Virgil Van Dijk’s ACL injury in Liverpool’s Premier League clash against Everton has left many to wonder if the Reds would look to sign another centre-back in the upcoming January transfer window. There are concerns about Joel Matip’s fitness as well, meaning that Jurgen Klopp’s would find himself with only two senior centre-backs at his disposal for the coming months.
More than anything, it is the inspiring influence of Van Dijk that will be sorely missed in the period of his absence. It can easily be argued that no other central defender in the Premier League has made as much of an impact as Van Dijk has. The Dutch has also improved the players around him, helping Joe Gomez elevate himself to another level and bringing the best out of Trent Alexander-Arnold and Andy Robertson.
With the 29-year-old out for a considerable amount of time now, there are certain central defensive options that Liverpool might look at in the Serie A to replace Van Dijk on a temporary basis. We look at some of them in detail.
Nikola Milenkovic - Fiorentina
If not for Fiorentina’s big asking price, Milenkovic could easily have been an Inter player today. The tall and strong Serbian will stay at the Artemio Franchi for at least the next few months and he’s started the campaign well, coming up with very good performances against Torino and more recently against Spezia.
The 23-year-old is well adjusted to playing the role of a central defender who carries the ball either through his passing or through ball-carrying from the back. That comes naturally to him since he’s also adept at playing in the right-back position and thrives on bringing the ball forward. His total distance of ball carries per 90 minutes last season stood at an impressive 126.1 meters - more than that of Van Dijk. He also covered more distance with the ball at his feet, despite attempting a smaller number.
He played close to three progressive passes per 90 minutes - a little less than Van Dijk’s tally of four. He also has a knack for being an asset in the air and scored as many as four headed goals in the 2019/20 campaign for La Viola. He boasts a quick recovery pace - something that he benefits from when playing in Fiorentina’s regular 3-5-2 system.
Liverpool’s progressive system would require a defender who doesn’t just dominate off the ball but should also be confident with the art of progressing the ball as well. Milenkovic fits the bill perfectly. The only issue, again, would be Fiorentina’s asking price, which is no less than €40m.
Takehiro Tomiyasu - Bologna
Tomiyasu happens to be one of the lesser known gems in Serie A and he’s one of the best young players in Italy’s top-flight. Sinisa Mihajlovic’s Bologna had signed the Japan International from Sint Truidense in Belgium for just €9m and that fee already seems like a massive bargain now.
Tomiyasu, like Milenkovic, is a player who is good enough to play at centre-back and at right-back - even though the centre-back role is where he’s always thrived for both club and country. He spent a fair amount of time playing wide last season but the 21-year-old has now switched back to being a central defender under Mihajlovic and has been enjoying a very good campaign.
Tomiyasu is someone who’s technically blessed and this season he’s played as many as 24 passes per 90 minutes into the opposition’s half and with an accuracy close to 75 percent. He’s been the most progressive ball carrier in the centre-back position this season in Serie A and he’s done that with lesser amount of possession than a side like Liverpool would have. He has an eye for breaking down opposition lines and picking out the right sort of passing lanes as well.
He isn’t someone who’s keen on rushing into tackles and prefers to sit back and often act as the last defender. Tomiyasu presents a pretty cheap option for not just Liverpool but for many other big clubs in Europe as Milan did also try to sign him in the summer. He has all the makings of being a future star.
Merih Demiral - Juventus
Because of the ACL injury that the Turkey International faced last season, Demiral hasn’t quite got going at Juventus yet. Around the period of his injury against Roma, the Turkish defender was impressive for the Bianconeri in Serie A and in the Champions League and had gained the trust of Maurizio Sarri as well. Someone who first caught the eye of scouts during his time with Sporting B, Demiral first made a mark in Serie A in the second half of the 2018/19 season at Sassuolo where his eye for a pass into the midfield, strength in the tackle and power in the air really shone through.
Tottenham, Milan and Manchester United have always been linked with him and that says a lot about Demiral. He’s someone who loves to defend and in equal regard, he likes to play the ball out from the back as well. One reason why Sarri had a liking for the former Alanyaspor man. The ACL injury hindered his progress as there was a point last season where Demiral had gone ahead of Matthijs de Ligt in the defensive pecking order at Juve.
A complete central defender in many ways, Demiral is the sort of player who would thrive while playing regular first-team football. He did start against Crotone recently but he’s not guaranteed first-team football in Andrea Pirlo’s new and innovative system at Juventus. The Old Lady have always insisted on keeping him at the club but there have been indications that a high fee could lure them into selling the 22-year-old Turk.
Milan Skriniar - Inter
The transfer saga involving Spurs, Paris Saint-Germain and Skriniar didn’t quite lead to anything concrete but his future still seems to be up in the air and it remains to be seen if the Slovakian can leave Inter in January or next summer. He hasn’t exactly enjoyed his time under Antonio Conte at the Giuseppe Meazza but a lot of it is largely down to the Italian’s regular usage of his traditional 3-5-2 system, in which the wide central defenders have to cover loads of distance off the ball.
Skriniar has struggled to do that, as his abilities on the ball allow him to carry it almost like a full-back but the distance he’s had to cover has constantly troubled him. The former Sampdoria man was arguably one of the top ten central defenders in Europe while playing in a four-man defence under Luciano Spalletti and a move back to a club that regularly use the same system would do him a world of good. Liverpool would tap into his abilities of being ultra-reliable on the ball and his strengths of being an adept reader of the game.
The 25-year-old is someone who could thrive on systems that enable him to play out from the back and Liverpool would do that. While he did struggle against pacey wide players (like Gervinho against Parma or Jeremie Boga against Sassuolo) last season, that was largely due to how much he was exposed in a three-man defence. Playing in a back-four would not force Skriniar wide and would allow him to focus on the central defensive areas only. Inter could demand as much as €60m for him. It might be an expensive deal to complete but he’d add depth and immense quality to a club like Liverpool.