 and was playing again by October of that year. Ilkay Gundogan, by contrast, required twice as long to return. He is not the worst-case scenario.
Either way, Liverpool must now undertake a sizable portion of its Premier League title defense without the central pillar of its back line, a player who had played 74 consecutive league games and who had barely missed a minute of domestic competition in the two and a half years since arriving at Anfield.
Certain injuries have ramifications that stretch beyond the pain and despair felt by the player who has suffered them; they have the capacity to change the course of the season.
Tomas Rosicky, the former Arsenal midfielder, has argued that his team might have won the Premier League in 2008 had Eduardo, its Croatian-Brazilian striker, not sustained a career-threatening injury in a game at Birmingham. And a line might be drawn between Roy Keane’s absence in 1998 and Manchester United’s collapse in the Premier League title race. Inter Milan might not have had to wait so long between Serie A crowns at the end of the last century had Ronaldo, the Brazilian striker widely regarded as the finest player in the world at the time, not torn the tendons in his knee late in 1999.
The same is not always true, of course: Arsenal (again) lost Robert Pires to injury in 2002 as it chased a league and cup double, and went on to win both anyway. Five games into this season, then, Liverpool should not yet be written off. But in this case it is difficult to see how the context of the injury does not exacerbate the consequences.
It is possible to see, in what happened to van Dijk, a glimmer of almost every aspect of soccer in 2020. The incident that caused it felt distinctly au courant: the Everton goalkeeper, Jordan Pickford, has spent the last couple of years gaining a reputation for a tendency to act first and think later, one that has led to spiraling calls for him to lose his place on England’s national team.
More apt still is the fact that the severity of van Dijk’s knee injury did not seem to be the main source of controversy in its immediate aftermath. Instead, the focus was on why Pickford escaped any punishment for what appeared to be an obvious red card offense.
The theory emerged that Michael Oliver, the on-field referee, and David Coote, his colleague in the video bureau, could not punish Pickford for an incident that happened when van Dijk was offside. After 130 years of organized, codified soccer in England, a loophole seemed to have appeared in which, once the ball was no longer in play, everyone had carte blanche to do what they liked.
That was later amended: Pickford would have been punished had he been guilty of serious foul play, but (rightly or wrongly) in the eyes of Oliver and Coote, that did not apply.
It is worth pausing, though, to consider that this is where the introduction of video assistant referees, and the subsequent rewriting of the game’s regulations to keep up with the technology, has brought us: the idea that perhaps there is a glaring gray area in the rules that has gone unnoticed in the last century is no longer especially unthinkable. All of a sudden, nobody really knows where they stand anymore.
The fact that Liverpool, after the game, wrote to the Premier League asking for an explanation as to why Pickford was not reprimanded — as well as requesting conclusive proof of the offside decision that had denied Klopp’s team a late winning goal — has the air of sour grapes. But there will be few clubs that have not felt aggrieved by some V.A.R. decision they do not fully understand over the last season or so.
It might be helpful, then, for more than just Klopp’s burning sense of injustice, for the Premier League and its officials to consider why this keeps happening, and to wonder if, perhaps, the rules of the game are fundamentally undermined if those playing and watching it do not believe them to be just. Soccer is policed by consent, after all, and that consent is thinning and waning.
More immediately, though, is what van Dijk’s absence means for Liverpool. Losing a player of his stature would be damaging in any season, in any situation, but to do so in this campaign is particularly troubling.
In the 75 days between now and Jan. 1, the soonest available date Liverpool can acquire a replacement or reinforcement, Klopp’s team must play 17 games in the Premier League and the Champions League. (Its schedule would have been even heavier had it not been eliminated from the League Cup by Arsenal.) That is about once every four days.
And it must do so with only two fit, senior, specialist central defenders: Joel Matip and Joe Gomez, both of whom have vaguely checkered injury histories themselves. The next alternative, Fabinho, is a central midfielder by trade, anointed an emergency center back by Klopp partly through choice — he prefers working with a small squad — and partly out of necessity: His spending power this summer was limited because of the economic impact of the coronavirus pandemic, and he determined that the money was better spent elsewhere.
In a season so compact and condensed, injuries are even more likely than usual to be the determining factor in who succeeds and who does not. The teams that triumph — across Europe — this season will not only have to excel, they will have to endure, too. Titles may well go to the last team standing. It may be that when it is all over, we come to see that moment, as van Dijk trudged round the field at Goodison Park, as the one in which Liverpool fell.