From being undeniably the best centre-back in world football and finishing second in the Ballon d’Or to getting dropped by 34-year-old Ivan Perisic, it’s been quite a ‘fall’ from grace for Virgil Van Dijk. I use the word fall partly in jest because the Dutchman is still clearly world-class and one of the best centre-backs in world football. Yet, there is obviously a difference between the man mountain he was in 2018-2019, to the mortal he is now. He gets dribbled past, he is sometimes out of position, and he seems allergic to blocking anything inside the box. I guess the question is, what happened to Virgil?
At the peak of Van Dijk’s powers, there were some calls from the Twitterverse calling him the best centre-half in history. I am sure football Twitter had seen Paolo Maldini, Franco Baresi and Fabio Cannavaro all at their peak and came to this rational conclusion. Ignoring Twitter’s habit of extremes, in my opinion, he was certainly the best centre-half I had ever seen. He was playing in an extremely high line, was able to play 70-yard diagonal passes to the right-wing like his last name was Pirlo and was never dribbled past. Seriously, for 50 games in the 2018/2019 season, no one could get past this Dutch Destroyer.
I know it sounds weird to talk about the downfall of a player who is still arguably one of the best in the world in his position, but those are the standards that Van Dijk had set for himself at Liverpool. The first point I must add is that ex-Celtic man did suffer from an ACL injury which cut his 2020-2021 season short. This was from a horror tackle by Jordan Pickford who planted his studs on an unaware Van Dijk and thus ruled him out for an entire season. But then again, this was Virgil. He had outpaced Adama Traore, stifled many wingers and shut down strikers from all over the world. It just seemed natural that he would be the same when he came back.
Yet, unlike what he showed us at Liverpool, he was in fact, human. He always had a reactive style of defending. Instead of taking everyone out and leaping to a tackle, he was calm and measured in how he defended. He prefers jockeying and matching attackers’ stride patterns and then using his body to ultimately dispossess attackers. Due to the ACL, he is not as quick-footed as he was beforehand, meaning he can get beat more 1 v 1 like the recent dribble by Perisic, in which Van Dijk got sat down and Perisic then assisted Harry Kane. (You can see this here).
This calm and measured style of defending then quickly turned into passiveness inside the box. Van Dijk has been praised for his imperious and patient style of defending. But there are times as a centre-back when you have to go gung ho and chuck yourself at attackers taking shots inside the box. On too many occasions last season, Van Dijk has not done so, and it seems like he is the rare case of a centre-back who is much better at defending 30 yards from the goal than he is defending inside his own box.
For example, against Manchester United, Jadon Sancho was able to take not 1, not 2, not 3, but 5 touches inside the box before he scored past Alisson. Van Dijk stood only a few metres away and was just hunching over with his hands behind his back. He was attempting to block the shot and when the United man did shoot, he half-heartedly put a leg out and Sancho scored. Yet, in that situation, he should’ve gone toward Sancho and stopped him from taking so many touches.
Now compare this to Ruben Dias, the heart of treble-winning Manchester City. In the Champions League tie against Bayern Munich, he blocked a sure-fire goal by Jamal Musiala by stretching his legs out and blocking the German’s shot. In a game against Chelsea earlier this season, he also came out of nowhere and blocked a 1 v 1 between Mateo Kovacic and Ederson. Thus, sending the Croatian’s shot wide.
I am not saying Ruben Dias is better than the Dutchman, but Van Dijk’s passiveness inside the box has cost Liverpool this season. His aversion to putting a foot in inside the box (I realise how English I sound but bear with it) has allowed attackers to get shots off, whereas Ruben Dias’s outright refusal to give attackers any space provided the steely foundation City’s treble was built on.
If Liverpool fans are reading this, they would be fair in accusing me of nitpicking. A more than fair argument could be made that I am. But you must understand, he was THE most dominant defender that world football had seen in years. In a period dominated by goals and assists, attackers and stats, a centre-back stood out. He was the PFA’s Player of the Year, UEFA Men’s Player of the Year and he was insanely close to winning a Ballon d’Or. Only coming 2nd to the greatest ever, Messi. I’m not going to say he is a shell of himself because he is not, but will he reach those levels again? Post ACL? The pessimist in me says no.
However, the fault is not completely Van Dijk’s. It is no secret Liverpool’s midfield has needed reinforcements for years. With Fabinho’s and Jordan Henderson’s legs drying up as well as FSG’s pockets until this summer, the Dutchman had no protection in front of him. Too often he and his centre-back partner were left in precarious 1 v 1 situations all season. This led to him being dragged out of position and being beaten more often.
Liverpool has reinforced the midfield this summer with Alexis MacAllister and Dominik Szoboszlai. In there, there is a lot more energy and defensive nous to help with Liverpool’s counter-press and push the team further forward. In theory, this should help Van Dijk as it will see a return to the high line which worked so well for Liverpool and himself over the last few seasons.
From Champions League finalists to Europa League contenders. From 99-point finishes to finishing outside the top 4, the fall from grace Liverpool had last season was a shock to the system. Nevertheless, with Klopp’s new system and new midfield signings, things are feeling optimistic around Merseyside. All of this points to a good season for Liverpool and Van Dijk. If the Dutchman was to perform anywhere back to his imperious best, then I’d even go so far as to say that another title challenge may be brewing. Now wouldn’t that silence all his doubters?
By: Abu Yasin / @abuy2j
Featured Image: @GabFoligno / Visionhaus – Getty Images