When Virgil van Dijk first walked in the doors at Melwood in January 2018, he had to have been excited at the possibilities.
The Reds, then, had scored more goals than anyone in the Premier League outside of Manchester City. However, they were leaky at the back and in desperate need of direction. They'd previously lost 5-0 to the champions elect and 4-1 to Tottenham, while they'd just drawn 3-3 with Arsenal despite leading 2-0 with 40 minutes to play.
Van Dijk's presence alone helped turn what was a promising team into one that looked formidable; Champions League hopefuls became Champions League finalists. By the end of the season, though Jurgen Klopp's team finished some 25 points off City, they were being billed as the team to challenge Pep Guardiola's centurions.
Van Dijk was said to be the final piece of the jigsaw, but it didn't quite turn out that way...
The puzzle wasn't finally complete until circumstances revealed an ace in the pack Liverpool didn't know they had.
Defensive options were desperately limited heading into the first day of the 2018/19 season against West Ham. Dejan Lovren and Joel Matip were both injured, while Ragnar Klavan - fourth choice - was days out from completing a move to Cagliari. The chance was given to Joe Gomez - who, to this point, Klopp had only ever really deployed at full back in the league.
But it became clear, within seconds, that Gomez was more than an auxiliary full back. His understanding with Van Dijk was almost telepathic, while their attributes - Gomez's pace and Van Dijk's commanding dominance - seemed to compliment each other perfectly.
Liverpool announced their intentions with a storming 4-0 victory, and a formidable defensive unit was born.
The strides they have taken in the two years since need no introduction; Champions League winners and world champions with a Premier League title all but wrapped up and waiting when the season eventually resumes from its pandemic-enforced hiatus.
They have conceded just 33 times in 67 league games since the beginning of last season, a frightening record by anyone's standards, but Gomez's struggles with injury mean that even those astonishing numbers fail to capture the brilliance the two are capable of when paired together.
When Van Dijk has played without Gomez since the beginning of last season, he's conceded 29 goals in 41 games, at an average of 0.7 goals per game. With Gomez, that record improves dramatically. Incredibly, the two together have conceded 10 in 26, at a rate of 0.4 per game.
Liverpool have never lost a Premier League game Joe Gomez has started at centre-back. He joined in 2015. (They have lost PL games he has started at right-back or left-back, but none since January 2018).— Richard Jolly (@RichJolly) March 6, 2020
In fact, Gomez's Premier League record at centre back since of the start of 2018/19 reads: played 22, won 20, drawn two, lost zero. As pointed out on Twitter by Richard Jolly, Gomez has never lost a league game for Liverpool when he has started in the middle. Ever.
It's plainly obvious the two have a strong friendship that extends further than the pitch. They have a natural camaraderie, which can be seen any time they make media appearances together - be it at a press conference or as part of the Liverpool YouTube's 'Bezzies' series.
It's something Gomez attributes to the welcoming attitude of Van Dijk from his first day at Melwood.
“The stature of Virgil when he came to the club was obviously already massive,” he said in April, as quoted by the Liverpool website.
“I was a young centre-back, I hadn’t really got as many games there as I would have liked. But as soon as he came in he reached out with open arms and we formed a bond straight away; just the fact that he’s a down-to-earth person off the pitch, we get on really well.
“Off the pitch we have a great relationship. We talk and at times like this we FaceTime and casually speak about general things in life. That helps on the pitch, when you have an understanding and he’s your mate at the end of the day.
“Sometimes he gives me an earful! But it’s a massive help and a confidence-booster just having someone like him beside you. He’s a real dominant force and a pleasure to play alongside.”
When the Reds do finally end their 30-year wait for a Premier League title, they will have their dynamic duo to thank. Prior to that humbling defeat at Watford - which Gomez sat out - they had each started 12 straight league matches, boasting a 100% record and conceding just three goals in the process.
If it wasn't apparent before that Gomez should have rights on a starting spot, then it is now. Because for all Van Dijk is an un-droppable presence, there isn't a player in the Liverpool squad - or likely anywhere - capable of complementing him like the guy he eats his lunch with.
Mo Salah, Roberto Firmino and Sadio Mané will always start for Liverpool when fit and available; the same goes for Trent Alexander-Arnold and Andy Robertson. But in a team built on partnerships, there is none more key than the one struck up at the heart of defence.
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Source : 90min