Barring a plot twist worthy of an outlandish summer blockbuster, Liverpool will not have Virgil van Dijk as one of their players next season.
The gritted-toothed apology and public climb down from their pursuit of the Southampton man was surely uncomfortable for the Reds’ hierarchy and Jurgen Klopp. However, the club must now move fast to secure an alternative target for the team’s problem position before August rolls around and the tutting, sighing and talk of ‘set pieces’, ‘zonal marking’ and ‘two points dropped’ reconvenes.
As Lisa Simpson once explained: with every crisis comes opportunity. Here are six defensive stars Liverpool should look to sign instead of van Dijk…
5. Willi Orban (RB Leipzig)
While Jonathan Tah and Antonio Rudiger seem to be the in-vogue young German defenders with the British tabloids, surprise package RB Leipzig’s Willi Orban has gone under the radar as something of a revelation in the Bundesliga.
24-year-old Orban featured 28 times as upstarts Leipzig finished an improbable second last season. His reputation as a slightly technically-limited enforcer has seen him (so far) overlooked internationally for more ‘cultured’ options for Die Mannschaft, but his no nonsense style could be perfect for steadying Liverpool’s occasionally dithering backline. Think Mamadou Sakho in-form…without the off-field baggage.
One of the Bundesliga’s top five tackle makers in 2016/17, Orban also has a reputation for finding the net with his aerial prowess and netted three times last season.
Perhaps worryingly for Liverpool fans, however, he was once a ‘Red Devil’ having come through Kaiserslautern’s academy.
4. Jannik Vestergaard (Borussia Monchengladbach)
The towering Danish international is one of the tallest players in the Bundesliga, and once complained on Instagram about the problems of showering when you’re about two metres.
One of the world’s most physically imposing defenders, unsurprisingly Vestergaard is pretty good in the air – scoring four times last season (the joint most of any defender in the league), as his side finished ninth in Germany’s top flight.
The 24-year-old’s stock is rising fast after impressing first at Werder Bremen, before testing his Champions League mettle against Barcelona and Manchester City’s finest last season, after joining Gladbach for €12m.
He completed the third most tackles last season in the Bundesliga of any defender, and the second most clearances.
While an apparent lack of pace may worry some, a player like Vestergaard would certainly alleviate some of the jitters from defending set pieces – an area in which the Reds’ conceded more times than any other top six side in 2016/17.
3. Kalidou Koulibaly (Napoli)
Long rated as one of Europe football’s hottest (attainable) defensive prospects, Napoli’s Senegalese centre-back could finally be in line for a big money move this summer, after club president Aurelio De Laurentiis claimed he won’t stand in the way of any player who doesn’t want to play for his team.
25-year-old Koulibaly is one of few whose price tag may come close to the eye-watering £60m quoted for van Dijk, after he signed a new deal in September last year tieing him (in principle) to the San Paolo until 2021.
However, the player himself has made kissy faces at the Premier League in the past, and Chelsea reportedly failed last summer with a £47m bid, as De Laurentiis turned down the offer due to a lack of replacements available.
Indeed, there are few in the game quite like Koulibaly. The Paris-born Senegal international is nicknamed ‘K2’ in reference to his mountainous build, and is often likened to Lilian Thuram in the Italian press. Napoli legend Diego Maradona (never shy of a bold opinion) called him the best defender in Serie A a year ago.
Only two centre-backs completed more passes in the league than Koulibaly last season.
2. Stefan de Vrij (Lazio)
After the hasty retreat from Operation van Dijk, rumours quickly circulated that the Liverpool recruitment team had begun turning their attentions towards his international defensive partner – Stefan de Vrij.
Another one likely to move this summer, 25-year-old de Vrij has just a year left on his current contract while Lazio are holding out for as much as £30m for their man, with a whole host of suitors including Chelsea and Barcelona linked.
Knee surgery kept him out of much of the 2015/16 campaign but he has recovered well to resume his role as one of the division’s best, averaging 4.1 clearances and 2.2 interceptions per game last term.
While not a man mountain like Vestergaard or Koulibaly, de Vrij would appear up to the physical rigour of the wettest and windiest nights in Stoke, while also (much like van Dijk) being competent with the ball at his feet.
1. Matthias Ginter (Borussia Dortmund)
After facing defeat in the battle for their number one target, Liverpool might be wise to employ the contact list of Klopp to secure an alternative in Dortmund’s Matthias Ginter.
Originally signed for BVB by Klopp, a reunion at Anfield could prove a happy marriage of convenience for both club and player – with Liverpool getting a youthful, yet experienced player to slot into their backline, while Ginter may be able to shake off his tag of ‘utility man’ by reinventing himself a true centre back in England.
Still only 23 years old, the former Freiburg player has already won the DFB Pokal, an Olympic silver medal and the 2014 World Cup – although he was an unused squad member for the latter.
While his last season at Dortmund was somewhat unremarkable, Ginter remains excellent technically, with the kind of awareness and positional sense, one might expect from a German international. Should he fail to command in the centre, he would even arguably constitute a better option going forward from right back than current first choice Nathaniel Clyne.