LIVERPOOL, England — There was a hint of melancholy in Jürgen Klopp’s voice as he talked about fairy tales.
Klopp, the Liverpool manager, had just seen Virgil van Dijk, a defender he waited six months and paid a king’s ransom to sign, conjure the most perfect start imaginable. In one fell swoop, the man who cost $101 million had ticked every box: He had scored a winning goal on his first appearance; he had done so in front of the Kop, where Liverpool’s hard-core fans gather; he had done it in a derby match with Everton; and in doing so, he had knocked Liverpool’s great foe out of the F.A. Cup.
“It is kind of a fairy tale,” said Klopp, that megawatt grin beaming on his face. A moment later, it flickered away, and he turned a little somber. “And there are not so many fairy tales anymore.”
What Klopp discovered as soon as he and his team had finished celebrating on the field can explain the rapid contrast in mood. When he returned under the stands at Anfield, the Liverpool manager was informed that Mason Holgate, Everton’s young defender, had lodged a complaint that Roberto Firmino, the Liverpool striker, had used a racist term toward him in a contentious moment late in the first half.
The incident occurred after Firmino and Holgate were chasing the ball near the touchline deep inside Everton’s half. Firmino won the race but could not retain control. Holgate, frustrated, shoved him as they followed the ball over the touchline, sending Firmino tumbling off the field and into the stands.
Firmino immediately leapt to his feet to confront Holgate. Slow-motion video suggested that, in his native Portuguese, the Brazilian forward delivered a stream of abuse at Holgate as the referee, Bobby Madley, stepped in to separate them. At one point, something appeared to enrage Holgate, who had to be held back by teammates and Madley.
After calming Holgate, Madley consulted his fourth official, Jon Moss, who then passed the information along to Klopp, though the Liverpool manager said he did not “understand” the nature of what he was being told until Moss reiterated it after the game.
His counterpart, Everton Manager Sam Allardyce, would not be drawn into commenting on his understanding of what happened, stating after the match that his responsibility extended only to soccer, rather than to “controversial incidents,” and that he preferred to let “whatever systems are used” establish the truth of what happened.
A Liverpool representative, meanwhile, said both “club and player will fully cooperate with the relevant authorities to make sure the facts are established in a thorough manner, if deemed necessary or requested.”
Madley will include details of the incident — he was standing between Firmino and Holgate when it occurred — and the charge of racial abuse in the match report he will submit to the Football Association on Saturday. At that point, it will be up to the F.A. to determine if an inquiry is merited. If so, the organization will write to the clubs, asking for their versions of events.
The process is sadly familiar to Liverpool. In October 2011, the Manchester United defender Patrice Evra accused the Liverpool striker Luis Suárez of using a racial term on multiple occasions during a Premier League game. Suárez and Liverpool, initially, vehemently denied the accusation.
But a seven-day F.A. hearing found that Suárez had “on the balance of probabilities” used “insulting words including a reference to Mr. Evra’s color.” He was barred for eight games and fined 40,000 British pounds (about $54,000).
That Klopp understood the seriousness of the allegation was apparent in his mood in the immediate aftermath of Friday’s victory; for a manager who had just witnessed such an uplifting moment, the usually bombastic German was distinctly subdued.
That he was delighted for van Dijk, of course, should go without saying. He acknowledged it was a “higher risk than normal” to hand van Dijk his debut in this game, given its traditional ferocity. He said he had only decided to do so a few hours beforehand. Merseyside derbies are no place for ring rust — van Dijk was afforded an impromptu winter break as the details of his move from Southampton were completed — and certainly no place for baby steps.
All central defensive partnerships take time to blossom, for the two component parts to learn each other well enough to function smoothly, and as Klopp had warned when the transfer was completed, at Liverpool it is more complex still. Klopp’s intense playing style places particular strain on his back line. Defending for Liverpool carries a different risk profile to defending for Southampton, van Dijk’s former club. Van Dijk, his manager had said, would need time to get used to it.
The scale of his transfer fee, however, mitigated against that — $101 million does not buy you any patience as you settle in, any leeway in your early performances, any understanding that these things can take time. Klopp and van Dijk will have known that every mistake, every misstep he makes in his time at Liverpool, will be subject to scrutiny. The glare of the spotlight will be fixed upon him for some time yet, searching for flaws.
A single goal will not deflect it, of course, but it might dim it just a little. Liverpool did not purchase van Dijk for his attacking prowess — though it might have helped inflate the fee a little — so much as for his defensive, and organizational, abilities. But his goal, and his status as an immediate derby match winner, may afford him the thing he needs most: a bit of space.
All new players are judged, if not straightaway, then quickly. That narrative can then take hold, and frame the way their performances are presented for months, or even years afterward. The risk with van Dijk was that no matter how elegant or assured his defending, the first time anybody really noticed him would be when he could not make a difference to Liverpool. His task — living up to an eye-watering fee, in a position not designed to help him do so — seemed a hiding to nothing.
Until, that is, he rose highest to meet Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain’s corner, restoring Liverpool’s lead, winning a derby, delighting the Kop. It was the perfect start: not a fairy tale, not really, given the cost involved, but certainly a good first chapter.
That is what Klopp, and Liverpool, will want to remember from this game. The sadness, for everyone involved, is that — depending on what the F.A. finds in any investigation it opens — it may go down in history for reasons they will want to forget.
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