Liverpool’s backup centre-back options this winter after injuries to Joe Gomez & Joel Matip

Serious injuries to Joe Gomez and Joel Matip have left Liverpool with just two senior centre-backs this winter—so who could fill in if Jurgen Klopp rotates?


The Reds have suffered a double blow to their defensive ranks in December, with Gomez fracturing his leg in the 3-1 win at Burnley and Matip breaking his collarbone in the 1-0 win over Napoli.

Gomez had been one of Klopp’s key players throughout a brilliant start to the season, and Matip had produced three strong performances alongside Virgil van Dijk in his stead, but now Klopp must plan without them.

Both are not expected back until mid-to-late January, with Liverpool likely to be without both for the next seven games, and Matip for slightly longer.

Fixtures Gomez & Matip Are Set to Miss

(* Matip only.)

With high-profile clashes with Man United, Arsenal and direct rivals Man City during that period, Klopp will be eager for defensive solidity to ensure a continued title challenge.

Liverpool have conceded just six goals in the Premier League so far, the best record of any side at this stage of the season in the history of the English top flight, with this central to their success.

But without Gomez, and now Matip, the manager will be forced to largely rely on Dejan Lovren as Van Dijk’s centre-back partner, and the Croatian himself has a chequered fitness record.

So with rotation likely at some stage over the next six weeks, who can Liverpool call upon?

 

Emergency First-Team Options

LIVERPOOL, ENGLAND - Saturday, October 27, 2018: Liverpool's Fabio Henrique Tavares 'Fabinho', wearing gloves, during the FA Premier League match between Liverpool FC and Cardiff City FC at Anfield. (Pic by David Rawcliffe/Propaganda)

The most obvious and most likely candidate for the role of third-choice centre-back this winter is Fabinho, despite his lack of experience in the role.

Formerly a right-back, now a defensive midfielder, the Brazilian is one of the tallest players in the squad at 6’2″ (the same height as Lovren and Gomez) and though he is relatively slight he is adept at the physical side of the game.

Klopp already utilised Fabinho in the role for a brief period during pre-season, dropping him back for 25 minutes in the 3-1 win over Torino at Anfield, and named him as an option in August.

The demands of a centre-back in Liverpool’s system are arguably closer to those fulfilled as a No. 6 at Monaco, and while this would undermine his successful adjustment period since moving to Anfield, he’s certainly capable.

This is particularly the case alongside Van Dijk, who has consistently shone with a variety of centre-back partners.

LIVERPOOL, ENGLAND - Tuesday, December 11, 2018: Liverpool's Georginio Wijnaldum during the UEFA Champions League Group C match between Liverpool FC and SSC Napoli at Anfield. (Pic by David Rawcliffe/Propaganda)

Beyond Fabinho, there are few straightforward options for centre-back, but the 5-1 win over Brighton this time last year saw Klopp’s willingness to experiment if short.

With Matip injured, Gomez ill and Ragnar Klavan lacking match fitness, the Reds lined up with a three-man defence of Lovren, Emre Can and Gini Wijnaldum at the Amex.

Recalling his experience at the back in November, the Dutchman explained that “it was really difficult” due to the difference in duties compared to when he had played as a centre-back in the Feyenoord academy.

“Emre did it quite well there, and I was struggling—especially in the first half, because I’d never played with three, always with four,” he said.

It would be a big gamble if Klopp were to deploy Wijnaldum and Van Dijk as his duo at the heart of defence, but it can be argued that the versatile 28-year-old is the second-best emergency option despite his lack of height at 5’9″.

LONDON, ENGLAND - Saturday, November 3, 2018: Liverpool's James Milner after the FA Premier League match between Arsenal FC and Liverpool FC at Emirates Stadium. (Pic by David Rawcliffe/Propaganda)

Beyond Fabinho and Wijnaldum, James Milner may be considered, though centre-back is the only outfield position he is yet to play in his career.

Jordan Henderson could also be in the running, with his propensity to drop between the two central defenders lending him to the role, though only Xherdan Shaqiri (0.7) contests fewer aerial duels than the captain per 90 (1.2).

