Forgotten Liverpool ace could force way into Arne Slot's plans after ranking among best in Europe

Sepp van den Berg has impressed on loan at Jürgen Klopp's former club Mainz this season
Sepp van den Berg has impressed on loan at Jürgen Klopp's former club Mainz this season -Credit:Photo by Neil Baynes/Getty Images

Liverpool will almost certainly be in the market for a center-back this summer. While Virgil van Dijk’s place on the left of the central defensive duo is assured, it has been hard for anyone to nail down the position to his right.

Having suffered a season-ending injury in December, Joël Matip is likely to leave the club at the conclusion of his contract this summer. Ibrahim Konaté’s form has dipped recently and an injury never seems far away, while Jarell Quansah has largely impressed but is still learning the game.

And what of Joe Gomez, a center-back who has barely played there in 2023/24, spending most of his time at full-back or even in defensive midfield? There are plenty of decisions for the successor to Jürgen Klopp to make. That man looks likely to be Arne Slot, and he would be wise to consider the case of one of his countrymen, Sepp van den Berg.

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Liverpool supporters would be forgiven for forgetting that the 22-year-old is still on the club’s books. He joined the Reds in the summer of 2019 for a modest fee of $5.5m (£4.4m/€5.1m) if all add-on clauses are met. Across the intervening half decade, van den Berg has made just four appearances for Liverpool, all of them in 2019/20 and all in the domestic cups.

The Netherlands under-21 international has in the meantime been out on loan to Preston, Schalke 04 and now Mainz for the current campaign. Klopp’s former side have been struggling at the wrong end of the Bundesliga, and with three matches remaining sit in the relegation play-off spot (16th).

They would be in worse trouble were it not for van den Berg’s goals. He scored a winner against Augsburg in February, having bagged the equalizer in a draw at Dortmund in the final match before the winter break.

But he is obviously of greater importance at the back, and Mainz’s lowly position in the table does a disservice to its defensive record. With 49 goals conceded, it has the seventh best record in the Bundesliga table, with the top six teams in the division the only clubs with fewer in the Against column. Apart from a one-game suspension for accumulating five yellow cards, van den Berg has appeared in every match.

The on-loan Liverpool man has stood out in a couple of ways, which have been highlighted by Liverpool World. It is stated that the defender ranks second for the most aerial duels won (172) across the Bundesliga and fifth for most duels won (348). Liverpool’s weakness in these areas was brought into sharp focus by the disappointing Merseyside derby defeat to Everton recently.

It’s always worth pausing before jumping on stats like these. A center-back for a relegation threatened side is going to have a lot of defending to do by default. Any player in van den Berg’s position would amass large duel numbers. Not all of them would win so many, though, so he deserves credit for that.

Among the 159 central defenders with at least 20 starts in Europe’s big five leagues this season, van den Berg ranks eighth according to WhoScored and he is younger than the septet above him. That puts him ahead of Quansah along with Chelsea’s Levi Colwill, Everton’s Jarrad Branthwaite and Tottenham’s Micky van den Ven.

Slot may have a distant memory of van den Berg and it likely won't be a positive one from the player's perspective. Back in 2017/18, Klopp’s heir apparent was assistant manager of AZ Alkmaar and on the final day of the season it beat a PEC Zwolle side featuring the young center-back 6-0.

Van den Berg has come a long way since then though. Whether it’s far enough to claim a place in the Liverpool starting XI for 2024/25 is perhaps unlikely, but he has certainly proven his worth in the Bundesliga this season. Slot may determine in which direction his career goes next.