By Daniel Moxon – @dmoxon_
There have been some excellent players among Liverpool’s ranks in this breathtaking season so far, but the general consensus is that none have been more important than Virgil van Dijk.
The Dutchman arrived at Anfield in January 2018 for a world record fee for a defender, so there was always going to expectation surrounding his performances on Merseyside, but very few could have predicted just how much of an impact he would have.
In recent history, Liverpool’s defence has been (in)famously… leaky – Martin Skrtel and Daniel Agger, for example, were good but not Premier League-winning defenders, while the likes of Sotirios Kyrgiakos, Sebastian Coates and Martin Kelly were downright awful.
Current incumbents Dejan Lovren and Joel Matip have their moments – they certainly have improved when playing alongside the former-Celtic man – but they have never really convinced and will never be fully trusted by the fans.
But now, van Dijk has arrived from Southampton and, in little more than a year, has played a starring role in transforming a malleable and unconvincing defence into a rock-solid unit.
Partnership with Joe Gomez
After an upturn in form at the back end of the 2017/18 season, along with a World Cup final appearance with Croatia, we all expected Lovren to return to Merseyside and take his place alongside Virgil at the heart of the Liverpool defence.
This may have been Jurgen Klopp’s plan but, after his exploits in Russia, he needed a rest and so would miss the opening few games of the new Premier League season. Enter, Joseph Dave Gomez.
The 21-year-old, previously eligible for Gambia through his father, is now a full England international but missed the tournament through injury – he will have been devastated, but it turned out to be a stroke of good fortune for his club career.
Alongside, van Dijk, he formed the meanest, stingiest and most impassible defensive partnership in the Premier League, with the pair conceding a meagre five goals in the 15 games in which they played together before his ankle injury sustained at Turf Moor in early December.
Sadly, the former-Charlton man has remained on the injury table ever since after a number of setbacks, meaning that we as fans have been deprived of seeing this glorious defensive masterpiece in action for the last few months,
And, with the duo separated, there is a measurable difference in the effectiveness of the defence – in the 15 matches (including Burnley) that Gomez has been sidelined, the Reds have shipped twice as many goals.
This is still not at all bad, and Liverpool still have by far the best defensive record in the league, testament to Virgil’s continued presence at the heart of the defence, and also…
Ability to improve others around him
I alluded to this earlier – ever since his arrival on Merseyside, van Dijk has the presence and commanding nature to be able to give confidence to those around him and improve their individual performances which, of course, benefits the team as a whole.
Dejan Lovren was the first to benefit from this in the latter half of last season, when he was able to play without so much pressure and almost relax, which led to him making much fewer mistakes and being able to take that newfound lease of life into the World Cup.
It has been a similar story generally when he has played so far this term – a poor game against Manchester City aside – and Joel Matip has also been uncharacteristically calm and assured when he has played too, as opposed to his usual gangling, ‘spider wearing roller skates’ appearance.
Perhaps it is too late for them at Liverpool – Lovren is 30 and has never fully has the fans’ trust, while Matip hasn’t ever really held down a regular starting spot, but it is still certainly a huge benefit to the development of Gomez and anyone else who may come in during the summer (first-choice being Virgil’s international teammate Matthijs de Ligt).
The breakdown – including THAT stat
It’s only when you really start to look into his stats surrounding his performances for Liverpool that you see just how vital Virgil is for Jurgen Klopp’s side.
Obviously, teams at the top of the table that like to play with a lot of possession, like Liverpool, have to defend a lot less than others may have to, so defenders from top teams never really produce a high number of tackles or interceptions, because they generally don’t need to.
Still, Virgil manages one of each per game, and only gives away, on average, two fouls every five games in the Premier League, showing that he does what he needs to do with assurance and usually within the laws of the game.
But the one that people noticed a couple of months ago, and is INCREDIBLY still intact, is the fact that not one player has, at any point, dribbled past him in either the Premier League or the Champions League during this campaign.
We are in the middle of February, the 27-year-old has played 34 games, and in none of them has he allowed anybody to dribble past him.
This is made all the more impressive when you consider the high number of pacey, technical players that he plays against on a weekly basis – he has faced the likes of Raheem Sterling, Leroy Sane and Eden Hazard to name only a select few, and none have been able to best him in this manner.
It was most noticeable at Molineux in December, when Adama Traore – not a world-class player but famed for his explosiveness and raw speed and power – appeared to have the run on him down the right wing, but the domineering Dutchman just stood his ground and stopped the Spaniard in his tracks.
All it showed was that Virgil’s greatest weapons are his positioning, his concentration, and his belief in his own ability.
He consistently has the awareness to be in the place where he is needed most and has the skills and the physique to halt even the most dangerous of opposition attacks, and could be the difference that might earn the Reds some silverware at the end of the season.