Virgil van Dijk is the key to Liverpool’s push for trophies this season, writes OLIVER KEOHANE.
‘Attack wins you games, but defence wins you titles,’ Sir Alex Ferguson famously said. It is no coincidence that when Everton’s Jordan Pickford destroyed Virgil van Dijk’s knee ligaments early in 2021, he put an end to Liverpool’s hopes of defending their Premier League title.
The Reds clawed back their 2020-21 season stunningly to finish third, secure a Champions League spot and give Scousers a shining light for the following season. However, the Van Dijk-sized hole in Liverpool’s defensive line could only ever be filled with a special model, made in the Netherlands, and that model was only going to be complete with two sets of working knees come 2022.
Liverpool is locked in a thrilling title race and, despite the exploits of Mohamed Salah, Diego Jota and Sadio Mane – who were all around the top of the scoring charts this season – Liverpool’s push for glory is largely due to Van Dijk’s remarkable return to fitness.
To give some context to the importance of the Dutchman’s presence at the back, consider the following statistics detailed by The Anfield Index: Before Van Dijk’s signing, Liverpool conceded more than 40 goals a season every year since 2009-10, at times conceding 50. For the three seasons before Van Dijk’s arrival, Liverpool was conceding on average 47 goals a season.
The Dutch defender’s impact saw an immediate drop to 38 goals conceded and, a year later in his first full season at Anfield in 2018-19, Jurgen Klopp’s side secured the best defensive record in the Premier League by letting in just 22 goals. A season later, Liverpool again finished with the best defensive record, conceding 33 goals and claiming their first Premier League title in 30 years. Van Dijk played in every one of the 38 matches in both seasons, during which Liverpool kept 35 clean sheets.
Coming back from a serious injury is no easy task and there will always be doubts around how fast a player returns to his previous form if they are ever able to get back there at all. Van Dijk has returned with ease considering the severity of the injury to his anterior cruciate ligament.
It is tough to make an argument for a more effective defensive centre back in the world, but the Dutchman’s impact is more than just in the tackle. He regularly hits long balls for right-back Trent Alexander-Arnold behind the defence and has also found Mo Salah on numerous occasions with balls over the top.
It’s as if one is observing some sort of performance art every time Van Dijk knocks a high long pass. His service from the back and middle-left of the field allows for Liverpool’s high-line attack in a way that many didn’t appreciate until his 302-day absence from the halls of Anfield. Virgil van Dijk is an enigma.
Yes, his frame and physical abilities put him in a rare bracket of defenders but he is also tactically one of the best around. He is always moving the ball when he’s in possession, he ushers players into weak positions on defence, reads the game outstandingly, makes multiple interceptions and feeds the frontline with superb service.
Van Dijk is a defensive giant but also a leader and tactician with one of the coolest temperaments in topflight soccer. His return to the Premier League has resurrected Liverpool’s title hopes and there can be no question that he and his team are back to their best.