Editor’s Column: Virgil van Dijk is back – and nobody right now gets close

Virgil van Dijk was just a few votes away from winning the Balon d’Or ahead of Lionel Messi in 2019. The Dutchman was extremely close to being named the world’s best player – let alone the best defender. The heights he reached during Liverpool’s pomp were unfathomable and probably incomparable. I’ve never seen a centre-back as good as van Dijk was between his arrival at the club and the injury sustained in 2020. He had literally everything. He was better on the ball than any other defender, physically stronger and faster and had an aura about him that literally frightened attackers from going near him.

The Jordan Pickford tackle changed things, however. He was out for 250 days with a cruciate ligament tear and he took time to find rhythm upon his return. He was very good during our pursuit of the quadruple in 2021/22, but still not at his meteoric best. Last season, he was poor and it looked like he was on the beginning of his decline.

Van Dijk was way too passive. He would wait for an opponent to make a mistake instead of defending on the front-foot, which would lead to attackers getting easy shots on goal or putting in crosses unchallenged. This style of defending is based on risk-calculation:

‘The keeper will probably save this effort if I let him have it from this angle, so I won’t risk jumping in and giving a penalty away or making the attacker more space…’

The issue was though that van Dijk simply took it too far, and was allowing attackers freedom to get into the box and shoot far too often and was simply not showing enough aggression or proactivity to snuff out attacks.

Because he’s van Dijk, he was still one of the top four or five centre-backs in the Premier League, but it appeared his aura had diminished. He was getting dribbled past. He was losing aerial battles.

I don’t know what happened during the summer before this season, but a 32-year-old van Dijk now looks as good as ever. He’s turned it around. I hadn’t written him off; he’s van Dijk after all – but it’s not often a player of his age has a poor season and then reverses his decline the campaign after.

Check out this graph from Stats Bomb. The Dutchman has basically been the very best at every aspect of defending this season. He’s in the top percentile of all the important factors, such as aerial win percentage, blocks, tackles, dribbled past, productive passing and winning the ball back. The only sections where he isn’t one of the best is dribbling out, simply because he isn’t asked to do so; and dealing with attackers pressing him (but that’s only because nobody goes near him as they know they won’t get the ball!).

As well as the stats, van Dijk is passing the eye-test as well. He looks more confident in his game and is clearly enjoying being the full-time wearer of the armband. Captaincy suits him. Liverpool have a young team and he’s stepped up in terms of his responsibility off the field, too.

On it, he is oozing that composure that made him unrivalled. His decision making has been spot on again. It might well be that a largely functioning midfield ahead of him is helping matters, but don’t forget, Liverpool are playing without a naturally battling no.6, and Alexis Mac Allister has definitely been guilty of giving the ball away with overly adventurous passing, inviting pressure onto van Dijk and his defenders. Thankfully, we have van Dijk at his imperious best, or we wouldn’t be three points off top in the Premier League and favourites for the two cup competitions we’re in.

Our performance against Luton Town will be used by many as evidence that we won’t win the Premier League. I’m not sure. We did more than enough to win the game – our striker just missed an open goal. If the game went on a few more minutes, we’d have won. But it’s fair to say that we cannot afford to drop points away from home in the manner we’ve done so far. We’ve left four points at Brighton and Luton. The Spurs defeat was a robbery, but that’s not what will cost us the title.

Many fans think Liverpool should enter the transfer market after we drop points, so the news we’re no longer after Andre Trindade has annoyed many. In fairness, we did buy four midfielders in the summer and have Stefan Bajcetic and potentially Thiago coming back, although the latter obviously cannot be relied on despite his brilliance.

I’m not too bothered what happens against Toulouse tonight, so long as we win on Sunday against Brentford, before the two-week wait ahead of the monster clash against Manchester City. Then it’s van Dijk versus Erling Haaland.

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