‘Ruler of the defence. He does everything with disarming ease, never giving the impression of being in trouble. A giant closes, anticipates and the headed balls are all his….’
This is how an Italian outlet described Virgil van Dijk in their Player Ratings piece following Inter Milan 0-2 Liverpool on Wednesday evening.
And it certainly isn’t hyperbole. The Dutchman was beyond imperious at the San Siro, limiting an impressive opponent to zero shots on target. The manner in which he burst past Edin Dzeko, who at the time was through on goal, to simply shepherd the ball into the path of Alisson, was a highlight; but in reality he made much more difficult bits of defending look even easier throughout the 90 minutes.
Van dijk just makes it look so easy. pic.twitter.com/WaDivy3L5D
— ⁶⁶ (@TrentSZN__) February 16, 2022
In Liverpool’s past eight games, in which van Dijk has played every second, only two goals have been conceded. Quietly, we’re starting to put up the defensive numbers required of title challengers and sides that can win major cup competitions.
At the beginning of the campaign, before Christmas, we were actually conceding at the same rate as 2020/21; when the likes of Jordan Henderson, Ozan Kabak, Nat Phillips and Rhys Williams interchanged partnerships at the back due to the absence of van Dijk, Joel Matip and Joe Gomez.
Even with that trio, plus the incredibly astute signing of Ibrahima Konate, Liverpool looked defensively poor in the first half of this season; which is why we threw away winning positions against Manchester City, Brentford, Brighton, Spurs and Chelsea.
But last weekend at Burnley, we showed an ability to snuff out a game – to make it boring – to solidify the backline and slow down the tempo. With our frontline, we’re always going to score goals, so with the defence reassured and van Dijk back to his pre-injury levels, racking up a relentless succession of wins looks far more likely.
Liverpool are on a seven-game winning run and play six of the next eight games at Anfield. Remember, the last time van Dijk lost a Premier League game at Anfield, he was playing for Southampton five years ago. The home support, at times this season, has been poor – but it’s vital that changes and fans ride the wave of our current form to create a sense of excitement and inevitability.
After all, we’re in a position where we’re fighting for four trophies. This could be the greatest season in the club’s history if everything goes to plan.
Van Dijk is now showing no signs of lethargy or mistrust in his body. He seems to have rediscovered his jaw-dropping top speed and his naturally superb positioning is helping Liverpool lead Europe in offsides won.
Lautaro Martinez saw Virgil van Dijk and forgot which way the goal ispic.twitter.com/WBEs0X4zqE
— The Tactical Times (@Tactical_Times) February 17, 2022
Much of the heart in mouth moments fans endure during matches are actually two or three yards offside – and we’d get far more credit for our defensive organisation if the assistants simply put their flags up a little earlier.
Last weekend, Match of the Day actually chose to use offside clips as part of their highlights package to demonstrate how Burnley got in behind our defence! They really didn’t.
Jordan Henderson will be in and out of the starting XI until the summer, given the emergence of Harvey Elliott as competition for the role on the right of Fabinho. So often, van Dijk will wear the armband. Who knows if one day it will be his permanently or if Hendo will hand the baton straight to Trent Alexander-Arnold…?
But van Dijk’s leadership, presence and composure is statesman-like. He quietly worked his way back to his imperious best and at the crucial part of the campaign, it seems we’ve got the iconically freakish version of the 30-year-old back. There is no other centre-back on planet earth who comes anywhere close – and van Dijk knows that.
Most players attempting to fight back from the kind of injury Virgil van Dijk had last season get more injuries and setbacks, but this guy is a giant. Best defender in the world #LFC pic.twitter.com/mEaC8WJC9J
— Kevin Palmer (@RealKevinPalmer) February 17, 2022
Alongside van Dijk on Wednesday was Konate, who remarkably, has yet to lose a game for Liverpool.
The Frenchman has an issue with covering runners down the channels, but aerially and physically he’s already elite. It seems Liverpool picked the right centre-back from Rb Leipzig last summer, given how Dayot Upamecano has flopped at Bayern Munich.
Matip is better on the ball (he’s better than most midfielders, in fairness), but has looked sloppier than Konate this calendar year and for the first time, is perhaps behind him in the pecking order. Not that pecking orders are especially important given we’re in four competitions and everyone will be required at some stage.
Joe Gomez used to be van Dijk’s favourite partner, and it’s a little sad he hasn’t got a chance to reform that partnership this season, but providing the Dutchman is in the starting XI, it doesn’t matter too much who’s alongside him. I’d still feel confident if Ben Davies was recalled, providing he started next to Virg, in fairness!
Maybe van Dijk can get a rest versus Norwich in the FA Cup 5th Round, but it’s looking more likely that he’ll ‘play out’ the season. His languid style enables him to play game after game and he appears in his complete physical prime once again.
Watch out, Europe. And if Manchester City slip up, watch out Premier League!