New Liverpool captain Virgil van Dijk understands why some sections of the fanbase are heading into the season apprehensive about what it may bring but he does not share their concerns.
There is growing unease over the club’s failure to recruit a defensive midfielder following the sale of Fabinho to Al-Ittihad and manager Jurgen Klopp has admitted he will have to find a quick fix from within the squad for this weekend’s opener at Chelsea.
After the departures of Jordan Henderson, also to Saudi Arabia, James Milner, Naby Keita and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain there is little left of the core midfield which helped win the Champions League and Premier League in recent years.
It means forward Cody Gakpo could be asked to drop back while £35million summer signing Alexis Mac Allister is likely to be deployed in the deep-lying role – which does not play to the Argentinian World Cup winner’s strengths – with fellow new arrival Dominik Szobozslai expected to make his Premier League debut.
The club’s stuttering pursuit of Southampton’s Romeo Lavia, who could fill the Fabinho role despite being only 19 and having made just 29 appearances in one top-flight season, has led to criticism from the likes of former Reds defender Jamie Carragher.
But as Van Dijk embarks on his maiden campaign as captain, having inherited the armband from Henderson, he remains confident they can find the improvements necessary to get back into the top four and challenge Manchester City and Arsenal.
“I can definitely understand it (fans’ negativity) in some ways but I’m not a very negative person, so obviously it’s not in my mind to think like that,” he said.
“But obviously when a lot of players are leaving, when your captain is leaving, your vice-captain is leaving, and at the moment there are only two incomings…
“And the way we have been playing, in possession really good but defensively when you concede goals it’s not as good I can understand some people having doubts.
“Let’s see if more players are coming in and then we have to be ready again for a long season. It will be very tough if we look at the teams around us, but we want to be up there again, we want to be challenging again.”
The loss of the majority of their midfield has not only left Liverpool short on numbers but also on experience, with 1,318 appearances in the middle of the park disappearing over the summer.
While Mac Allister, 24, has made 98 Premier League appearances for Brighton, the 22-year-old Szobozslai has just 62 Bundesliga games to his name in two seasons with RB Leipzig, although his consistently high numbers were one of the reasons Liverpool made their move.
Other realistic midfield options currently available are Thiago Alcantara and Stefan Bajcetic, who have not featured in pre-season as they continue to recover from injuries sustained last season. There is the 24-year-old Gakpo, with 21 league appearances in four months after joining in January, and academy graduate Curtis Jones, aged 22 with 63 league outings.
Van Dijk sees the loss of senior players as an opportunity for others to take up the mantle.
New signing Alexis Mac Allister has a key role to play in midfield after some big-name departures (Mike Egerton/PA)
“We have to be confident, we should be confident and we should still be learning each and every day,” he added.
“There have been characters leaving, players who have played a big part in the success, but others have to step up.
“That’s a nice challenge in my opinion. We should be excited. I’m very excited, so let’s give it a go.”
Van Dijk himself is typically relaxed about his promotion to captain but knows he is following on from the ultra-successful Henderson, who lifted the Champions League, Premier League, FA Cup, League Cup and Club World Cup.
“Obviously we won everything together, and I was very sad to see him leave to be honest but that’s football, that’s life, and he has the right to do that in this case,” said the Dutchman.
“He made that decision but if I can be as successful as he was as a captain then I would sign (up) for that immediately.
“It’s step by step. I’m looking for consistency from our side, winning games, winning them the hard way at times, finding a way and creating a positive atmosphere where we all do it together.
“That’s how I want to attack the season and give everyone the assurance that we give everything for one another. Hopefully we will be successful.”