How Van Dijk can transform Reds’ defensive woes
VIRGIL van Dijk has agreed a £75m move from Southampton to Liverpool, a world record deal for a defender. But what is it about the Dutchman that makes him so important for Jurgen Klopp?
Adam Bate examines the reasons why he can have a big impact…
It was after the 4-1 defeat to Tottenham at Wembley in October that former Liverpool manager Graeme Souness identified the problem that was undermining his old club. "You are only as strong as your weakest link," Souness told Sky Sports.
"Today Dejan Lovren was their weakest link and after 10 minutes, they're 2-0 down to one of the best teams in this country this season. One man does not solve all your problems. But if [Virgil van Dijk] is in there today, they are not 2-0 down after 10 minutes."
Few would argue that a fully focused and in-form Van Dijk would represent a significant upgrade on Liverpool's centre-backs. "I think he would improve anybody," added Souness. But what is it in particular that Van Dijk can add to Jurgen Klopp's team?
1. CUT OUT THE MISTAKES
The Liverpool manager has taken plenty of criticism for failing to address the team's defensive weaknesses and the loss of a two-goal lead at Arsenal was seen as a prime example of this. But Klopp was adamant afterwards that the issue was not systemic.
Instead, he pointed to individual errors. The question, of course, is whether these mistakes are a direct consequence of his style of play or simply because the players that he has trusted to do the job are not good enough.
For example, it seems fair to assume that David de Gea could be dropped into a Klopp team and not cough up the sort of errors that Simon Mignolet has allowed to become a habit. So could it be the same for a top-class defender imported from elsewhere?
According to Opta, Van Dijk is one of only four centre-backs to play more than 60 Premier League games in the last three seasons without making a single error leading to a goal. Lovren has made three such mistakes. An error-free defender would make a big difference.
2. ONE-ON-ONE DEFENDING
On the face of it, Van Dijk faces a tough challenge to maintain that record at Liverpool because of the team's attacking intent and the consequences that brings for the defenders. Liverpool legend Jamie Carragher made that point himself recently.
"I always think how difficult it would be to play for Jurgen Klopp at centre-back," Carragher told Sky Sports. "I don't think there is a top-class holding midfielder and if your full-backs are leaving you isolated as well then it is not easy."
However, those circumstances will not be completely alien to Van Dijk having played in a Celtic side that was completely dominant domestically and a progressive Southampton side too. Former Saints boss Claude Puel praised Van Dijk's defending in these situations.
"The quality and the capacity to defend one against one is important with our game because we try to have the ball with good possession and good control of the game," said Puel last season. "Van Dijk is fantastic," he added. The statistics also indicate that this is a strength.
Despite making significantly more combined tackles and interceptions per 90 minutes than Liverpool's centre-backs last season, Van Dijk was beaten on remarkably few occasions. In fact, he was dribbled past only six times last term. That happened to Lovren 17 times.
3. PLAYING FROM THE BACK
While these defensive qualities will be the most important aspect of Van Dijk's job at Liverpool, there will be a responsibility to construct attacks too and Klopp is entitled to expect the Dutchman to bring a major improvement in this respect as well.
The potency of Liverpool's forward players is not in doubt but if the team does have a weakness in terms of creativity it is that opponents can sometimes cut off the supply to those furthest forward. Liverpool's passing in deeper areas is too slow too often.
David Silva and Kevin De Bruyne can create from midfield for Manchester City but Jordan Henderson, James Milner and Emre Can do not possess this range of passing. Meanwhile, John Stones and Nicolas Otamendi can bring the ball out better than Liverpool's defenders.
Van Dijk could change that. His long-pass accuracy was the best by any defender in the Premier League last season and far superior to any of the other options at Klopp's disposal. If Van Dijk can help to spring the Liverpool counter-attack, this could be invaluable.
It is true that Van Dijk's form has dipped during what the player himself admits has been "a difficult last few months" but that cannot mask the fact that Liverpool have acquired one of the most complete defenders in the Premier League in what should be his prime.
Speaking last year to those who were pivotal in Van Dijk's development at FC Groningen, they regarded his graduation to one of the biggest clubs as inevitable. "It hasn't surprised me because I knew what he was capable of," his old coach Dick Lukkien told Sky Sports.
"I think he's a player for one of the top six teams in Europe. I think he can make another step. I see him as one of the top European defenders. I'm very proud of him."
His manager at Groningen, former Rangers winger Pieter Huistra, echoed those sentiments as well.
"It was obvious to see that he'd become a good player," Huistra told Sky Sports. "He's still quite young in his career so I think he will improve further. He has bigger things ahead. I'm certain about that." The time has come to find out just how good Virgil van Dijk could be.
Originally on Sky Sports UK