Liverpool: Joe Gomez has made a strong case to become van Dijk’s centre back partner
Injuries can occasionally be a blessing in disguise and, for Liverpool, several figures being absent has afforded Joe Gomez the opportunity to shine at centre back.
Action Images via Reuters/Carl Recine
When Brendan Rodgers gained the services of an 18-year-old Joe Gomez from Charlton Athletic in the summer of 2015, he was a central defender of great promise. Some even pencilled him in as a future England captain — an honour he still has plenty of time to achieve.
A cruciate ligament injury as soon as Jurgen Klopp replaced Rodgers in October 2015 was a horrible blow, however, and it took almost 18 months for him to return to the fold.
Given the impatient nature of the modern football fan, many were quick to criticise him when he came back rusty and off the pace but such a serious injury will do that a player.
Fast forward to last season and Gomez was deployed as a right-back in tandem with Trent Alexander-Arnold with the pair going through different spells as first choice. With Dejan Lovren, Joel Matip and Ragnar Klavan all more experienced options, and the colossal Virgil van Dijk joining in January, centre back opportunities continued to be hard to come by.
Now 21 — and with the aforementioned trio of Lovren, Matip and Klavan both injury-prone and divisive — 2018/19 is seen by many as the season in which Gomez can grasp his chance in a central capacity.
Lovren’s World Cup heroics for Croatia enhanced his reputation, though, and he looked a shoo-in to start alongside van Dijk against West Ham, save only for the revelation that he is struggling with a stomach muscle problem.
With Matip and Klavan also ruled out — no surprises there — Gomez was finally given his moment to impress for the visit of a much-fancied Hammers outfit.
Liverpool’s dominance made it men vs boys on a wet afternoon at Anfield and Gomez played his part in what was an eye-catching opening victory for Klopp’s men. Granted, the England international wasn’t tested too much against a generally lifeless West Ham side, but he cut an authoritative figure both on and off the ball.
There was only one lapse in concentration, with Marko Arnautovic almost pouncing after Gomez allowed a long ball to drift over his head, but he was otherwise largely immaculate. That naivety and level of focus in his game will exist for a while still — which is only natural for a player of his age — but promising was still very much the word of the day.
If this was a pleasant way for Gomez to be eased into the new season, as his next outing will be a far greater test of his credentials.
Assuming he keeps his place for the trip to Crystal Palace next Monday, we will learn a lot more about how much Gomez has grown. Trips to Selhurst Park are never easy days at the office — throw in the 8pm kick-off under the lights and you have one of the trickiest away matches in the Premier League.
With long balls sure to be launched in the direction of ex-Red Christian Benteke, Gomez’s occasionally questionable aerial capabilities will be tested to the hilt. There is a worry that he could be bullied, and although van Dijk will be around to do his bit, Roy Hodgson could well target Gomez.
There is also the small matter of Wilfried Zaha drifting inside from the left wing to wreak havoc which will again ask big questions of both him and fellow youngster Alexander-Arnold.
It feels like a key 90 minutes in Gomez’s career.
Given how much some supporters want to see the likes of Lovren and Matip moved on or turned into squad players, there is always going to be the risk of hyperbole surrounding Gomez’s displays.
It would be wrong to go overboard about one match at home to a team offering almost nothing going forward, but equally, Gomez’s use of the ball and positioning are worthy of praise.
There is a middle ground and, once the Palace game is done and dusted, we will be able to gauge Gomez’s current squad role a lot more clearly.
He will know that this is an opportunity to make the spot his own and remain there long-term — Klopp will always reward consistency, regardless of age — but a Selhurst Park disaster will suddenly see opinion swiftly change again.
The jury is still out for the time being regarding Gomez being the guaranteed solution next to van Dijk but the early signs are unquestionably positive.
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