Our Liverpool blogger Dave Tindall reflects on one step forward, one step back and winning ugly.
Many had given up hope but suddenly the headline all Liverpool fans wanted to hear was screaming out of every media source: Virgil van Dijk was moving to Anfield.
And if perfect pictorial evidence was needed to sum up this ideal gift to our squad, there he was stood in front of a Christmas tree holding up a red Liverpool shirt.
There had been no Plan B from Jurgen Klopp and LFC as, all along, Plan A was being skilfully re-negotiated. We had our man. The one the boss so desperately wanted.
It didn’t happen as quickly as the fans wanted with patience an almost forgotten concept in football these days but the bottom line now is this: Klopp and his staff had identified three huge summer signings and all three have been landed.
Mo Salah is already proving himself to be the signing of this and many a season, Naby Keita is waiting in the wings (could we still sign him in this transfer window?) and van Dijk has started life at Liverpool in a way that would make even the writers of Roy of the Rovers feel a little embarrassed.
Scoring the winner in the Merseyside derby was the fairytale bit but, to be honest, it was the previous 83 minutes that really took my eye.
Van Dijk hadn’t played for three weeks and it was no surprise that there had been a reluctance to throw him straight in for a match like this.
But even in the dodgem car madness of a Merseyside derby, van Dijk performed like a Rolls Royce.
The sheer size of him, the pace, the positional sense, the organisation.
I lost count of the headers he won and there was untold joy around Anfield when he twice shouted at Lorius Karius to bloody get his arse in gear and come out and kick the ball clear.
We have a leader at last! Even after just 90 minutes there was enough evidence on show to have Liverpool fans believing that this could be a turning point in our transition from exciting team of promise to one that can win trophies.
Coutinho clears off
And then, less than 24 hours later, the delight had turned to sadness, disappointment and, in some cases, rage.
I think every Liverpool fan knew Philippe Coutinho was off but I was very much in the camp that felt we should insist he stayed until the summer.
With Coutinho, I felt we were heading towards a top four finish and possibly doing something daft (semis, final?) in the Champions League.
Now I’m not so sure.
Then again, the addition of van Dijk means we’ve strengthened a serious weakness while Coutinho’s departure comes from an area of our game that was excellent anyway.
You can’t have enough difference makers though and there’ll come a time in a certain big match when I’ll be thinking a piece of Coutinho magic (free-kick, screamer, dribble through a cluster of players on the edge of a box) might have changed the script.
There’s passionate debate from Reds fans about whether we should have sold him even though there’s broad agreement that £140m+ is an amazing price. Imagine if we’d kept him until the end of the campaign and he’d suffered a serious injury and never been the same.
But a lack of ambition on our part and, after Suarez and Sterling, typical of the modern Liverpool?
Well, all I’ll say is that this isn’t a new phenomenon. I’m an old enough Liverpool fan to remember selling Ian Rush to Juventus and Graeme Souness to Sampdoria.
Souness was 31 to be fair but Rush, like Coutinho right now, was 25 and in his pomp. He left and, do you know what, the world didn’t end.
Rush and Souness were Liverpool legends but Coutinho, much as he was loved by many, can’t really be called that. Great player but he leaves Anfield without any medals. Not his fault you may say but the other side of that coin is that it takes more than one player to make a team so it’s the overall picture that counts.
If the Coutinho funds are spent wisely, Klopp will believe he can add more pieces to the jigsaw – and, crucially, with players who want to be at the club and be part of the project.
A final point. Imagine if an English player was plying his trade in a big foreign league and hadn’t won anything. Would we blame him for wanting to move from there to a side containing Messi, one of the greatest players to ever kick a football?
Life goes on. LFC goes on.
Nice me: Thanks for everything Phil and good luck. You always played your heart out for us.
Evil me: I hope we beat your Barcelona lot in the final of the Champions League while you’re sat in the stands, ineligible to play 😉
The Winning Ugly
With Coutinho gone, and van Dijk likely to shore up the defence, the thrills may just drop down a notch. It’s why I chose to highlight the attacking brilliance in the aftermath of that 3-3 draw with Arsenal as I felt these were exceptional times.
Since then, we’ve cruised past Swansea but then dug out a hat-trick of 2-1 wins without really hitting our stride.
We faced adversity in all three and yet came out winners each time. Does this Liverpool team now have a new string to its bow?
At home to Leicester we were a goal down early and still trailed at the break before Mo Salah netted twice.
On a cold, bleak, windy day at Turf Moor we gritted it out, succumbed to a late Burnley equaliser and yet picked our heads up to score an injury-time winner.
And in a rather lacklustre Merseyside derby, we again won ugly. Van Dijk’s goal was a beautiful thing on some levels but, in reality, it was the second game running we’d won in the dying stages thanks to one of our central defenders getting his bonce on a cross.
Klopp’s rotation has to be given credit for that as these moments aren’t just random. They point to an edge in freshness.
Look at how often weary players balloon free-kicks over the bar or don’t clear the first defender from a corner. A physically and mentally tired Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain may not have been able to deliver such fine set-pieces late in the game that led to the match-deciding moments against Burnley and Everton. Instead, Klopp’s rotation over the Christmas period meant he still had plenty in the tank.
Late winners breed more late winners and, after some rather damning stats that show we’ve been the victims of last-gasp goals, perhaps this is another area which highlights are evolution.
The arrival of van Dijk and the loss of Coutinho represents one step forward and one step back. But Klopp is proving himself to be a problem solver. This is still a season in which we can take significant strides forward.