Henderson experiment shows Liverpool cannot afford lengthy Van Dijk absence

With Virgil van Dijk missing the Club World Cup semifinal through illness, Liverpool was given a glimpse of a potential nightmare.

Jordan Henderson deputised at center-back in Virgil van Dijk's absence.   -  Getty Images

Liverpool may have been spared extra-time exertions at the Club World Cup on Wednesday, but the deployment of Jordan Henderson as a makeshift centre-back is an experiment it will not want to repeat.

The Reds needed substitutes Trent Alexander-Arnold and Roberto Firmino to combine in stoppage time to book their place in Saturday's final against Flamengo.

Much has been made of the Reds' squad depth in impressive recent wins over Everton and Bournemouth.

However, in only sneaking past Mexican side Monterrey with a late winner in a 2-1 success, it was evident that there is one man Liverpool cannot do without if it is to end its long wait for a Premier League title this season.

Virgil van Dijk was laid low by illness on Wednesday and with recognised centre-backs Dejan Lovren and Joel Matip also missing due to injuries, it was left to midfielder Henderson to drop back into a defensive berth.

Henderson may be an adept passer and fine midfielder, a man somewhat unfairly maligned, but a centre-back of Van Dijk's ilk he most certainly is not.

The Reds looked ragged in the first half. Andy Robertson and James Milner were bombing on from the full-back positions as usual, but there was a vulnerability to a defensive duo of Joe Gomez and Henderson.

Both men looked susceptible to balls over the top and there was, understandably, little cohesion between the two when it came to a holding a defensive line.

Henderson was caught out of position when Monterrey cancelled out Naby Keita's opener, an unmarked Rogelio Funes Mori slotting home after Alisson saved Jesus Gallardo's volley.

Gomez earned a booking in the second half when Funes Mori got the wrong side of him, the England international dragging his man down rather than leaving him to face Henderson in a race for the ball.

In the end, as it often does, Liverpool found a way to win, though only after Sadio Mane, Alexander-Arnold and Firmino were thrown on.

Of more concern will be how shaky the Reds looked at the back without their inspirational Dutchman, who remains a doubt for Saturday's final against Flamengo.

Gomez, Lovren and Matip have all been questioned at points in their Liverpool careers, though all three have also had strong spells - usually when playing alongside Van Dijk.

Pundits have questioned whether Liverpool can survive a major injury to their vaunted front three, but it is at the other end of the pitch where they cannot afford a lengthy absence.

Van Dijk has played all but 35 minutes of Liverpool's Premier League games over the past season and a half, and he needs to remain available if it is to maintain its relentless title pace.

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