Article by Joel Rabinowitz
January was a strange month for Liverpool. Off the pitch, it began with jubilation as the seemingly perpetual Virgil van Dijk transfer saga finally came to a rather sudden, but successful conclusion. After the embarrassing fiasco in the summer which resulted in Liverpool issuing a public apology to Southampton, it became clear that any declarations of having “ended interest in the player” were merely pleasantries.
Van Dijk’s heart and mind were clearly on Merseyside and a £75 million offer was enough for Southampton to bid farewell to their prized asset. The Dutchman’s arrival signalled more than just the acquisition of one of the finest defenders in the Premier League, but also a huge statement of intent by Fenway Sports Group in paying up for the most expensive defender of all time to address a key weakness in Jürgen Klopp’s squad.
It also reflected the steep upward trajectory of the club in general and the strength of attraction for players in terms of wanting to be a part of this project Klopp is building, as Van Dijk remained steadfast in his determination to join Liverpool in the face of strong interest from Manchester City- a move he could so easily have made, earning vastly superior wages while also collecting a guaranteed league winners medal.
It felt like a watershed moment for Klopp, having remained resolute in his refusal to budge when it became apparent Southampton would not sell Van Dijk in the summer. He faced widespread criticism from fans and pundits alike (myself included) for refusing to compromise and look at alternative targets, instead making do with the options already at his disposal. It was an enormous risk, but one which ultimately paid dividends as he finally managed to secure his number one target- an astronomically expensive but crucial piece of the jigsaw.
Indeed, Van Dijk’s Liverpool career began in dream fashion, scoring the winner in front of the Kop on his debut to send Everton crashing out of the FA Cup. However, the departure of Philippe Coutinho to Barcelona cast a dark cloud over the mood around the club, with the decision to cash in on the Brazilian representing a major risk in terms of Liverpool’s prospects for the remainder of the season.
To compound matters, no attacking replacement was brought in, while Liverpool also found themselves eliminated from the FA Cup following a shambolic home defeat to West Brom, thus removing the most likely chance to win silverware this season. All the initial elation and fanfare following Van Dijk’s arrival had quickly dissipated, replaced by a growing sense of anxiety and frustration.
Yet here we are, just over a month later, and Liverpool find themselves sitting 3rd in the table, just two points off Manchester United at the time of writing, having all-but-secured their passage to the Champions League quarter-finals with a sensational 5-0 thrashing of Porto in their own ground. The remaining months of the season are full of optimism as Liverpool have built up a run of form which sees them in fine shape for the run-in, when this time last season they were scrapping to narrowly claw themselves over the line into fourth.
The scintillating performances of Roberto Firmino and Mo Salah in particular have been the driving force behind this run, along with a resurgent Sadio Mané, but there’s something else at play in Liverpool’s post-Coutinho evolution which might explain such impressive performances and results.
As Andrew Beasley (@BaseTunedToRed) shared on Twitter, Liverpool’s points-per-game ratio with Coutinho this season was 1.70 in 20 games, compared to 2.35 in the 20 games without Coutinho. It would be a gross oversimplification to declare that Liverpool are simply a better side without the Brazilian, but the disparity in points with and without him cannot be ignored, even if the sample isn’t large enough to draw wholesale, long-term conclusions just yet.
Even more interesting is the fact that Liverpool’s goals for and against (scored 50 and conceded 23 with Coutinho, scored 53 and conceded 24 without Coutinho) is almost identical. This might be explained by the fact Coutinho was involved in more of Liverpool’s biggest wins (e.g. the two 7-0 victories against Maribor and Spartak Moscow), but he also played in the 4-1 defeat against Tottenham Hotspur at Wembley.
It’s still too early to say whether Liverpool will benefit from the sale of Coutinho in the long run, but the evidence so far based on performances since his departure suggests that Liverpool are a more balanced side. While Coutinho was arguably the most naturally gifted individual in the squad, his presence in midfield did sacrifice some defensive solidity and structure, leaving more gaps for opposition players to exploit and consequently the defence received less protection from those in front.
