Jurgen Klopp’s Liverpool are through to their second UEFA Champions league final in two years with a stunning 4-0 victory in the second leg of the semi-final against Barcelona.
Since the German took charge of the Reds back in 2015, Liverpool have been known to play free-flowing football. Goals have come in abundance, however, the defending was often criticised. Liverpool had, under Klopp, developed a reputation of a team with a leaky back-line, conceding far too many goals for a team that could genuinely compete for titles.
Solution - Virgil Van Dijk
Midway through the 2017-18 campaign, Liverpool lost, arguably their talisman and best player, Phillipe Coutinho. However, this was the sale that financed the arrival of Dutch defender, Virgil Van Dijk. Arriving from Southampton for a fee close to 70 million pounds, Van Dijk arrived at the club as the most expensive defender in world football.
Since his arrival, Liverpool have now made it two Champions League finals and assured themselves of at least a second place finish in the Premier League for the current campaign.
For a team that had developed a reputation for conceding goals, Liverpool have lost just one match this entire season, conceding only 22 goals with one game to play. This, change can not be put down to just one player, but Van Dijk is certainly the missing piece of the puzzle, Klopp needed.
A leader on and off the pitch, Van Dijk is not only a complete player, but also has the ability to make those playing around him better. His organisational skills are second to none, with him being one of the most vocal players on the pitch, making him not only a favourite amongst the team members but also the fans.
With an immense aerial presence, Van Dijk is Liverpool’s main target on set pieces, both while attacking and defending. His effect on the team has led to three of the four defenders in the Professional Footballers' Association’s (PFA) team of the year being from Liverpool.
Van Dijk has led the Reds back-line, claiming 19 clean sheets in the domestic league this season.
One of the most startling stats from the season is that no player from the Premier League has managed a single dribble past the towering defender according to Opta. Van Dijk also has the Premier League’s best duel winning rate (Players with at least 100 duels), winning 77% of the duels he has been involved in.
Liverpool has an average of 2.32 points game with Van Dijk in the team and an average of 1.98 points per game when he is not part of the team.
Set pieces were one of Liverpool’s main weaknesses before the Dutchman’s arrival. He has now sorted that aspect of the game by making over 100 aerial clearances this season and over 400 of them since he joined the club in January 2018, according to Premier League’s official statistics. So, he can surely be deemed to be the ‘Flying Dutchman 2.0’.
Van Dijk vs Sterling
There have been two stand out players in the Premier League this, season Van Dijk for Liverpool and Raheem Sterling for Manchester City. They have been battling it out for the top honours for individual awards as well. They have both been nominated for the Premier League Player of the Year award.
But, Van Dijk winning the PFA Player of the year award has shattered the trend as he became the second defender to win the award since John Terry (2005). This does raise the question, which aspect of the game is more appreciated. It might be the attacking players, who have won the award more often, but players such as Van Dijk and Terry do make us appreciate the art of defending.
If Liverpool are to lift silverware at the end of this campaign, Van Dijk certainly makes it to the shortlist for FIFA’s Best award and also the coveted Ballon’dor award – Fabio Cannavaro being the last defender to win the award.
Few players have managed to endear themselves to Anfield faithful in a manner that Van Dijk has done. His presence has been lauded by his teammates and opponents alike.
Watford captain Troy Deeney has said, “I hate going up against him. He’s too big, too strong, too quick, too good on the ball.”
Liverpool will be looking to finish with at least one trophy in what has been one of the most historic seasons in the trophy-rich history of the club and certainly Van Dijk will be the most important cog in the wheel.