By The Don – @donkopleone
May 2005. The month of that famous night in Istanbul. Feel a long time ago?
It would be easy to carry on from here with an article detailing why- with the colossus that is Virgil van Dijk leading our backline- Liverpool are primed to return to those, the heights of European football.
However, in our return to May 2005, we arrive at another footballing milestone: the last time a defender won the PFA Premier League Player of the Year award. John Terry picked up the gong, following Chelsea’s title-winning campaign in which they conceded just 15 goals, the fewest across a campaign since the competition’s inception. You see where this is going.
20 games in, eight goals conceded (at the time of writing) – halfway through 2018/19, Liverpool are on track to match Jose Mourinho’s Chelsea of 04/05. Do that and there would be an overwhelming case for a member of Jurgen Klopp’s backline to take home the individual trophy. Leading the best defence in England of the last 26 seasons? There is no need for an explanation as to why Liverpool’s number four would be the short-odds favourite.
But should a record-breaking season be necessary for a defender to win the award? Of course not. This is an award given to the best ‘player’ over the course of the season, not the best individual winger, creative midfielder or centre forward. Yet amongst the six players nominated for the trophy last term, there were no defenders, where one would hope for or expect an even split- one goalkeeper, two defenders, two midfielders and a forward, say.
Really, defenders should be valued as highly as strikers, and goalkeepers as much as wingers- as seen, it is the improvements in net and at centre and left-back which have driven Liverpool from top four contenders to title favourites in the space of twelve months.
And this is where we get to Virgil. There is no longer much debate as to whether Virgil van Dijk is the best central defender in the Premier League. The question has moved on- is he the best in the position in the world? Most pundits agree that he probably is, based on current form. While van Dijk has been imperious in every game this term, Sergio Ramos and Raphael Varane have failed to fix a failing Real Madrid defence, Giorgio Chiellini and Diego Godin are finally showing the slightest signs of age and Kalidou Koulibaly suffers from Napoli’s comparatively smaller status as a team.
Compare this with van Dijk’s supposed rivals for the PFA award. Take Eden Hazard, David Silva and Raheem Sterling. Would any analyst really be prepared to argue that any of the three have outperformed Lionel Messi so far this season? Some may try and fight Hazard’s battle, but even with a league goal involvement every 74 minutes, it wouldn’t be an easy one to take on.
Similarly, Mo Salah, Harry Kane, Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang. All three have been excellent, world class maybe, but would any force Cristiano Ronaldo out of that centre forward role in a ‘World XI’ at this moment in time? Perhaps Kane or Salah could, this is a nearly 34 year-old Ronaldo after all, but neither has a place even nearly so incontestable in this hypothetical World XI as van Dijk does.
Who else? The only other players in the Premier League who carry a legitimate claim to be widely recognised as the best at their role in the world right now, would be Alisson, David de Gea (despite his sub-par form), and Andrew Robertson. Alisson and de Gea sit firmly in the best ‘keeper discussion, alongside Jan Oblak and Marc-André Ter Stegen.
Also, with Marcelo ageing, and David Alaba’s Bayern Munich struggling, you would probably have to pit Robbo against Juventus’ Alex Sandro to find the premier left full-back. Like de Gea, N’golo Kante may merit inclusion, but that would be based on reputation rather than form, so for that reason neither de Gea, nor Kante can be taken as realistic contenders for the award.
Harry Kane, Salah, Hazard, Robertson, van Dijk and Alisson then, and let’s throw in David Silva and Sterling for good measure. What makes van Dijk not just the best candidate, but the most likely to triumph from the selection?
In three of the last four years, the gong has gone to a player from the title-winning team. I’m not nearly stupid or confident enough to even imply that that will be Liverpool come May, but, as things are, the shape of the league table would stand van Dijk in good stead. Perhaps unfairly, Hazard, could fall down here, particularly if Chelsea fail to finish in the top four.
Neither Kane nor Salah look likely to better their outputs from last season. Of course, Salah won the award ahead of Kane in third in May, but you feel a player needs to set new expectations rather than almost match previous ones if they are to earn such individual recognition.
Next is probably the key factor: Star quality. One of the reasons that midfielders and forwards more often than not receive these awards is their higher profiles. Their ability to win matches in single, incredible moments, having a personality which is both strong and displayed through the media, and, sadly perhaps, a big transfer fee can all combine to create a star. This is then emphasised by increased media discussion over the individual.
Look at Paul Pogba- is he a star? Certainly. But on the face of it, Pogba is a player who has been a midfield rotation option for the team in sixth-place so far this season. Star quality does not necessarily reflect on-pitch quality.
David Silva is an extraordinary player, loved by the media, but he produces far fewer of these individual moments than his team-mate Kevin de Bruyne, for instance. Silva conducts attack after attack, but is less likely to change a game in a single second than KDB. Raheem Sterling has had a tremendous output this campaign, but has he really been at Hazard’s level? Besides, rightly or wrongly Sterling’s media image is unlikely to help him.
Unlike most defenders, though, Virgil van Dijk also fits these criteria. All season, van Dijk might be the Premier League player whose form has been most widely debated in the media. Not a week goes by without one former pro asking “Just how good?” he is currently. His slide tackles, his forty yard passes are all broken down and analysed- it is hard to remember another central defender who received such treatment.
Take his one-on-one with Adama Traore away at Wolves, for instance. Even if you had failed to see the game, you would have been bombarded with social media videos of the Dutchman winning that duel, just as you would if it were the goal of the season which had been scored at Molineux, not a great tackle executed to perfection.
Amongst Liverpool’s other defensive contenders, none have van Dijk’s superstar factor. While Alisson’s performances are discussed at length, as necessitated by his huge transfer fee, his relative difficulty with English and all-round humble appearance reduce his media profile over here.
Andrew Robertson, by contrast, has a fairly sizeable media profile, often doing interviews and so on, but his bargain transfer fee unfairly impacts upon his image. While generally accepted to be the best left-back in the league, Robertson’s performances are rarely broken down in quite the way van Dijk’s are.
What I am trying to say is, where there have been other outstanding defensive candidates to win the PFA Player of the Year award since Terry did in May 2005, none have had the star quality which puts them at the forefront of the debate, quite like Virgil has. I hate Manchester United as much as any Kopite, but would have to admit my surprise that neither Nemanja Vidic nor Rio Ferdinand ever received the trophy.
Those two formed arguably the greatest central defensive partnership of the Premier League era, after all. Ferdinand particularly, should have been a star considering his ability, personality and transfer fee, but I do not recall him and Vidic ever being left to defend as a two because both Patrice Evra and Gary Neville were more full than wing-backs, and hence Ferdinand had less chance to create match-defining personal highlights.
Even John Terry arguably only received the award because his Chelsea team were so dominant that season, and set the aforementioned defensive record. To not give a defender the award after such a season would be ridiculous. Terry was Chelsea’s captain as well, which certainly aided his cause.
Van Dijk’s combination of size, speed and composure make him a completely unique defender. Koulibaly, Varane and maybe Samuel Umtiti can almost compete, but don’t quite excel in all three categories in the way Liverpool’s Dutch number four does. He has been the best central defender in the world so far this season.
May 2005 – The last time a defender won the PFA Player of the Season award. It would appear that van Dijk is well on his way to updating that.
December 2006 – That’s the last time a defender won the Ballon D’Or when Fabio Cannavaro took home the award. If Virgil van Dijk can carry Liverpool to a first league title in 29 years, and then maybe captain the Netherlands to success in the inaugural Nations League play-offs, he may well have a very good chance to win the most prestigious individual award of all.