Words by Danny Brown
Because the truth is, no-one else has been within a sniff of winning the award since around Christmas time. That’s how good Van Dijk has been. Sure, the skill of Sterling, trickery of Hazard and goalscoring of Aguero have all been breath-taking at times this year – but not one player has made anywhere near the impact that big Virgil has had at Anfield this season.
Signed for a whopping £80 million (a record fee for a defender) from Southampton back in January 2018, it’s fair to say big things were always expected from VVD. The towering centre-half had impressed with his solid defending, aerial prowess and calmness on the ball during his time with Celtic and the Saints, and it was hoped he’d be the antidote to the defensive fragilities that had plagued the Reds’ in previous seasons.
Within just a few games of him joining, it was clear Liverpool had got the right man. Van Dijk made his debut on 5 January in the Merseyside Derby, becoming the first player since Bill White to score a derby goal on his debut, scoring a towering header to give Liverpool a 2-1 win. And if there’s a quicker way to become a fan favourite, we’re yet to see it.
For the rest of his debut half-season, Van Dijk went about restoring solidity and calmness to the previously chaotic Liverpool backline. Forging a strong partnership Dejan Lovren at centre back, VVD provided the strong foundation at the back for Salah and Mane to fire Liverpool into the Champions League final, being named in the tournament’s Team of the Year despite only joining at the knockout stages.
It’s this season however that the Dutchman has really proved himself as one of the best in the business. With new-signing Allison playing behind him rather than the disaster-prone Loris Karius, Liverpool have looked rock solid at the back this year and this has laid the foundation for their incredible title charge.
The stats speak for themselves, Liverpool have conceded just 20 goals all season, keeping 19 clean sheets in the process and it looks like they’ll finish the season with just a single loss next to their name. Van Dijk has obviously been at the heart of this and unsurprisingly leads the defensive charts at Anfield for clearances made, aerial battles won and interceptions made.
Other than his obvious defensive credentials, Van Dijk’s calmness under pressure and ability to make impact on the attacking side of the game has made the difference in some of the key moments for Liverpool this season. With 2,663 passes to his name, Van Dijk is the second most successful passer in the league (beaten only by Chelsea’s Jorginho), and has also has 5 goals and 4 assists to his name in all competitions.
It was Van Dijk’s volley that forced an error from Jordan Pickford in Liverpool’s win at Goodison park, allowing Divock Origi to score the vital 96th minute winner. In the 3-1 away win at Bayern Munich in the Champions League, Van Dijk set up Mane’s opening goal with a beautiful 70-yard-assist and then scored from a corner to inspire the Reds to victory.
Another massive moment came in Liverpool’s 2-1 win against Spurs earlier this month – yet another last gasp victory for the Reds that wouldn’t have been possible without a vital contribution from the big man. At 1-1 Spurs went racing through with Sissoko and Son. Isolated at the back, VVD had the awareness to cut off the obvious pass to Son, at the same time forcing Sissoko onto his weaker foot, rewarded when the midfielder skied his effort harmlessly over the bar.
Put most other defenders in the Premier League in that 2-on-1 situation, against a side with attackers as quick and deadly on the break as Spurs have, and nine-times-out-of-ten you’re getting a goal and Liverpool are behind at a vital point in a crucial match in the title race. But not with Virgil Van Dijk.
All this aside, the true influence of Van Dijk can be seen in Liverpool’s remarkable improvement over the last season-and-a-half. Finishing third in the league last year with a total of 75 points, the reds already have smashed that total this season and could potentially end on a staggering 97 points. That distance for a team to climb in just 12 months is simply amazing and it’s no coincidence that Van Dijk’s arrival came in that period.
Presently, there’s three games left to play in the league and depending on the result of the Manchester Derby tonight, Liverpool could be beaten to the post by a single point, courtesy of Manchester City. In any of other season, in any other league this Liverpool side would have already have wrapped up the trophy months ago, but that’s just an indication of the brilliance of Pep Guardiola’s City side that this thrilling title race could still go right down to the wire.
Of course, Liverpool are still fighting on the Champions League stage and there’s every chance they could get to the final again where they’d be desperate to right the wrongs they suffered in Kiev a year ago, and I’d fully back them to do it.
But whatever happens, Van Dijk looks to have all the credentials to become a legend at Anfield. One thing is for certain, he’ll remain a rock at the back for this Liverpool side for years to come – and it’s a side that certainly won’t be going anywhere any time soon. Well played Virgil, you’re the man.