The irreplaceable Virgil van Dijk

In December 2017, Liverpool signed Virgil Van Dijk from Southampton for a reported £75 million fee.

At the time, the signing seemed a reasonable yet overly expensive course of action.

Liverpool required the sort of defensive stability the Dutchman would provide, and it was glaringly obvious that he had outgrown Southampton and was ready to take the next step in his footballing journey.

The price tag, however, raised a lot of eyebrows, and rightly so. Prior to signing for Liverpool, van Dijk did not boast the superstar status his price tag commanded. Little did the footballing world realize that Jürgen Klopp had finally found the elusive foundation on which to build a title-winning Liverpool side.

Van Dijk’s acquisition has proven to be a bargain. He has been colossal for Liverpool Football Club, winning the PFA players player of the year award in 2019 for his outstanding performances as Liverpool narrowly missed out on the Premier League title.

Virgil Van Dijk, Liverpool
Virgil van Dijk was voted PFA Players Player of the year in 2019 for his outstanding displays in a Liverpool shirt. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED BY THE EVENING STANDARD.

Since his arrival, Liverpool have reached the UEFA Champions League final twice, winning the competition in 2019 after defeating Tottenham Hotspur 2-0 in the final where Van Dijk was named Man of the Match.

Last year, after a 30-year wait, Liverpool finally captured the one trophy that has eluded them for so long, the one that perhaps means the most, Premier League title number 19.

They did it in style as well, stomping their way to the summit of English football, and Virgil Van Dijk was an integral part of this.

Prior to van Dijk’s arrival, Klopp’s Liverpool lacked stability. They played in a slightly chaotic manner which, while entertaining to watch, wasn’t always effective. They shipped easy goals to weaker teams, often had to outscore their opposition to secure victory, and the high intensity they played with meant they often burned out towards the end of the season.

The Dutchman changed everything. His unique blend of pace, power, and passing ability gave Klopp a different, more stable option. van Dijk is the heart of Klopp’s Liverpool, not just defensively, but in its entirety. They simply cannot function properly without him.

On the 17th of October 2020, van Dijk walked off injured after a clash with Everton goalkeeper Jordan Pickford in what seemed to be a minor incident. It was later revealed that the Dutchman had sustained an anterior cruciate ligament tear which ruled him out for the rest of this season.

Liverpool have had a significant number of injuries since, but none quite as consequential as the loss of their Dutch Colossus. Liverpool with Van Dijk and Liverpool without him are vastly different, and here’s why;

Style of Play

With van Dijk in the side, Liverpool defend much better. His pace, power, and composure mean they can comfortably deploy a high line of defence. This in turn means they can press closer to the opposition goal, defending forwards rather than scampering back, a key part of their game plan.

Klopp adapted his previous gengenpressing style into a more positionally astute style, which requires less energy but is still as effective. This is all possible because of Van Dijk and his usual partner in the heart of defence, Joe Gomez.

The Dutchman is also Liverpool’s distributor-in-chief. Over the last few years, Liverpool have gone for a more direct approach, often skipping the midfield with long balls and quick switches of play to unsettle opposition defences. Van Dijk, with his exceptional passing, is the primary distributor of those long balls.

The Dutchman plays a lot of long balls from the defensive third into the final third, often into space for Sadio Mane and Mohamed Salah to run onto. This also helps Liverpool transition quickly from back to front, as in the event that the ball is lost, they can then counter-press and win the ball back deep in opposition territory.

Van Dijk’s presence also enables Liverpool’s full-backs, Robertson and Alexander-Arnold, to push higher up the pitch and look to make things happen, which has been Liverpool’s main source of creativity in recent years.

Players like Jordan Henderson and Fabinho who often drop to provide the cover for the full-backs to wander have been tasked with deputizing at Center half in the Dutchman’s absence. This has meant Alexander-Arnold and Robertson have had to be more conservative, thus hampering their ability to create chances.

Then there’s the fact that asides Henderson, Liverpool really lack leaders in the side. Van Dijk’s imposing presence, assuredness, and leadership qualities are intangible but important qualities that Liverpool sorely miss.

Essentially, Van Dijk’s absence has had a negative ripple effect on the champions, who have consequently fallen to 6th on the log in a failed title defence. However, once their Dutch Colossus is back to full fitness and form, then Liverpool should be right up in there in the title race again next year.

For now though, Jürgen Klopp will have to deal with the repercussions of losing the irreplaceable Virgil van Dijk.

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