LONDON, ENGLAND - Sunday, February 25, 2024: Liverpool's captain Virgil van Dijk lines-up before the Football League Cup Final match between Chelsea FC and Liverpool FC at Wembley Stadium. Liverpool won 1-0 after extra-time. (Photo by David Rawcliffe/Propaganda)

Liverpool’s transfer plans could hint at an uncomfortable Virgil van Dijk decision

With Virgil van Dijk entering the final year of his contract, could Liverpool’s plans for the transfer market hint at an awkward decision over the captain’s future?

Van Dijk inherited the captain’s armband at Anfield a year ago, with the Dutchman going on to enjoy a resurgence at the heart of Jurgen Klopp‘s defence.

But in a summer of change for Liverpool, there is genuine cause for concern over the long-term future of one of the club’s best-ever players.

Not only Van Dijk, but both Trent Alexander-Arnold and Mohamed Salah will tick into the final 12 months of their terms on July 1, with no resolution over whether or not they will be extended.

That has largely been explained by the sizeable handover off the pitch following Klopp’s resignation, with German vacating his position and Arne Slot arriving as the club’s first head coach.


A new era at Anfield

Feyenoord’s Arne Slot is Liverpool’s new head coach, replacing Jurgen Klopp (PA)

Slot’s role formally began at the start of June, but it was only in nearing the end of his third week that the Dutchman was officially unveiled.

At boardroom level, Fenway Sports Group convinced Michael Edwards to return with a newly created position of CEO of football, and he then appointed Richard Hughes as sporting director and David Woodfine in a supporting role.

With many of his players – Van Dijk included – absent at either the European Championship or Copa America, the new head coach will kick off pre-season with a reduced group.

But even when those key names report back, Slot will find the biggest decisions over the makeup of his squad out of his hands.

The onus when it comes to recruitment and retention instead be on Hughes and Woodfine, themselves reporting to Edwards, with the shift from a manager to a head coach a deliberate one.

LIVERPOOL, ENGLAND - Tuesday, August 22, 2017: Liverpool's Director of Football Michael Edwards during a training session at Melwood Training Ground ahead of the UEFA Champions League Play-Off 2nd Leg match against TSG 1899 Hoffenheim. (Pic by David Rawcliffe/Propaganda)

There is every indication that Slot is planning for the new season with his countryman, Van Dijk, still in his leading role at the back.

Beyond that, though, the stillness over his contract situation does open up the possibility that Liverpool’s decision-makers could be focused more on succession than continuity.

With the transfer window now open, reliable links with a number of centre-backs may be instructive.


Signing a new centre-back

2XCA333 Dortmund, Germany. 15th June 2024. DORTMUND, GERMANY - JUNE 15: Riccardo Calafiori of Italy looks up during the Group B - UEFA EURO 2024 match between Italy and Albania at Signal Iduna Park on June 15, 2024 in Dortmund, Germany. (Photo by Joris Verwijst/BSR Agency) Credit: BSR Agency/Alamy Live News Credit: BSR Agency/Alamy Live News

Crystal Palace‘s Marc Guehi and Bologna’s Riccardo Calafiori are two such examples; both left-sided defenders whose ability to play out from the back makes them a logical fit within Slot’s system.

If he were to become available, with suggestions of interest from Bayern Munich, it would be no surprise if Chelsea‘s Levi Colwill also returned to the radar.

Under another coach considered for the role, Sporting CP’s Ruben Amorim, Liverpool would likely have been required to adapt to a three-man defence, with any interest in Guehi, Calafiori or Colwill designed to complement Van Dijk and his usual centre-back partner.

But with Slot employing a similar setup to Klopp, with an inverted right-back and an overlapping left-back, any new arrival would more likely be backup to, or competition for, the No. 4 himself.

That makes his contract situation intriguing, particularly with the reintroduction of Edwards in his overarching role.


The ‘right football age’

LIVERPOOL, ENGLAND - Saturday, May 18, 2024: Liverpool's captain Virgil van Dijk takes a photo during the FA Premier League match between Liverpool FC and Wolverhampton Wanderers FC at Anfield. (Photo by David Rawcliffe/Propaganda)

Previously, the big calls over which players would stay or go increasingly fell to Klopp, whose undoubted brilliance was slightly offset by a sense he could be overly loyal to his mainstays.

Take Jordan Henderson, for instance, who extended his contract with Liverpool in the summer of 2021 as the club tied down a number of high-profile players.

Henderson had, via his representatives, publicly courted interest from both Atletico Madrid and Paris Saint-Germain before putting pen to paper on a new four-year deal that would take him beyond his 35th birthday.

Even at the time it was far from universally seen as a wise decision among supporters, and Sky Sports‘ Melissa Reddy later reported that sections of the club’s transfer staff agreed.

“Some of Liverpool’s recruitment team were flagging that the squad was veering away from the ‘right football age’,” Reddy wrote.

“They felt blanket new contract extensions were not the best strategy for a spine that had multiple seasons of exacting football taking its toll on their bodies and minds.”

PARIS, FRANCE - Saturday, May 28, 2022: Liverpool's captain Jordan Henderson looks dejected after the UEFA Champions League Final game between Liverpool FC and Real Madrid CF at the Stade de France. Real Madrid won 1-0. (Photo by David Rawcliffe/Propaganda)

Not only did Henderson agree fresh terms that summer, but so did four others whose extensions would take them into their 30s.

Van Dijk signed his current, four-year deal to take him to his 34th birthday, as with Alisson‘s six-year extension, while Fabinho agreed terms to see him to 33 and Andy Robertson until he turns 32.

While Edwards’ decision to leave his post as Liverpool’s sporting director was something he insisted was “always planned,” there was an uncanny timing as he announced his departure mere months on from that summer.

It has been speculated that a dissonance between Edwards’ vision and the plans unfolding under Klopp’s leadership prompted his exit.

That was only magnified as the 44-year-old returned to the fold – albeit as part of FSG, not directly Liverpool – so soon after Klopp himself left.


An uncomfortable decision

LONDON, ENGLAND - Sunday, February 25, 2024: Liverpool's captain Virgil van Dijk reacts during the Football League Cup Final match between Chelsea FC and Liverpool FC at Wembley Stadium. (Photo by David Rawcliffe/Propaganda)

So what could this imply when it comes to Van Dijk’s contract situation?

Well, with talks yet to take place between the club and a player who turns 33 later in June, there could be a growing suspicion that an extension is not forthcoming.

That is only compounded by the belief that his representatives have sounded out potential interest in Saudi Arabia.

If Van Dijk – or Salah for that matter – was to put pen to paper on a fresh deal with Liverpool, it is likely that the club’s more calculated decision-makers would be averse to committing a squad-high wage to a player beyond his peak age.

Instead, there is a convincing line that perhaps Edwards, Hughes and Co. are in fact planning for life without Van Dijk – not this year, but maybe the next – and any move for a new centre-back this summer could see those plans come into action.

But after his emphatic return to form in 2023/24, it is only right to question whether that, if it proves to be the case, would make footballing sense as much as business sense.