THE RISE AND RISE OF VIRGIL VAN DIJK

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When Liverpool spent just under $100 million dollars on the Dutchman in 2018 the fee was a point of contention throughout the world of soccer. This astronomical transfer fee now seems like an absolute bargain. Van Dijk has transformed Liverpool’s defense and has emerged as one of the best defenders in soccer. Arguably, van Dijk has overtaken Salah as Liverpool’s most important player and it would not be a surprise if we see van Dijk given the captain’s armband soon.

Currently, van Dijk is the favorite to be named The Premier League’s Player of The Year, which is remarkable given that the award is usually reserved for attacking players. The last time a defender won the award was in the 2011-2012 season. In the era of attacking soccer, the fact that van Dijk is being recognized as one of the best players in the Premier League is a testament to his performances.

The most impressive aspect of van Dijk’s game is that he is a complete defender. Van Dijk has the warrior instincts of Nemanja Vidic and has the passing range of Gerard Piqué. The Dutchman is, essentially, two defender in one and his impact upon this Liverpool side cannot be underestimated.

Previous Liverpool sides were renowned for their weak defenses and were often criticized for not addressing their defensive frailties. The most successful British manager, Sir Alex Fergurson, once stated that “attack wins you games, defense wins you titles.” For years, this ethos was ignored by the Merseyside club. When Liverpool last challenged for the title, under Brendan Rogers, it was their porous defense that ended their chances of winning the title.

However, van Dijk is proving to be the missing link that Liverpool always needed. Van Dijk is having his best season as a professional. There are some characteristics that cannot be truly captured by statistics, but can be clearly seen whilst watching Liverpool play. Henderson might be the club captain, but make no mistake; van Dijk is the leader on the pitch.

Van Dijk has brought a calmness to Liverpool’s defense that has been absent since the days of Sami Hyypiä and Jamie Carragher. This calmness is also accompanied by a steeliness which has completely eradicated criticisms that used to be levelled at previous Liverpool teams. Their defense is no longer weak and porous. Liverpool’s defense has been so outstanding that they have conceded the fewest amount of goals in the Premier League this season. Even less than Manchester City who has spent over $250 million dollars on their defense.

Van Dijk’s numbers

Statistically, van Dijk has been a monster this year. He boasts an impressive successful tackle percentage of 72% and has won 78.3% of his duels. As I have said before, van Dijk is the complete defender and his passing statistics are outrageous for a centre-back. Van Dijk has an 89.6% passing accuracy meaning that he has completed 2213 of his 2470 passes.

Van Dijk is not a sideways passer as he plays a vital role in initiating Liverpool’s offence. Given the blistering nature of Liverpool’s attack, van Dijk enables the team to transition from defense into an attack at a frightening pace. It is the reason why Liverpool have been able to steamroll teams this season. Van Dijk’s recent assist for Mane’s unbelievable goal against Bayern Munich, in the Champions League, perfectly demonstrates van Dijk’s mastery over the ball.

Van Dijk’s defensive numbers are extremely impressive and rank amongst the best in the Premier League. The Dutchman averages 0.9 tackles per game, 1.1 interceptions per game, 0.5 blocks per game and a staggering 5.1 clearances per game. His defensive prowess is reflected by these statistics and further demonstrates what a force he has been on the defensive end of the pitch.

Though his defensive output has been exceptional this season there are other benefits that he brings to Liverpool that cannot be measured. He is a natural born leader and he is well respected by his teammates. Though he does not have the captain’s armband, you can tell that he is the leader when on the pitch.

Van Dijk’s positioning

When Liverpool are attacking, van Dijk is entrusted with being the final man in the defense. Van Dijk’s attributes enable him to fulfil this responsibility with ease.

The picture above shows van Dijk’s positioning when Liverpool attack. As the full-backs push up the pitch, to create space for the attackers to play within, this leaves lots of space behind the two remaining centre-backs. This means that Liverpool are vulnerable to counter-attacks where the opposition launch the ball into the spaces behind van Dijk and Matip. Cast your minds back to Manchester United’s 2-1 over Liverpool last season and you will remember that Manchester United scored their two goals by playing long-balls into the spaces behind Liverpool’s defense.

To combat this, van Dijk now plays as the final defender and does not push up the pitch as far as his defensive partner. When the opposition play long balls over Liverpool’s defense, mainly into the channels left by the full-backs who have pushed forward in attack, van Dijk has the pace needed to recover the ball. When you couple his pace with his aerial superiority you can see why he is able to excel within this role.

After last season, many feared that this year’s title race would be boring. Many fans and pundits expected Manchester City to dominate it once more. However, this has been one of the most exciting title races that one can remember. Pressure is growing on Klopp to deliver a trophy and many Liverpool fans are hoping that their team can win the league for the first time in almost 29 years.

Even if Liverpool fail to win any silverware this year, they can take solace in the knowledge that they have the caliber of defender needed to be challenging for soccer’s biggest trophies for years to come.

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