 

Academy Candidates

LIVERPOOL, ENGLAND - Tuesday, August 7, 2018: Liverpool's Nathaniel Phillips during the preseason friendly match between Liverpool FC and Torino FC at Anfield. (Pic by David Rawcliffe/Propaganda)

It is doubtful that, with Van Dijk, Lovren and Fabinho available, Klopp will opt to start one of his academy players throughout this busy run, but there is a strong chance some could be called up to the first-team squad.

The standout figure there is Nat Phillips, who was a staple of Liverpool’s back line throughout pre-season, as one of only six players to feature in all nine friendlies.

But Phillips has endured injury problems of his own this season, which have limited him to just six appearances for the U23s so far, and though he made his return in a 1-0 win over Everton in November that 45-minute showing was his only outing in since September.

Furthermore, the 21-year-old struggled when part of Neil Critchley‘s defence earlier in the season, most notably in the 1-1 draw with Tottenham at Anfield, and his involvement could be a risk.

It seems a stretch to envisage Phillips shining against the likes of United, Arsenal or City, but he could perhaps be considered if Klopp opts to make wholesale changes in the FA Cup.

LIVERPOOL, ENGLAND - Monday, April 23, 2018: Liverpool's Conor Masterson during a training session at Melwood Training Ground ahead of the UEFA Champions League Semi-Final 1st Leg match between Liverpool FC and AS Roma. (Pic by David Rawcliffe/Propaganda)

Another right-sided option in the U23s ranks is Conor Masterson, with the Irishman previously on the brink of his first-team debut towards the end of last season.

Like Phillips, it has been a difficult campaign for Masterson so far, as after being an unused substitute in the first five games of the season and missing the next four, he made his first appearance of 2018/19 in November.

Since then he has started every game for the U23s, however, meaning he has already featured more than Phillips, with seven outings so far, and he is certainly in a better situation in terms of fitness.

Masterson is also the more accomplished player, as a strong defender capable of bringing the ball out from the back, and he would arguably be the best fit for Klopp’s system.

Having signed a new long-term contract with the club in June, this could be his chance to impress the manager.

LONDON, ENGLAND - Friday, August 17, 2018: Liverpool's George Johnston during the Under-23 FA Premier League 2 Division 1 match between Arsenal FC and Liverpool FC at Meadow Park. (Pic by David Rawcliffe/Propaganda)

The demands on Van Dijk this winter are going to be high, and though the No. 4 described his fitness as “amazing” ahead of the 1-0 win over Napoli, he could require a rest at some stage.

If that is the case, Lovren would likely shift over to the left-sided role, possibly alongside Fabinho—but again, if Klopp is planning to field a makeshift side against Wolves in the third round of the FA Cup, he could turn to the academy.

George Johnston is the most suitable alternative in the U23s squad, with the Scotland youth international a natural left-footer whose no-nonsense defensive style is complemented by a fine passing range.

The 20-year-old has started and played the full 90 minutes in 16 of the young Reds’ 17 games so far this season, only missing the 7-0 thrashing at the hands of Villarreal in November as he was training with the first team.

His involvement at Melwood during the international break could give him an advantage as Klopp assesses his options, and Johnston deserves an opportunity on merit.

ST HELENS, ENGLAND - Wednesday, October 24, 2018: Liverpool's substitute Ki-jana Hoever warms-up during the UEFA Youth League Group C match between Liverpool FC and FK Crvena zvezda at Langtree Park. (Pic by David Rawcliffe/Propaganda)

Unlike the senior squad, the U23s can cope with some of their centre-backs being promoted to Klopp’s ranks due to the high levels of competition within the youth setup.

If Johnston is even just required to fill in for first-team training, for example, U18s mainstay Rhys Williams is available to step up and start for the U23s, while Ki-Jana Hoever has been a regular for Critchley’s side of late.

It is unfortunate that Hoever is just 16, as in the early months since his move from Ajax in the summer he has shown he has everything required to develop into a top defender, with his approach similar to that of Gomez.

With both Gomez and Matip sidelined, the main positive is that Liverpool still have considerable depth in other areas—but it is clearly not an ideal situation.

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