How important is Virgil van Dijk to Liverpool?

Joe Prince-Wright
NBC Sports

Roy Keane. Michael Jordan. Mark Messier. Tom Brady. Virgil Van Dijk.

Every great team has a great leader driving it on, demanding high levels day in, day out and raising the bar so high than even their incredibly talented teammates get nowhere near reaching it. They may not be the most gifted players technically but there’s something about them, an aura and confidence they exude which makes everyone around them feel unstoppable.

Scroll to continue with content
Ad

That is what makes them, and their teams, so great.

Virgil van Dijk and this current Liverpool team well and truly slot into that category as he is the driver of one of the greatest teams in sporting history who sit 22 points clear at the top of the table and can win the PL title at the earliest point in history.

The way in which they are calmly but mercifully dismantling every team that comes their way reflects VVD’s relaxed relentlessness. They are on track to go the entire 2019-20 Premier League season unbeaten (24 wins from 25 games so far) while setting records for the most wins and points secured in a single season and are closing in on Arsenal’s record of 49 PL games unbeaten.

Jurgen Klopp‘s entire team deserve praise but Virgil van Dijk deserves the most.

Jordan Henderson is the captain who has taken his game to new levels, Alisson‘s heroics in goal aren’t under-appreciated, two British full backs have developed into world-class talents and the front three speak for themselves. But Van Dijk kicked Klopp’s project onto the next level as soon as he arrived at Anfield.

Don’t be fooled by Van Dijk’s delightful flicks, masterful long-range passes, elegant stride and beautifully cushioned headers. He is not here to chillax. He is at Liverpool to win. If you watch Virgil van Dijk for the first time, it is like watching a U18 player in a U12 league. He is quicker, stronger and smarter than every other player on the pitch.

Perhaps the only other signing in Premier League history to have more of an impact, on the pitch and off it, than Van Dijk is Eric Cantona. There is a relaxation and likeable arrogance about both individuals. Yes, Cantona was out there and still is, but the way his arrival kicked on a very good United team to one which became a dynasty was both subtle and dominant. Van Dijk’s arrival in January 2018 had the same impact at Liverpool.

Liverpool’s previous laughably shaky defense suddenly had a new leader, one who demanded the best each and every time they stepped out on the pitch. Van Dijk does not suffer fools gladly. He has work way too hard from Groningen to Celtic and then to Southampton to get to this point and not make the most of it.

Since he arrived at Liverpool from Saints just over two years ago for a then world-record fee for a defender of $100 million they have lost just four games in the Premier League. They have finished fourth then second, won the Champions League and are on the verge of a record-breaking Premier League title in 2019-20. He was also runner up in the Ballon d’Or voting for 2019 (the last defender to win that title was Fabio Cannavaro in 2006), was the man of the match in the UCL final, has become the captain of the Dutch national team as their incredible resurgence under Ronald Koeman continues and simply put the last two years could not have gone any better for him.

When you speak to Virgil van Dijk you start to understand why he is achieving all of this. He looks into your eyes as if he’s searching for your soul to see if you are worthy of his time. At least, that’s what it feels like. With a laugh and a quick quip in his fluid Dutch accent which is almost as smooth as his play on the pitch, he calms down every situation but doesn’t waste a word with his answers. Ruthless. Efficient. Classy.

“Everyone can have their opinion, have their say on the situation we are in right now but we all know that we as a group, everyone who is involved at Melwood, we are not getting carried away,” Van Dijk told Pro Soccer Talk after his header set Liverpool on their way to a big win against bitter rivals Man United at Anfield last month. “The second part of the season just started and we all know anything is still possible. The good thing is that we have that mentality that we just focus on one game at a time.”

There is that focus and that drive from Van Dijk which you can see during and after games. He isn’t one for over-celebrating and can often be seen throwing his arms in the air in disdain when a loose pass is played or a mistake is made by one of his teammates. But the other side to him is that he is a total team player, one who lavishes praise on his teammates and can easily switch off as he’s often seen smiling and joking and enjoying time with his family and daughters in the tunnel area at Anfield after the full time whistle.

From a statistical point of view, Virgil van Dijk is very, very good but his numbers do not actually place him as being head and shoulders above other Premier League center backs like you might think.

Neal Thurman, the Fantasy Premier League Expert/Editor for our partners Rotoworld.com, breaks down Van Dijk’s numbers which add further fuel to the fire that his mentality and the aura he has perhaps outweighs how he actually plays on the pitch.

