Philippe Coutinho, the club’s “gold dust” and a very popular individual at the training complex, had finally sealed the £ 142million transfer to Barcelona he had coveted for six months.
At the time of his departure, Liverpool were in an extremely positive moment and were preparing for their first Champions League knockout game since 2009.
Mike Gordon, the president of Fenway Sports Group, had gone through the process leading up to the sale fearful that the uplifting sensation around the club could turn into fuss over the transfer of a key player mid-season.
He was also concerned about the impact on players of losing a point of reference and part of the family; Coutinho had been at Anfield for five years and was important to the dynamics of the dressing room.
Klopp, however, told Gordon and other senior executives to relax: this was just a football transfer and if they made a fuss about it, it would encourage a problem. He firmly believed his players would step up in the absence of Coutinho and briefed them as much as he brought them together at Melwood.
His message was that they had lost a great player and a friend, but they couldn’t allow anyone outside to conclude that his exit had affected the club’s season. Liverpool are more than a player, he had told them and warned that control over the team would increase, but they could handle it.
The end of this chapter is well known, the Merseysiders go on to reach back-to-back Champions League finals, winning in Madrid before ending a 30-year wait for the domestic title by walking in the division after being so close with 97 points.
One of the main protagonists of this Happily Ever After has been Virgil van Dijk: his addition before Coutinho has left widespread trust among the team, staff and supporters. Everyone thought he was good, really good – but he exceeded all expectations.
The best defender in the world. So reliable that the joy comes from simply dribbling in front of him even if it doesn’t lead to decisive action. Even on his worst days – the 7-2 annihilation at Aston Villa fresh in memory – it reminds him that he is mortal after all.
Having played every minute of the previous 74 league appearances for Liverpool, Van Dijk was forced off the pitch in Saturday’s Merseyside derby with under double digits following a gruesome and unpunished challenge from Jordan Pickford.
The center of the back damaged the anterior cruciate ligament in his right knee, requiring surgery. He faces an almighty battle to endure a grueling rehab and play again this season. The magnitude of this setback for Liverpool cannot be underestimated. The club are not a player, but as Van Dijk has proven, he is not just any player.
He has only missed one top-level game since his £ 75million transfer from Southampton.
The 2018/19 PFA Player of the Year was also the first defender to take up UEFA’s version of the accolade.
During this campaign, he was the only player to accumulate more than 1000 minutes in one of the top five divisions in Europe without being passed once.
He is the dueling king of the Premier League with a 74.4% success rate and is the best in the air – with the champions also set to miss his aerial ability in an offensive sense.
In Van Dijk’s 95 league starts for Liverpool, they have kept 44 clean sheets, conceding just 78 goals.
Out of the same number of games before his arrival, the club left 117 and refused the opposition 29 times.
Van Dijk’s influence is evident in the numbers, but also in the psychological effect he has on both his team and the opponents.
Still, Klopp will repeat the message he shared when Coutinho went: the team could decide whether people have the power to say Liverpool’s campaign ended with the result of that tackle, that scan.
And the manager will believe his roster will grow again and talk about their billing as “f ***** g mentality freaks.”
We can not escape the fact that this time, the task is more extreme, especially with Alisson, the other “transformer” of the club, still sidelined.
When the offense returned Coutinho, she could still shoot via Mohamed Salah, Sadio Mane and Roberto Firmino.
Liverpool have already been volatile defensively this season and losing the backbone of Alisson and Van Dijk will pose all kinds of problems to resolve in the most intensive campaign yet.
Klopp may well have to change the team’s approach, reverting to one more fueled by controlled offensive chaos.
Joel Matip, who just returned from a knee problem, and Joe Gomez, who hasn’t had a good start to the season, both handled Everton’s threats pretty well.
They have been used to teaming up with Van Dijk but now need to form a solid understanding with Fabinho also available to fit into the heart of the defense.
The most worrying factor is Matip and Gomez’s respective woes. Van Dijk totaled 8436 minutes in the league and in contrast, the former Schalke man managed 6781 with Gomez out of 5718.
The good news is that Jordan Henderson is back to be parked in front of them and his dominating performance in the derby was a reminder of the aggression, control, pace and tenacity that Liverpool lost in his absence.
The captain played a crucial role in shaping the club’s mentality with Klopp – that challenge, the overwhelming determination to swing harder after setbacks.
Opposition will be encouraged without Van Dijk, control of Liverpool will be intense and it is now up to them to lead how we discuss the unfortunate and gutted unavailability of the Dutch captain.