Virgil van Dijk: The perfect defender who pushed Liverpool towards the title

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Virgil van Dijk was once again a pillar for Liverpool in 2019/20, with the Dutchman further cementing his status as the best in the world in his position.

Such is Van Dijk’s reputation for dominance that on the rare occasion he does commit an error, he is more closely scrutinised than the mortals around him.

So why not get them out of the way early?

His dalliance in possession gifted Fernando Llorente a goal in the 2-0 loss to Napoli; he was caught ball-watching as Harry Kane opened the scoring in the 2-1 win over Tottenham; he was at fault for Marcos Llorente’s second in the 3-2 defeat to Atletico Madrid.

Perhaps most glaringly, it was his miscued backpass under pressure that saw Alexandre Lacazette through as Arsenal beat the Reds 2-1 in July.

But so few are these mistakes that they can be glossed over swiftly, with the deserved focus being on another best-in-the-world season from the perfect centre-back.

Virgil van Dijk, 2019/20

LIVERPOOL, ENGLAND - Sunday, July 5, 2020: Liverpool’s Virgil van Dijk during the FA Premier League match between Liverpool FC and Aston Villa FC at Anfield. The game was played behind closed doors due to the UK government’s social distancing laws during the Coronavirus COVID-19 Pandemic. (Pic by David Rawcliffe/Propaganda)

Started: 50 (All competitions)
On as a substitute: 0
Unused sub: 0
Goals: 5
Assists: 2

Overall Season Rating: 10

 

Calm as you like

LIVERPOOL, ENGLAND - Thursday, January 2, 2020: Liverpool's Virgil van Dijk (L) tackles Sheffield United's David McGoldrick during the FA Premier League match between Liverpool FC and Sheffield United FC at Anfield. (Pic by David Rawcliffe/Propaganda)

At times throughout Liverpool’s champions season, things seemed a bit too easy for Van Dijk, and his performances arguably suffered as a result early on.

Against Man City in the Community Shield, Chelsea in the UEFA Super Cup, at home to Salzburg in the Champions League and Bournemouth in the Premier League, he was ‘good’ rather than ‘great’.

But when it mattered, as the Reds produced an exceptional run of form throughout the campaign, more often than not it was Van Dijk who was dragging them through.

Southampton, Burnley, Newcastle (twice), Sheffield United (twice), Genk, City, Crystal Palace (twice), Brighton (twice), Salzburg, Leicester, Tottenham, Man United, Wolves, West Ham and Everton all witnessed genuinely top-level performances from the No. 4.

His dominance in the air, his grace on the ground, his deceptive speed both forward and back, his composure in possession and his long-range passes, his strength in one-on-ones and his intelligence and leadership hold him up above his contemporaries.

Virgil van Dijk of Liverpool celebrates the first goal in front of the Manchester Utd fans during the Premier League match at Anfield, Liverpool. Picture date: 19th January 2020. Picture credit should read: Darren Staples/Sportimage via PA Images

Van Dijk was able to shine alongside three regular centre-back partners in Joe Gomez, Joel Matip and Dejan Lovren, with his ever-presence a marker of his reliability and fitness.

He became the first outfielder to feature in all 38 league games in consecutive seasons for Liverpool since Steve Nicol in 1989, and he warranted his place for every one of those.

In August, he was named UEFA’s Player of the Year for 2018/19; in September, he made the top three in the FIFA Men’s Player of the Year; he followed that up with another campaign worthy of world-leading accolades.

He scored five goals, recording his best-ever tally in a Premier League campaign, including a double against Brighton at Anfield and another against United in the same stadium, prompting a now-iconic ‘side eye’ celebration that lands in his moments of the season.

 

Liverpool’s leader

WATFORD, ENGLAND - Saturday, February 29, 2020: Liverpool's Virgil van Dijk during the FA Premier League match between Watford FC and Liverpool FC at Vicarage Road. (Pic by David Rawcliffe/Propaganda)

When both Jordan Henderson and James Milner were absent, he wore the armband with distinction, and even when they were available he roared Liverpool through games.

This was no more apparent than when behind closed doors, when those present frequently noted how it was the Dutchman’s voice they could hear above all others.

Across Europe’s top five leagues, Burnley‘s James Tarkowski (198) was the only centre-back to win more aerial duels than Van Dijk (191); of those to contest 200 or more, none recorded a higher success rate than his 76.1 percent.

With a total of 2698, he made at least 389 more accurate short passes than any other player in his position; only five found their target with more long passes (205).

Such is his brick-wall strength at the back that Nicolas Pepe’s dribble ‘past’ Van Dijk in August went viral—he was the first player to beat Liverpool’s No. 4 on the ground in 50 games in the Premier League, and he was snuffed out by the same man soon after.

Van Dijk exudes a ridiculous confidence that is matched by his performances on the pitch.

He is undoubtedly the best centre-back in the world, and he only reinforced this with another five-star season in 2019/20.

 

Onward to more success

LIVERPOOL, ENGLAND - Wednesday, July 22, 2020: Liverpool's captain Jordan Henderson (C) celebrate with Virgil van Dijk and the Premier League trophy as the Reds are crowned Champions after the FA Premier League match between Liverpool FC and Chelsea FC at Anfield. The game was played behind closed doors due to the UK government’s social distancing laws during the Coronavirus COVID-19 Pandemic. (Pic by David Rawcliffe/Propaganda)

There is no point making sweeping predictions for Van Dijk looking ahead, as all signs point to a continued level of supremacy as Liverpool build on their success.

It is no surprise the club are eager to tie him down to a new long-term contract, despite his current deal running to 2023, as their initiative of rewarding players for their performances warrants a pay rise and an extension.

Van Dijk will be nearing his 32nd birthday by the end of the 2022/23 season, but there is no indication he would suffer a drop-off after that point.

Jurgen Klopp is aware of his importance, reflecting on his ever-present record by saying “we try to rest him but it’s difficult, really difficult,” with the ongoing issue being finding him a partner with reliable fitness.

The hope is that will be Gomez, who has struck up a strong bond with Van Dijk on and off the pitch, and Liverpool should head into 2020/21 with those two starting at the back.

For Gomez, the challenge will be solidifying his place, but for Van Dijk, there is no question he will start every game possible.


Best moment: The header against Man United.

Worst moment: A rare lapse to gift Lacazette a goal at the Emirates.

Role next season: Ever-present.

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