Take it away, Neal…

When you look at the numbers on the surface, Virgil Van Dijk doesn’t appear to be exceptionally dominant. Very good, yes. Historically exceptional? That takes a bit more work to uncover.

When you dig into deeper statistics that describe a defender’s activity on the pitch – things like interceptions, tackles won, clearances, and aerial duels won – you see a player who is among the league leaders but not one who is dominant in the way that N’Golo Kante was in his pomp at Leicester City.

Here’s a list of the league leaders in those defensive stats:

Player

Team

Matches Played

Interceptions

Tackles Won

Clearances

Aerial Duels Won

Combined per Match

James Tarkowski

Burnley

25

43

23

130

124

12.8

Harry Maguire

Manchester United

25

42

19

93

117

10.84

Virgil Van Dijk

Liverpool

25

26

12

119

116

10.92

Ben Mee

Burnley

25

37

19

122

111

11.56

Jack O’Connell

Sheffield United

26

31

17

121

100

10.34

The notion that all of these defensive actions are necessarily equal in value isn’t the point of the exercise but rather to point out that, by the raw numbers, Virgil Van Dijk is among the best center backs in the Premier League but not necessarily a dominating force.

The “eye test” tells us otherwise so we have to dig a little deeper and perhaps the way to do that is to layer on the concept of style of play and the resulting opportunity for a center back to take defensive actions.

Simply put, James Tarkowski, Ben Mee, and Jack O’Connell have a lot more opportunity to make interceptions, win tackles, clear the ball, and win defensive aerial duels because their opponents have the ball a lot more. Time of possession stats have their own challenges but, in this case, judging this by the number of passes each team completes is ideal because any pass made is an opportunity for a defender to intervene.  What the numbers show us is that Liverpool enjoy just under 61% of possession while Sheffield United only have the ball 43.5% of the time and Burnley even less at 40.4% (Manchester United are less ball dominant but closer to Liverpool at 56.5%).

If you want to get a sense of how dominant Virgil Van Dijk is, think about the fact that he is putting up statistics equivalent to the other statistical leaders in the league in defensive statistics with only two thirds the opportunities to make those interventions. If you corrected for possession, Van Dijk’s would be in the range of 16 to 17 defensive contributions per match which would better approximate his dominance as a center back.

So, there you have it. In a team which doesn’t have to defend that often because they are so good going forward, Van Dijk still ranks among the Premier League’s best center backs.

He leads the Premier League with more completed passes (2,051) than any other player this season and the Dutchman had an incredible run of not being dribbled past for 49 Premier League games up until the start of this season.

All of this adds to his aura and there is almost an acceptance of defeat among strikers who now come up against him. They don’t try and dribble past or him or challenge him in the air or try to run behind him because they think and probably know, and for good reason, that he will win that duel.

Virgil van Dijk’s importance to Liverpool cannot actually be measured. The stats show he is an extremely good defender but they can’t measure how big of an impact his mentality, self-confidence and ability to lead others has had on the Liverpool players, staff and even the fans.

When we asked him about Liverpool’s impressive defensive record, the best in the PL which has led to 11 one-goal wins this season, VVD is quick to praise his teammates.

“Everyone is involved in that,” Van Dijk says humbly without hesitation. “We have a fantastic goalkeeper, the full backs doing their jobs, the midfielders and then obviously it starts up front. It is a collective thing but as a defender we are very pleased to keep clean sheets because I think with us, if we keep a clean sheet there is a big chance to win the game. It is a good feeling.”

Simply put: Liverpool have never struggled to score goals but keeping them out was the problem. VVD has fixed that.

A future Ballon d’Or winner, Van Dijk has the potential to go down in history as one of the all-time great center backs and he has already become a Liverpool legend in just two years at the club.

That is so tough to do at such an esteemed, historically successful club. Think about all of the legends which have pass through Anfield and Van Dijk is already among them.

The Song Liverpool fans have for him (to the tune of Dirty Old Town) and chant time and time again sums up his importance and he seems to almost feed off the lyrics as a calming influence in possession and a dominant force at both ends of the pitch.

He’s our center half,
He’s our number four,
Watch him defend,
And we watch him score,
He’ll pass the ball,
Calm as you like,
He’s Virgil van Dijk,
He’s Virgil van Dijk.

What to Read Next