Liverpool’s Harvey Elliott faces hard road to the top after dislocated ankle halts breakthrough season
Mohamed Salah was first on the scene and he was sending distress signals, waving manically. Liverpool’s medical staff were on the pitch before Craig Pawson had blown his whistle to halt the game. Jurgen Klopp had crossed the white line, too, but in the circumstances, a little encroachment was understandable.
Salah had turned away, pulling his shirt over his face. Trent Alexander-Arnold put his hands to his head. Footballers tend to react straight away when there is a serious injury to one of their own and they looked at Harvey Elliott and knew. “I could see his foot was not in the right place and we were all shocked,” Klopp said.
It was the best part of an hour later when the Liverpool manager was being interviewed. Even then, he was choking up. It had not required medical expertise to realise this was serious, though surgery beckons in the next few days after Elliott was discharged from hospital on Sunday evening. “A bad ankle injury, for sure,” Klopp added. “It looked like it was dislocated, the medical department put it back. Massive pain, shock for him, for us.” For everyone, really.
The teenager Elliott tried to calm fears, applauding the Leeds fans who clapped him – a disgraceful minority indulged in some less pleasant sentiments – as he was stretchered off the pitch and posting a picture with his thumbs up on Instagram with the words: “Road to recovery.” Klopp is no fan of social media, but he at least welcomed the news Elliott was not in too much pain and that upbeat assessment.
But the road will not be short. Liverpool’s fourth league game of 2020-21 was Virgil van Dijk’s last. This was perhaps Elliott’s final game of the campaign. Perhaps there is a bitter irony that Jordan Pickford was not dismissed for his reprehensible lunge at the Dutchman whereas Pascal Struijk saw red for his challenge on Elliott. “Something I would never wish on anyone,” the defender later insisted. Leeds owner Andrea Radrizzani and manager Marcelo Bielsa insisted Struijk had no malice and they were almost certainly right. There is no direct link between the bad tackles and bad injuries: as it stands, Struijk faces a three-match ban but the luckless Elliott faces the greater injustice.
Youthful promise can offer the sense of boundless possibility. This was shaping up to be a seminal season for him, when he started to fulfil his considerable potential. He has shown a precocious assurance, an aptitude for the major occasion and the footballing intelligence to adapt. A winger on loan at Blackburn last season, he has become a midfielder for Liverpool this year, and a terrific one, a natural ball player who looks at home in possession. He had been outstanding against Chelsea and was impressing again at Elland Road. He was forming part of a enviably good right-sided trio, with Alexander-Arnold behind him and Salah ahead in an axis of creativity. The right-back felt the role model, the previous youngster to cement his place in the Liverpool team. He is used to being the youngest member of the team but called Elliott “little bro” in his own social-media post.
Just as notable as Elliott’s talent was the trust Klopp had placed in him. The German has a habit of fielding his most solid, most experienced midfield trios for potentially defining games but Elliott was picked ahead of Thiago Alcantara against Chelsea and in place of Jordan Henderson at Leeds. He was the kid who dislodged the Champions League winners. Perhaps the injury was crueller as Henderson was stripped off, ready to replace Elliott, when he was hurt. Both player and manager can curse their misfortune. Klopp, an empathetic figure who forges bonds with his players, can feel their pain more than most.
He has contrasting experiences with major injuries. Van Dijk has looked commanding on his comeback but Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and Rhian Brewster’s careers feel stunted. The midfielder has never recaptured the dynamism he was showing in the spring of 2018; the striker was sold. The same fate is unlikely to await Elliott in the next few years. “We will play football without him, but we will wait for him as well because he is a top player,” Klopp insisted. The hope must be that the road to recovery proves a route to the top.