Jack Hallows looks at why Liverpool seem to only be pursuing Virgil van Dijk, despite desperately needing improvements at the back.
We live in a world where Liverpool have conceded four goals in their opening two games of the season, yet Jürgen Klopp is still *publicly* insistent that we don’t need any more defensive upgrades.
Now, we know that this is realistically all for show otherwise, why would he have targeted Virgil van Dijk in the first place?
If the manager is so happy with Dejan Lovren, Ragnar Klavan and Joe Gomez being his options to partner Joël Matip in what will hopefully be his first Champions League campaign with Liverpool, why would he have made such efforts to sign the Dutchman back in the Spring
It does seem a little bizarre that despite tentative links to the likes of Stefan De Vrij and Kalidou Koulibaly, the club aren’t actively targeting any alternatives, especially given how confident Southampton are they will not sell.
So, what is it about Virgil van Dijk that makes him so special?
The short-answer is that he’s not just a centre back.
To understand what I mean by this, let’s compare our current first-choice centre back pairing of Dejan Lovren and Joël Matip for a moment.
Lovren for all his faults is very much more a classic style centre back than his defensive partner.
He goes in hard, he challenges for everything that he possibly can with head and foot and when he’s caught on a good day, he’s a rock.
In fact, it may come as a surprise to some to know that Lovren had a better aerial duel success rate than Matip in the Premier League last season, while also making more blocks and more clearances.
He’s there to defend and while he doesn’t always do it in the most glamorous of manners, it’s what he’s best at.
Matip, on the other hand, is a far more complete footballer. Meaning, for what he lacks in brawn, he more than makes up for in brain and skill.
The Cameroonian is a superb ball player and while he only finished the season with a marginally better pass accuracy than Lovren, he’s a lot more intelligent in his use of the football. He’s also a more than capable dribbler which is emphasised by some of the marauding runs he makes from deep.
Picking up the ball in the back four, he’s more than capable of breaking the defensive line and playing a one-two round advancing midfielders or sauntering into the opposition third with little fuss – he completed 10 take-ons in the Premier League last season, more than Lovren and Klavan combined.
It’s almost like playing with a defensive midfielder in the back four – which of course, would make sense given his history in the position.
This is the kind of centre half that Klopp relishes and you just have to look at how perfect Mats Hummels was for the German during their time together at Borussia Dortmund. A confident, imposing, ball-playing centre back, Hummels was the ideal man to kick start counter-attacks and ensure that Dortmund were always on the front-foot, even when defending.
Van Dijk? He’s very much got the potential to be for Klopp’s Liverpool what Hummels was for Klopp’s Dortmund.
While Matip possesses the class, skill and ability, there is still one key attribute missing that the Reds’ back four is crying out for – leadership.
As captain of Southampton, van Dijk has shown numerous times that he can both lead by example and dish out a bollocking when it’s called for. He gives 150% for his team, leaving everything on the field when he’s done.
Despite playing eight fewer games than both Matip and Lovren in the Premier League last season, the Dutchman completed more take-ons, made more interceptions and made 14 blocks – one less than Lovren and two more than Matip.
His 140 clearances, 30 tackles won and 75% aerial duel success are also highly impressive.
He’s also the perfect combination of pace, height and strength.
At face value, van Dijk looks a complete defender, a leader and an all-round footballer all rolled into one – a complete package if you will – and this is a rare commodity. There aren’t many centre backs in football who can provide all of the above and of those who can, most already play for the Bayern Munichs and Real Madrids of the world.
It’s been evident during his time at Liverpool that Jürgen Klopp is the kind of manager who will only add players who can fit his system, improve the overall quality of his squad and fill glaring requirements all in one – the signing of Mohamed Salah for example addresses last season’s lack of pace, depth in wide areas while also adding extra goals and creativity.
It’s a stubborn stance to take and if we miss out on the Dutchman, we could be left red faced but secure a target that Klopp is genuinely pining for and you know they’ll be a success.