The Premier League football season has got off to a strange start in England. Under normal conditions, the table begins to take a familiar shape after every team has played five or six games. You’d expect to see Liverpool, Chelsea, and both Manchester teams toward the top of the table, with Tottenham and Arsenal not far behind. That isn’t the case at the moment. Liverpool’s great Merseyside rivals Everton sit at the top of the pile at the time of writing, with Liverpool in second, Aston Villa in third, and Leicester City rounding out the all-important top four. Based on that, Liverpool appears to be the only one of the traditional ‘big’ clubs performing as expected, but there could be a crisis lurking around the corner.

During the summer, Liverpool said goodbye to one of the club’s longest-serving players as Dejan Lovren departed the Anfield club to join Zenit St. Petersburg in Russia. That left the team one center-back down, but that didn’t appear to be a problem with Joe Gomez, Joel Matip, Virgil van Dijk, and Fabinho available. With four players covering only two positions, there seemed to be enough strength in depth to get the team through a challenging season full of domestic league and cup fixtures, plus the always-grueling Champions League elimination tournament. Unfortunately for Liverpool and the team’s fans, things can change very quickly in football. Circumstances have conspired against them, and they’re now looking very lightweight at the back at a time when the transfer window is closed until January.

You probably don’t need us to tell you what happened to Dutchman Virgil van Dijk, who is generally considered the best center-back in the world. He was injured by an awful challenge by Everton goalkeeper Jordan Pickford, who somehow managed to escape punishment for the incident. The defender suffered an injury to his cruciate knee ligament, and although Liverpool refuses to specifically confirm how long he’s expected to be away from the game for, such an injury generally takes between six and eight months to recover from. It’s entirely possible that van Dijk will miss the rest of the season.

Losing van Dijk would be a blow to any team regardless of standing and regardless of what reserves might be available. The Dutchman’s absence already damages Liverpool’s prospects of successfully defending the club’s Premier League title and attempting to regain the European Champions League trophy. During this week’s round of Champions League fixtures, things got even worse. Fabinho went down holding his hamstring and had to be replaced. At the time of writing, the extent of his injury is unknown, but manager Jurgen Klopp had confirmed that the injury was severe enough to merit the Brazilian being sent for a scan. Even a minor hamstring injury would put him out for 1-2 weeks, which would result in him missing 3-5 games. If there’s a tear, the team might be without his services for months.

To complicate the situation further, Joel Matip is also struggling with an injury and isn’t available for first-team selection. Matip’s injury isn’t thought to be serious, but the player’s history of injuries suggests that he struggles to stay fit and shouldn’t be relied on to play 30-40 games per season. That leaves Joe Gomez as the only senior center back at Anfield who’s currently fit to play. The pressure on his shoulders will now be monumental.

When Fabinho went off injured against FC Midtjylland, he was replaced by Rhys Williams. The 19-year-old academy graduate spent last season on loan at Kidderminster Harriers in the National League North – the fifth tier of English football. Other than him, they have Nathaniel Phillips, a 23-year-old who’s never made a Premier League appearance for the side and spent last season on loan at VfB Stuttgart, and 18-year-old Dutchman Sepp van den Berg, who is also yet to make his league debut for the team. The back line looks horribly exposed, and an injury to Gomez at this point would create a full-blown crisis. Weak defenses get torn to shreds in the Premier League, and Liverpool, shorn of their usual resources, look especially weak.

It could be an option for the club to bring in a senior center-back on a free transfer, as free transfers can occur outside the transfer window, but there are no obvious quality candidates. Even if there were, asking for someone to come in and immediately acclimatize to the team environment and regular football after being without a club for weeks or months is probably too optimistic. Picking a team in football is like trying to make all the top-paying symbols line up perfectly in a Playtech casino. You might be able to make all of the symbols appear at the same time, but unless they’re in perfect sequence, the online slots game will pay you nothing. This is a better metaphor than you might realize, as Liverpool is currently the only football team in the world to have its own branded game available at online slots websites. Anyone who’s ever played it will know how hard it is to win, and that same level of difficulty would apply to an outsider trying to fill the boots of one of Liverpool’s injured senior professionals at short notice.

There are other options Liverpool could look at. James Milner has proven that he can play any position that’s asked of him, and he’d happily pitch in at center back if he was asked to. Kostas Tsimkas, who normally plays left-back, might be able to shift across as a makeshift option until injuries begin to heal. Curtis Jones, a tall midfielder, might be able to adapt to playing at the back if it was required of him. None of these solutions are ideal, though, and the decision to allow Lovren to leave without bringing in a new center back to replace him is beginning to look like a questionable one.

These are trying times for Liverpool. Last season they were fortunate to get through the campaign without any major injuries or any of their players suffering a major loss of form. This time around, things appear to be different. If they can overcome this obstacle and win the Premier League trophy again, it would arguably be an even greater achievement than last year’s triumph.