Virgil van Dijk and Joe Gomez have emerged as Liverpool’s top pairing at centre-back, but the colossus and the kid are only just getting started.
The peerless form of Van Dijk has continued unabated this season, but over the last two months a flurry of clean sheets has coincided with the re-emergence of young Gomez alongside him.
Gomez arrived at Liverpool as something of a prodigy, with Jurgen Klopp commenting early on in his Liverpool tenure: “What a wonderful young boy, muscles in all the right places.”
Over the first four seasons of his Liverpool career his development was continually interrupted by unfortunate injuries, including an ACL in his first season and subsequent ankle and leg fractures.
The fracture suffered from Burnley’s Ben Mee last season was particularly devastating.
Speaking to The Athletic’s James Pearce recently, Van Dijk lauded Gomez’s pre-injury form of last season, saying: “I’ve been so impressed by Joe. We all saw last season, before he got injured, how good he is and how good he can be.”
Gomez went on to sum up how injuries have interrupted his ability to perform, adding: “When you aren’t playing regularly, it’s difficult to really get into a groove.
“When you are playing week in, week out it’s easier to be yourself and really express yourself.”
While he has had to bide his time, since being reunited with Van Dijk at centre-back the pair have not only found their groove; they are like band members who have finally found their muse and are now riffing along to the Merseybeat.
Since Gomez’s return to the side in the 3-0 win win at Bournemouth at the start of December, Virgil and Joe have played the full 90 minutes in 10 subsequent Premier League games, conceding just two goals.
If we add in the other full Premier League game they played earlier in the season, their goals conceded record averages out to a stingy 0.18 per game across 2019/20.
In fact, Gomez’s role as a statistical anomaly stretches beyond this season, with Opta revealing that since the start of the 2018/19 season the young defender is conceding a goal just once every 345 minutes.
But the secret of this exceptional form goes beyond the hard work they put in on the training ground, with the two forming a close personal bond.
Klopp explains: “Joe and Virg, they like each other a lot, and they can play sensationally well together.”
Indeed, the two are effusive when talking about one and another, with Gomez offering: “Virg and I have a really good relationship. We click on and off the field. There’s always good communication between us. It’s a joy to play with him.”
Indeed, big Virg believes they are a positive influence on each other every day: “Joe and I try to learn from each other, not only in football but also in life.
“Playing together, we know each other’s strengths and weaknesses. We can adapt to the same situations.”
And the statistics do show how they are adapting to each other’s strengths, with Van Dijk averaging far more aerial duels won per game in the Premier League this season (4.9 to 2.2), while Gomez averages more interceptions (1.3 to 1.1).
The colossus reigns in the air, while the lither kid intercepts more aggressively on the ground.
Gomez has referred to Van Dijk as “like a big brother,” and the importance of having a role model such as the Dutchman is already bearing fruit.
In the FA Cup win over Everton, Gomez stepped up to become the defensive leader in Virgil’s absence and, dare I say it, he displayed an authority that was Van Dijk-esque.
Post-match, This Is Anfield’s James Nalton described him as “the most composed defender on the pitch.”
Indeed, eagle-eyed Reds fans spotted veteran Adam Lallana commenting on Gomez’s Instagram following the game: “I loved watching the process of you getting yourself mentally ready for this game! It inspired me!”
That day was very much a case of the apprentice stepping out of the master’s giant shadow.
Yet Gomez and Van Dijk do share one trait, which can be enhanced but can’t be taught: athletic ability.
Listing off the highest-class central defenders Liverpool have had over the last couple of decades—Hyypia, Agger, Carragher—none of them were blessed with raw speed.
Having pace allows Virgil and Gomez to cover counter-attacks and spaces in behind the full-backs when Liverpool are caught upfield.
In the 10 Premier League games following Gomez’s return to the team against Bournemouth, Liverpool have an expected goals against (xGA) rate of eight, with two expected goals conceded (xGC), which might suggest they have been lucky.
The form of Alisson has certainly helped, but the No. 1 knows that his league-leading shot-stopping rate of 87 percent this season is assisted by his defenders.
“I think the boys help me a lot on the pitch and I also say when the defender is close enough to the ball it’s difficult for the striker to kick the ball,” Alisson explained in January.
“You need to kick quickly and then you cannot produce too much quality, and this helped me a lot.”
The ability of Gomez and Van Dijk to recover and put attackers under pressure, even when the opposition has broken through the initial defensive line, undoubtedly makes Alisson’s job easier.
Yet their relationship is marked, most of all, by the potential for further improvement, as they spend more game time together and Gomez continues to grow and mature alongside the best centre-back in world football.
At times he appears a player learning the game, but it’s easy to forget Gomez is still a young man at 22, with only 60 league appearances across his first four-and-a-half seasons at Liverpool.
That he is already playing at such a high level is extraordinary.
Together, Virgil and Joe may be achieving statistical excellence, but their success is built upon a foundation of brotherly friendship.
If they continue to grow together as master and apprentice, colossus and kid prodigy, there is every reason to believe they might come to be remembered as one of Liverpool’s all-time great partnerships at centre-back.