When Jurgen Klopp and his backroom team failed to sign Van Dijk from Southampton in the summer of 2017, they didn’t bother to pursue another player. They knew there was no defender close to his level. Six months later the Dutchman arrived anyway, albeit with a hefty £75m fee, the highest ever paid for a defender.
He’s been worth every penny.
Signs of his influence are everywhere you look. In 2017/18, Liverpool shipped a goal per Premier League game; this year the figure has been cut in half. There are no more defensive errors, no cheap set-piece goals, no hoofs upfield that they fail to avert. The backline was long seen as the weakness under Klopp, but right now not even Manchester City can claim to defend as well as Liverpool do.
Other factors have driven the improvement. Alisson has impressed in goal, Andy Robertson looks transformed and Klopp seems to have tightened up some loose screws in the team shape. The sale of Philippe Coutinho has made the midfield more solid.
Yet rarely has a player bolstered a team so quickly. Liverpool no longer fold under pressure; they can weather storms away on cold and windy nights. Setting the tone for that has been Van Dijk, whose pace enables Klopp to set a high line, and whose powerful 6ft 4in frame helped him win the highest percentage of duels in the league last season.
5 - Top players for duel success rate in the 2017-18 Premier League (min. 250 duels):72.3% - Virgil van Dijk ()71.9% - Kurt Zouma ()67.9% - Jan Vertonghen ()66.7% - James Tarkowski ()66.7% - Jamaal Lascelles ()Solid. May 14, 2018
Above all, Van Dijk has spread composure. Any defender winning his duels without commiting fatal errors would have been an upgrade for Liverpool, in truth, but the Dutchman does more: he directs and instructs. Others seem to play better around him. Liverpool players voted for him as the third-choice captain behind Jordan Henderson and James Milner this year, and Ronald Koeman has already given him the armband for his national team.
About the only thing Van Dijk hasn’t done for Liverpool is score a league goal – a curiosity given that he has two goals in his last three games for the Netherlands. But the goal on his debut against Everton in the FA Cup goes some way to make up for it, and as long as he keeps playing the way he is, nobody at Anfield will be complaining.
“Has he been everything I expected?” Klopp asked himself this month. “Yeah, absolutely.”
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