David McGoldrick reveals Sheffield United have lost their very own Virgil van Dijk ahead of Sunday's meeting with Liverpool
After growing-up as a Liverpool fan, albeit one from Nottingham rather than Knowsley or Norris Green, David McGoldrick has continued to follow their fortunes with interest throughout his professional career.
The affiliation, created by the sight of Robbie Fowler and Michael Owen brutalising Premier League defences, means he enters tomorrow’s game against Jurgen Klopp’s side with an in-depth understanding of what makes the reigning champions tick.
McGoldrick, Sheffield United’s leading goalscorer in the Premier League this season, believes the loss of Virgil van Dijk goes a long way towards explaining why the visitors appear destined to relinquish their title following a recent downturn in form. Chris Wilder’s side, 14 points adrift of safety and on the brink of being relegated, have also played the majority of the campaign without arguably their influential performer. Although McGoldrick last night insisted that “one man doesn’t make a team”, he explained how losing Jack O’Connell has had the same debilitating effect on United as his fellow centre-half’s absence at Anfield.
“He’s key for us, because of the way we play,” McGoldrick told The Star, identifying a direct correlation between United’s first concerted slump of the Wilder era and O’Connell’s knee injury. “If you look at last year, when we did ever so well, we had a solid back three with him, John Egan and Bash (Chris Basham) in there. Jack was always on the left hand side and he knew when to overlap, when to stay and when to pass. Plus, as a defender, he is just so, so solid.
“Jack’s a real leader too, without being that vocal. The way he trains, he was always the best at the club when he was fit, and probably the hardest worker during the week. So when anyone like him is missing well, yes, of course you feel it.”
United always suspected that O’Connell, out of action since September after being forced to undergo knee surgery, would leave huge boots to fill. But what they didn’t realise - not even Wilder, who has twice tried and failed to persuade Bramall Lane’s board of directors to sign a direct replacement - was just how big. The 26-year-old made 33 appearances at the heart of United’s rearguard as they challenged for a place in Europe last season. This time around, he featured only twice before finally succumbing to a problem which, it later transpired, has troubled him throughout his professional career.
With O’Connell out of action, United have struggled to reproduce the swashbuckling, high octane football which proved so irresistible following their promotion from the Championship. A pivotal cog in Wilder’s 3-5-2 formation, which requires defenders to charge forward and provide assists for the likes of McGoldrick, a system honed to perfection over the course of four successful seasons has spluttered, faltered and stalled with United winning only three and drawing two of their last 25 outings. After being joined on the treatment table by Egan and Basham, Wilder faces the unenviable task of fathoming a way to nullify the threat posed by one of the most potent frontlines in the division without his three first choice centre-halves. Sander Berge, who scored United’s goal during their 2-1 defeat at Liverpool in October, is also missing after severing a hamstring.
“When anyone is missing, you feel it,” McGoldrick continued. “It’s not just Jack. We’ve had key players out pretty much all the way through and that’s hurt us. Enda (Stevens) was out for a chunk, the same goes for John Fleck. And then there’s Sander, a really good young player who was just finding his feet here when what happened happened.
“It always takes time to bond, and you get used to being out there with certain people. For those coming in, it can be difficult because we don’t just play a normal 4-4-2 that everyone can pick up straight away. It takes time to get used to it and get it working properly.”
Klopp can testify about the effects a series of enforced changes can have on a team. Van Dijk, still recovering from the cruciate ligament damage he suffered during a derby against Everton at the beginning of the season, was a towering presence in the squad which swept all before them last term. The Dutchman’s predicament, compounded by injuries to the likes of Jordan Henderson, Joe Gomez and Joel Matip, means Liverpool cross the Pennines having lost four top flight matches in a row.
“I don’t think losing one man explains everything that’s happening for us or for them, but it does go to show if you lose key pieces of your jigsaw, how things can unfold,” McGoldrick said. “That’s what the stats would say, isn’t it.”
With Liverpool also scrabbling around for something resembling a recognisable starting eleven, McGoldrick and his fellow strikers should sense an opportunity to spring the type of shock result Wilder admitted United require to maintain even the slightest hope of survival.
“Playing against them last year, you would never have thought it, that they wouldn’t be right up there in the mix again,” McGoldrick said. “They were the best team I’ve ever played against. They were like robots. (Sadio) Mane, last year, he was a robot: Working hard, skipping back, he was strong. It was a joy to see, if not to play against. (Roberto) Firmino, he’s probably got the best first touch I’ve seen and obviously (Mo) Salah brings so many goals. So they’ve got world class players but we go in, as always, believing we can cause them problems and that we can win. Why not?”
As well as being professionally crucial, the fixture also has personal significance for McGoldrick.
“I grew up as a Liverpool fan, it was Robbie Fowler and Michael Owen that did it for me,” he said. “I used to get bought shirts at Christmas but I walked around in my Notts County one. All I’m bothered about is giving everything for Sheffield United.”