While Liverpool’s midfield lacks that same degree of guile and creativity that Coutinho provided, it now appears more of a functional, cohesive unit, with any trio selected from Jordan Henderson, Emre Can, Gini Wijnaldum, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and James Milner (with Adam Lallana’s return now offering an extra option) entrusted to fulfil their defensive duties and put in the required work rate off the ball to provide the solid foundation for the attacking trio to flourish and play with freedom.
Defensively, there is a far greater assurance about Liverpool than there has been throughout the vast majority of Klopp’s tenure so far, having kept three clean sheets in the last five games in all competitions, all of which came away from home. The two goals conceded to Spurs came from a 25-yard thunderbolt and a dubious penalty, neither of which can be attributed to poor defending as such.
The midfield structure has undoubtedly contributed to this improved solidity at the back, but the impact of Van Dijk in particular is worthy of recognition, even if the Dutchman has not been absolutely inch-perfect (his header against Swansea and the questionable foul on Erik Lamela for Spurs’ equalising penalty at Anfield being prime examples).
Statistically, Van Dijk is winning 83% of his aerial duels- a better aerial record than any defender in the Premier League. From set pieces and long balls, he is imperious, drastically improving on what has long been an area opposition sides have looked to exploit when playing against Liverpool.
Physically strong, positionally intelligent and quick across the ground, he has virtually all the attributes you could possibly want in a centre half. Yet Van Dijk has already shown he is far more than just a typical centre back, with his supreme quality on the ball bringing a new element to Liverpool’s build up play.
While opposition sides will often sit deep in a compact defensive shape and make life difficult for Liverpool’s attacking players, Van Dijk is able to bypass such attempts by spraying pin-point long, diagonal passes out wide from deep positions which creates one-on-one situations and drags opposition sides out of shape. This was most notable against Porto, where Van Dijk continually delivered accurate, lofted passes to Trent Alexander-Arnold, immediately setting Liverpool on the front foot in a manner reminiscent of how Xabi Alonso and Steven Gerrard were capable of so effortlessly switching play.
There’s also the mental side to his game, which is arguably one of Van Dijk’s most impressive assets. Within the first few minutes of his debut against Everton, he was commanding the back line and telling his team mates where to be with the confidence and assurance of a player who knows what it takes to effectively organise a defence. Ever since, he has continually marshalled the back four, thus exuding a sense of calm and organisation which Liverpool’s defence has lacked ever since the days of Jamie Carragher and Sami Hyypia.
For all Van Dijk’s physical and technical attributes which make him a fine defender, his leadership qualities bring so much to a Liverpool side which has often been accused of lacking strong characters and leaders. Until recently, the left-hand side of Liverpool’s defence has been a major vulnerability, with Dejan Lovren and Alberto Moreno hardly providing a reliable rear guard, despite their respective improvements.
Now, with the ever-impressive Andy Robertson working in tandem with Van Dijk, Klopp has put in place the foundations of a defence which looks far more of a unit than before. The knock-on impact of Van Dijk’s calm and assured presence is clear to see in terms of how relaxed it makes his team mates look. Against Southampton away, where Liverpool defenders have crumbled in recent seasons, Van Dijk made a mockery of the boos and hisses coming from the home crowd as he grinned his way through 90 minutes, even taking the opportunity to glide forward into the opposition penalty area with a surging run at one point in the second-half.
He is clearly a player with enormous self-belief and the kind of strong, winning mentality Liverpool need from the player who will form the backbone of Klopp’s defence for years to come. What’s more, Van Dijk arrived at Liverpool off the back of a heavily injury-disrupted year, followed by the transfer saga which clearly had an effect on his form. Klopp is right in saying that we won’t be seeing the very best of Van Dijk until next season once he fully adapts to Liverpool’s way of playing and has a full pre-season under his belt.
That Van Dijk will only continue to improve and develop under this manager is a hugely encouraging prospect, and based his immediate impact so far, it’s easy to see exactly why Klopp was so emphatically certain that he was an essential part of the Liverpool side he’s building- and one which, with time, will be well worth the investment.
Article by Joel Rabinowitz
For more Redmen TV content including podcasts, subscriber exclusives and three new shows every week subscribe now and get your first month for FREE bit.ly/RMTVjoin