Virgil van Dijk was injured by Jordan Pickford in the Merseyside derby; centre-back requires surgery to his knee; Joe Gomez and Joel Matip will now be first-choice centre-back pairing, with Sepp van den Berg and Nathaniel Phillips the novice back-ups

Virgil van Dijk: Liverpool defender facing surgery and the pressure is now on Joe Gomez and Joel Matip

Virgil van Dijk is facing a long time out with a knee injury

Liverpool are stepping into the unknown.

For 80 minutes at Goodison Park on Saturday, there was a rare sight: Liverpool playing a Premier League match without Virgil van Dijk at the heart of their defence.

Jordan Pickford’s brutal – but unpunished – challenge, which has left Van Dijk needing surgery on his knee, means it is something Liverpool will now have to get used to.

But how will they cope without their star centre-back?

The brilliant Dutchman has played in 95 of the 96 Premier League games Liverpool have had since he made his debut in January 2018. He played every minute in the league last season, as they claimed the title for the first time in 30 years.

So how do they try to cover the absence of a player who has been central to their triumphs domestically and in Europe over the past three years?

It is a huge task and, with Premier League and Champions League games coming thick and fast, it is a task Jurgen Klopp must get right if Liverpool are to continue to be successful. That is how pivotal Van Dijk has been.

FREE TO WATCH: Highlights from Everton’s draw with Liverpool

The difference Van Dijk has made

Critics who suggested the £75m fee Liverpool paid Southampton for Van Dijk was extortionate have long since conceded their case in that argument. Van Dijk has, if anything, been a bargain for Liverpool, transforming their defence and providing the platform for the Reds to become arguably the best side in Europe.

    Everton 2-2 Liverpool – Match report and highlightsKlopp rages over ‘legitimate’ disallowed goalMerseyside derby drama: The key moments

Liverpool had let in 120 goals in their 96 Premier League fixtures before he arrived. They have conceded just 78 in the 96 since.

He has helped Liverpool keep 43 Premier League clean sheets in that time, the most of any player in that period.

Handily, he has also scored six headed Premier League goals since the start of last season. Only Dominic Calvert-Lewin has scored more.

But beyond the numbers, it is the reputation Van Dijk has honed, the respect his towering 6ft 4in frame commands, and the authority he brings to – and inspires in – Liverpool’s backline which has been the real factor in transforming Liverpool.

From March 2018, Van Dijk went 50 games without being dribbled past. It was an outrageous stat – but how much did that play on the mind of opponents; how much do opposition sides adapt their usual attacking patterns because they are intimidated by the 29-year-old?

In Pictures: How Van Dijk’s injury happened

Virgil van Dijk: Liverpool defender facing surgery and the pressure is now on Joe Gomez and Joel Matip

Virgil van Dijk: Liverpool defender facing surgery and the pressure is now on Joe Gomez and Joel Matip

Virgil van Dijk: Liverpool defender facing surgery and the pressure is now on Joe Gomez and Joel Matip

Klopp’s alternatives

Interestingly, there have been some unusual slip-ups from Van Dijk this season. Against Leeds, his over-confident clearance allowed Patrick Bamford to score. He only made one error leading to a goal in all of last season. Then there was the 7-2 drubbing by Aston Villa, where questions were raised about Liverpool’s high line.

They have let in 13 goals in five games this season. It took them 15 matches to concede that many in 2019/20.

But despite those errors and frailties, stepping in for Van Dijk is going to be no easy task. And Klopp is short on options.

Virgil van Dijk: Liverpool defender facing surgery and the pressure is now on Joe Gomez and Joel Matip

Joe Gomez and Joel Matip are set to be Liverpool's centre-back pairing

Joe Gomez came off the bench on Saturday, playing alongside Joel Matip who had started ahead of him. Afterwards, Klopp described his performance up against the in-form Calvert-Lewin as “sensational”.

    Premier League table | Fixtures | Live on SkyGet Sky Sports

But Calvert-Lewin had risen above Gomez and Andy Robertson to head in Everton’s equaliser. Earlier, with Van Dijk out of the game, Michael Keane had outjumped Liverpool’s players at a corner to head in Everton’s first.

That, though, will be Klopp’s strongest pairing while Van Dijk is out.

There are less straightforward alternatives: Fabinho could drop in from midfield to defence, while skipper Jordan Henderson has also played in the backline in the Club World Cup and at Wolves in the FA Cup, and Gini Wijnaldum played in a three-man defence against Brighton in January 2019.

Liverpool’s upcoming fixtures

Weds October 21 Ajax (away) Champions League
Sat October 24 Sheff United (home) Premier League
Tues October 27 Midtjylland (home) Champions League
Sat October 31 West Ham (home) Premier League
Tues November 3 Atalanta (away) Champions League
Sat November 7 Man City (away) Premier League

Beyond the first-team regulars, following Dejan Lovren’s departure in the summer, Klopp would have to draw from Liverpool’s academy sides.

Billy Koumetio is highly rated and would have made his debut in cup competitions by now if not for badly-timed injuries but there would be huge pressure on the 17-year-old to step in. Rhys Williams, 19, has featured in the Carabao Cup, Sepp van den Berg, 18, is also well thought of. Then there is 23-year-old Nathaniel Phillips, who looked like he was heading to the Championship on loan last week.

Virgil van Dijk: Liverpool defender facing surgery and the pressure is now on Joe Gomez and Joel Matip

Liverpool youngster Rhys Williams made his debut at centre-back against Lincoln in the Carabao Cup in September

It’s a concern, given Matip – who has played just 165 minutes of Premier League football in 2020 – missed substantial game time last season and only returned on Saturday from a muscle problem which had kept him out since the opening weekend win against Leeds, while Gomez has had injury issues in the past too.

It is significant Van Dijk’s injury came the day after the domestic transfer window closed. It is a long two-and-a-half months until the January window allows Liverpool to bring in reinforcements.

How Liverpool will cope during that period – and beyond until the end of the season – is impossible to predict.

They have been shorn of their defensive leader, the Premier League’s best defender, and they are short on back-up.

Now we will see how well they can adapt. Now, we will also likely see just how important Van Dijk has been.

Carra: Van Dijk injury blows title race wide open

Jamie Carragher reflects on the injury news of Virgil Van Dijk and believes that his absence for Liverpool will blow the title race wide open.

Sky Sports’ Jamie Carragher:

“The big question you’re looking at now is, can Liverpool win the league without Van Dijk there? I think it blows the title race wide open, I really do.

“I still felt at the start of this season Liverpool were the team to beat. I think with Van Dijk being out for what looks like the whole season now, I think it’s going to be all on for Liverpool.

“I think Liverpool certainly have to go into the market in January, and not just because of Van Dijk’s injury, but Liverpool were weak in that area anyway. They lost (Dejan) Lovren before the start of the season now the other players in those positions are very injury prone.”

Read more from Jamie Carragher and Graeme Souness on the impact of Van Dijk’s injury here.