Player Review: Virgil Van Dijk - Catalyst to Liverpool's defensive improvements

Michael Baddeley reviews Virgil van Dijk’s debut season in a Liverpool shirt and says the Dutchman has been the catalyst for improvement at the back.

Last summer I was crying out for Liverpool to sign Virgil Van Dijk, so when the news broke that the Dutchman had his heart set on a move to Merseyside I was over the moon with excitement.

Then came that whole tapping up fiasco. It was the most Liverpool thing that could happen. We’d finally started to look at our defensive issues, sounded out a world-class player to help out them out and then convinced him that Anfield was where his future lay. But Liverpool out Liverpool’ed theirselves by well and truly buggering it up.

I was distraught, to say the least, but I was also quietly confident that we would sign the big-man in the January transfer window – he had told Southampton that Liverpool was the only team he wanted to play for after-all.

When we finally signed him it was a statement of intent to the rest of the Premier League. Not only were we willing to wait to get the our-man, but we were willing to spend big and pay a premium to get our number one target. We aren’t playing games anymore, we mean business.

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A lot of people, mainly non-Liverpool fans, turned their nose up and made jibes at the £75 million fee we paid. But let’s be honest here, they wouldn’t have been complaining if it was them, would they? Nobody will admit it, but they were just jealous and after coming to Liverpool and completely bossing the defence, nobody has mentioned the price-tag!

 

Anyway, this isn’t an article to brag that we have the best centre-back in the Premier League, this is an article reviewing the Dutchman’s season at the club and showing you why Klopp gave the green light to such a high profile move.

Big Virgil’s first game was the Merseyside Derby in the FA Cup 3rd round, I think you all remember how that one went! If you don’t then I’ll remind you. Throughout the 90 minutes, he dominated in his aerial duels, won most of his duels on the ground, commanded the back four when needed and then scored a late winner at the Kop end. Not a bad debut, huh?

When you look at the defensive record for the first few games it wasn’t really great reading for the side or Virgil. In the first four games that he played the Red’s didn’t keep a clean sheet. In fact, they conceded six goals in those four games.

But since then the defender has gone from strength-to-strength.

Ironically, his first clean sheet came against Southampton, a game which turned out to be a hostile atmosphere for the defender, but that didn’t faze him. In fact, he seemed to relish it and was even seen laughing at the reception at one point. He bossed it right from the off and from then on Liverpool’s defence has improved a lot, you could say it was a real turning point back there.

Including that Southampton game, van Dijk has played every game since and helped Liverpool keep 10 clean sheets in the process. This is in all competitions by the way!

For a centre-back, his passing is magnificent. Whether it’s a short 10 yard pass or a long 70 yard pass, the defender usually find his man. In fact, out of the 1,770 passes he’s made he’s found his man 88.4% of the time. He’s won 139 aerial duels out of the 190 he’s attempted which works out at 73.2%, he’s also won 188 of his 260 duels which works out at 72.3% of his duels this season, a percentage which is actually the highest of any other player during the campaign.

The stats don’t lie, Virgil is the complete centre-back. He can pass, he’s good in the tackle and he’s dominant in the air. The boy can literally do everything and is proving he is the most complete centre-back in the league.

You can see from the improved performances of players such as Lovren and Karius how much of an impact he has on the whole team. You could even argue he has played an important role in the fantastic form of Jordan Henderson since the turn of the year.

A calming and commanding figure like Virg gives everyone in the side so much more confidence and that is evident in the defensive efforts from the side.

The big Dutchman has only been here for four months but is such an integral part of the team. I’m not going to pin all our good form down to one person, but you have to question whether Liverpool would have ever got to the Champions League final or even finish in the top four if he wasn’t in the side.

The away leg against Man City – would we have ridden that storm in the first half or would we have crumbled? Would we have stayed so calm when Roma put on all that pressure in the first 20 minutes of the first leg? The header he made against West Brom to stop Rondon from having a free shot at goal, would that have gone in and ended up losing to West Brom and ultimately causing a lot more panic in the race for top four?

Unfortunately, the big Dutchman couldn’t help lead the club to Champions League glory, but he and Dejan were fantastic in the final and were barely threatened by the forward line of Benzema and Ronaldo. Obviously, nobody could stop Bale’s first goal, but the two were exceptional and can hold their heads high after their performances.

We really could have had a poor second-half of the season without him. As I said before though, I’m not going to pin all our fortunes on him, but he has clearly been an integral part.

It’s crazy to think he’d only joined in January when you look at his influence. His influence to the team has been that crucial that there is already calls for him to become club captain. It might be harsh on Henderson as he has also had a great second half to the season. But if Fabinho is coming in to take Hendo’s spot then Van Dijk should definitely be the guy to take on the armband!

In terms of his defensive partner going into next season, Lovren has been fantastic alongside him but I often find myself imagining him alongside another world-class defender. Van Dijk and another top defender in that back-line with the attack that Liverpool possess would do some serious damage to teams.

We’ll leave that for another conversation though. Lets just sit back and enjoy the master-classes he puts on week in, week out!

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