By Leanne Prescott Twitter – @_lfcleanne
Liverpool have boasted an ensemble of attacking talent over the last decade in the likes of Fernando Torres, Luis Suarez and Daniel Sturridge, all of whom produced incredible moments that cemented their place in Anfield folklore.
What’s been far less commonplace during that time is the presence of a reliable defence.
For all the lavish talent fans have fawned over, the other end of the field has proven to be the club’s Achilles heel. The retirement of Jamie Carragher and later departure of Daniel Agger left Liverpool without a natural leader at the back, aggregating to more individual errors and lapses in concentration. They were the architect of their own downfall.
No such remarks could be levelled at the current side.
Where once it was all about the front-men needing to score three or four to account for what might unravel in their own backyard, there is now an overall cohesion, a collective quality.
Sadio Mane, Roberto Firmino and Mohamed Salah’s cumulative 65 goals in all competitions have played an instrumental role, but of equal importance has been a vast improvement in Liverpool’s defensive structure.
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Alisson has delivered in the big moments, ensuring passage into the knockout stages of the Champions League while keeping Liverpool hot on the tails of Manchester City in the league.
Trent Alexander-Arnold and Andy Robertson have transformed problematic areas into ones of real strength with exuberant running serving as a source of creativity while Joel Matip has emerged from fourth choice centre-back to a valuable asset in Joe Gomez’s absence.
At the heart of it all, Virgil van Dijk.
Such was Liverpool’s frailties at the back in the summer of 2017 that fans clamoured for Jurgen Klopp to defer to another transfer target after the Dutchman’s failed move from Southampton.
The Reds were crying out for a centre-back, a leader to organise the chaos. Instead, Klopp remained patient, nailing his colours to the mast and waiting for his man, the man.
It’s a decision that’s paid dividends ever since.
Defenders seldom get the appreciation of their attacking compatriots, but there can be no illusions about the Dutchman’s influence, which has helped turn a defective defence into one with the best record in the division, boasting twenty clean sheets in 36 games.
An authoritative, commanding and consistent performer, the 27-year-old’s qualities at centre-back haven’t wavered despite circumstances that have seen him operate with three different partners in Joe Gomez, Dejan Lovren and Joel Matip.
In all cases, he has shone, demonstrating a flexibility and adaptability to compliment the style of his accomplice while offering valuable leadership on and off the pitch – an asset that has aided Klopp’s switch to a more pragmatic approach.
There is no longer a feeling that Liverpool need to score a flurry of goals in a game to be confident of getting anything out of it. No unbalanced, top-heavy approach that relies on the forwards to bail out defensive mishaps nor a resignation that the team will leak a goal at every turn.
Van Dijk is the fulcrum of a new era, one primed on unwavering defensive foundations. The policer, the commander, the captain without the title. He is the beating heart of Liverpool’s current renaissance.
Clinching the PFA Player of the Year award is the icing on the cake in a fantastic campaign, serving testament to the unparalleled impact he’s had since joining in January 2018.
It also means Van Dijk is the first defender to win the award since John Terry in 2005, who was only the fourth defender to do so in the last forty-years after Paul McGrath (1992-93), Gary Pallister (1991-92) and Liam Brady (1978-79).
More assured and composed than in previous years, Liverpool have become a far harder prospect to break down and beat. The deadly attacking structure that made them such a feared side is now met with an ability to weather the storms, a steeliness and grit that all top teams have.
Three games remain in the title race with a semi-final against Barcelona on the horizon and you can be sure Van Dijk’s influence and sense of calm will be instrumental in every one.
The Dutchman is the beacon of Klopp’s new Liverpool; a side who look set to challenge for the foreseeable future.
It’s of little surprise the club’s best points tally in the Premier League era and a second European semi-final in as many years have emerged after fixing their greatest Achilles heel.
By Leanne Prescott
Twitter – @_lfcleanne