VIRGIL VAN DIJK IS THE MAN

Congratulations to Virgil Van Dijk on being crowned PFA Player of the Season. It’s not actually been announced yet, we’re just that confident.

Words by Danny Brown

Congratulations to Virgil Van Dijk on being crowned PFA Player of the Season. It’s not actually been announced yet, I’m just that confident.

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.

OLE’S AT THE WHEEL (FOR GOOD)

In just a few months, United have gone from their worst ever Premier League start, playing negative, non-football under Jose Mourinho to a team that’s flying, showing glimpses of the confidence and swagger not seen at Old Trafford since the Fergie days.

Words by Danny Brown

To celebrate Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s official appointment as Man United manager, we’ve decided to take a look at the Norwegian’s incredible turnaround at Old Trafford so far this season.

Now I’m not a Manchester United fan, far from it. But no-one can deny that the Red Devils’ resurgence under Ole Gunnar Solskjaer this season has been nothing short of remarkable. In just a few months, United have gone from their worst ever Premier League start, playing negative, non-football under Jose Mourinho to a team that’s flying, showing glimpses of the swagger and confidence not seen at Old Trafford since the Fergie days.

Let’s go back to December. A humbling 3-1 defeat to Liverpool had proved to be the final nail in Jose Mourinho’s money-lined coffin and The Big Bad Wolf was finally out of the door. But with United having had their worst start to a Premier League season ever and trailing the top four by 11 points, it seemed at the time like, no matter who came in, the rest of the season would be just as bleak.

Rather than rush into another full-time appointment (and probably with one eye on Zidane in the Summer), Ed Woodward and the gang opted to appoint a caretaker til the end of the season. Solskjaer was the man they chose, a club legend (scorer of the famous treble winning goal in 1999, no less), a cheerful chap with modest managerial experience, inside knowledge of the club and a pre-existing bond with the supporters bound to improve the mood around Old Trafford, if nothing else.

In his first few games in charge, United collected three emphatic wins against Cardiff (5-1), Huddersfield (3-1) and Bournemouth (4-1). All games you could argue they were expected to beat (even under Jose). But it was the manner of these victories that really caught the eye. Whereas under Mourinho, United would have gone out to secure a safe 1-0 or 2-0 win against these mid-to-lower-table sides (boring half the stadium to sleep in the process), Solskjaer’s United came out to attack, and attack often.

It was like watching a completely different team. A throwback to a different Man United era. This was a set of players, who had looked so dysfunctional and stifled at times under Mourinho, playing with a freedom and confidence not seen this season at Old Trafford. For the first time in months, United were getting the ball out wide, running at defences, playing fast, exciting football. Playing the United way.

Ole himself explained it as: “Pace and power, that’s what we are. We attack quickly when we can. Get the ball up in their half as soon as we can, as quickly as we can. If you score, fantastic, if not then you’ve got to have patient build-up play. But attack, quickly.” Comparing United’s style of play to his own playing days, he referenced attacking talents such as Andy Cole, Dwight Yorke (‘Yorkie’), Ryan Giggs (‘Giggsy’) and David Beckham (‘Becks’).

What was shocking to learn was that with their 5-1 win against Cardiff, United had recorded five goals against an opponent for the first time since the reign of Sir Alex Ferguson. Such is United’s decline in recent years, that teams that would have once gone to Old Trafford praying to avoid a five or six-nil thumping were now going there with a genuine belief they might be able to nick a point (or three).

These early results, along with Solskjaer’s sentiments in his early press conferences, quickly saw the United back onside. You can hardly blame them, after suffering the ‘Special One’s negativity, melodrama and mind games for for the last two-and-half years, Solskjaer’s refreshingly old-school and honest approach, delivered in his half-Norwegian, half-Mancunian accent must be like a welcome breath of fresh air for Red Devils fans.

What Solskjaer may lack in experience and tactical knowledge, he more than makes up for in his understanding of the history and tradition that’s at the heart of United. Having played for the club for over a decade under the mentorship of Sir Alex Ferguson, there’s not many people in football more equipped to continue the United tradition. “We’re playing for the supporters, we’re playing for our pride, we’re playing for the clubs history.”

So far Ole has done everything right. His faith in Paul Pogba, something the Frenchman was clearly lacking under Mourinho, is being repaid on the pitch. Alexis Sanchez has been quietly eased onto the fringes and Marouane Fellaini sold. Perhaps most impressive of all, Romelo Lukaku, made to look like a donkey at times under Mourinho, is now finally playing like a £75 million striker.

But by far the most defining moment in Solskjaer’s short tenure has the remarkable turnaround against Paris Saint Germain in the Champions League. Going into the first coasting off the back of ten victories out of Solskjaer’s first eleven games, the reds were brought swiftly back down to earth by the 2-0 defeat inflicted on them by PSG at home, with Paul Pogba earning himself a late red card to make matters even worse.

Going to the Parc des Princes with a two-goal deficit, a suspension and a handful of injuries and winning is no easy feat. But when Romelu Lukaku, rejuvenated under Solskjaer, gave United a shock lead just two minutes into the reverse tie – it became abundantly clear, that the United players on the pitch backed themselves to do just that.

Not even PSG restoring their deficit through Bernat ten minutes later was enough to soften United’s resolve, Lukaku getting his second before half time to put United one strike away from clinching the tie on away goals. A tense second half wore on, and it seemed like PSG’s one-goal advantage was going to be good enough for them to sneak through into the quarters.

Then in the dying seconds, a speculative shot from Diego Dalot struck the arm of Presnel Kimpembe inside the PSG box. A lengthy VAR review later, United had a spot kick, with Marcus Rashford, their Mancunian-born academy product standing over it. Ice running through his veins, the 21-year-old stepped up and smashed the ball home, sending United through in the most dramatic fashion possible.

Since Solskjaer took over, United have won 14 games, drawing two and losing three. They’ve seen impressive wins over Arsenal, Chelsea and Spurs and gone 11 points adrift of the top four to just two points behind Arsenal in fourth. They’re in the quarter finals of the Champions League and playing their most exciting football in months. All things considered, it seemed almost impossible for United not to keep him on full time.

The three-year deal given to Solskjaer by United makes him the club’s fourth permanent manager since Fergie’s departure in 2016, and they’ll be hoping that Ole is finally the perfect-fit they’ve been looking for since then. If he can continue the start he’s made this season, then the signs are he could finally be the man to restore United to their former success, over the next few years and beyond.

However one important thing to note is that we’re yet to see Solksjaer under any sort of real hardship at United. As unstoppable as they may seem at present, the ‘honeymoon period’ must come to an end eventually and when it does, is when we’ll see what the Norwegian’s management credentials are really made of. At the time of writing United have lost their last two games on the bounce and Ole will be desperate to return to winning ways against Watford on Saturday.

But for now: “Ole’s at the wheeeel…”