Liverpool’s subtle defensive changes key in adapting to life without Virgil van Dijk

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After being vocal in his unease over Liverpool’s defensive line this season, Jamie Carragher has commended the Reds’ ability to cater for the loss of Virgil van Dijk without a drastic change. 

Liverpool’s embarrassing 7-2 defeat at the hands of Aston Villa earlier this season ensured they were put under the microscope, with a high line consistently exposed by Dean Smith’s side.

It was an area Villa felt they could exploit and did so emphatically, which led to growing concerns for some after Van Dijk sustained a long-term injury to ensure his absence from a side he had missed just 13 games with since his arrival.

And despite a host of further injuries across defence and notably in the centre-back position, the Reds have gone eight games unbeaten since the Villa Park debacle and conceded just five.

Carragher had admitted he didn’t “feel comfortable” with Liverpool’s high line approach after their sole defeat this season and always felt only a slight change in body position was required to navigate danger – and never more so after the injury to the Dutchman.

“There was no doubt Liverpool had huge problems at the start of the season. They conceded three at home against Leeds and then there was obviously the game against Aston Villa,” Carragher said on Sky Sports’ Monday Night Football.

“We have spoken a lot on Monday Night Football about Liverpool’s line and it’s difficult at times to criticise a team that have a great defensive record and have been so successful.

LIVERPOOL, ENGLAND - Sunday, November 22, 2020: Liverpool’s Fabio Henrique Tavares 'Fabinho' during the FA Premier League match between Liverpool FC and Leicester City FC at Anfield. The game was played behind closed doors due to the UK government’s social distancing laws during the Coronavirus COVID-19 Pandemic. (Pic by David Rawcliffe/Propaganda)

“There were times when I’d look at the line and think ‘run back’. Certainly, in the Aston Villa game, where obviously Liverpool got it massively wrong.

“At times it was not so much about how high the line is, it was just the fact that I always felt that Liverpool’s defenders needed to be in a position to actually run back.

“Just run back and match the run. We’re in a decent line, okay they have beat the press and have time on the ball, let’s just give ourselves two or three yards. That’s all it was.”

The threat of Jamie Vardy for Leicester’s visit over the weekend was one which would put Liverpool’s defence under the test but despite his pace and ability to get behind, the Reds pushed on with their high line.

And it garnered praise from the former defender as he commended the leadership on show to adapt and take control of the situation following the loss of an ever-present.

“People spoke when Van Dijk went out and said Liverpool will completely change, they will drop off 10-15 yards. I watch a lot of Liverpool’s games and I didn’t quite see it,” Carragher continued.

“I’ve analysed how they played against Vardy and no one can tell me Liverpool dropped off without Van Dijk. They were still playing a high line, but the difference is the body position the likes of Fabinho adopted.

“Yes, we can talk about him being a midfield player in there, but he’s been outstanding. What he did was play a high line but be ready to run back when the ball went over his head. He ran back and dealt with it [balls over the top of Vardy].

“No one can tell me Liverpool aren’t playing high, they were a couple of yards away from the half-way line.

“I think what we’re seeing now is a lot more leadership from other people, when you have that huge figure you look to in a certain position, and he’s out, it’s up to others to step in.

“Sometimes it is not just one player, it can be three or four at one time. What we are seeing now is that there is maybe a lot more leadership from other people.

“When we talk about Van Dijk, let’s not forget he’s been part of a back four for the last couple of years that have had the best defensive record in the league, and I’m sure that would’ve been the case this season with him.

“It’s an outstanding job from the players who have actually come in.”

The high line had its critics last season before the Reds ironed out the kinks in what was one of their key strengths and while personnel has changed, Liverpool are looking as though they are following a similar trend in 2020/21.

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